It just may be the moment to pull out your Hawaiian shirt and make an appearance at Downtown Oakland’s newest tiki bar at 14th and Webster, The Kon-Tiki, which officially opened on November 11.
Located inside the sea-green art deco building, formerly home to Longitude tiki bar, The Kon-Tiki aims to revitalize the true spirit of tiki, with drinks made with real fruit juices, house-made syrups, and island-inspired food that can hold its own.
Business partners Christ Aivaliotis and Matthew Reagan had been looking for an opportunity to open a tiki bar and thought it would be a shame to let the Longitude space be turned into, say, a shoe store, so they opened this bar together with their hearts set on going all-in on decor and cheesy nostalgia.
“We put roofs on everything,” said Aivaliotis. That, and unapologetic amounts of fake foliage and tiki-style art from local artists.
“We’re not pretending to transport you to some ‘Oriental’ tropical escape. That’s shaky ground,” said Aivaliotis. “[We] wanted to have a tiki bar that was really something from the past and was referencing Oakland. It’s all California.”
It’s true, tiki is all California. Although it references a Polynesian aesthetic, tiki culture was born in Hollywood in the 1930s. Legendary bars Don the Beachcomber and Seven Seas were the first, creating over-the-top tropical-themed bars that were more fantasy and exotica than actual references to authentic Polynesian culture. Trader Vic’s in Oakland (now in Emeryville) also became a pioneering force in the early tiki days.
Veteran mixologist Aivaliotis took an interest with tiki drinks a decade ago when he was was working at Flora in Uptown Oakland, and began including them in all the menus he created, most recently at Hawker Fare in San Francisco, where he was the general manager and Holy Mountain, the bar he helped open upstairs from Hawker Fare. Aivaliotis left Hawker Fare and Holy Mountain to start The Kon-Tiki with Reagan.
At The Kon-Tiki, there are more than 80 choices of rum (and growing). The drink menu includes a mix of original cocktails and fresh spins on classics. Most cocktails are priced at $13, albeit a select few including The Kon-Tiki Zombie ($14) — a top secret, potent recipe with a limit of two per person – and the nefarious Volcano Bowl ($30) — a drink meant to serve four, complete with white Demerara rum, Spanish brandy, fruit juices and orgeat.
Late night eaters will be happy to know that the kitchen and bar have the same hours. Balancing these strong drinks with food was a must for Aivaliotis and Reagan, both commenting on the absence of good late-night food joints in the area. Current restaurant and bar hours are Tuesday and Wednesday, 5:30 p.m. to midnight, and Thursday through Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Chef Manuel Bonilla’s food menu gives nods to some tiki classics (like the crab rangoon dip) and adds an island twist to most dishes, but Bonilla said he just wants to make really good bar food. Drawing on his Filipino roots, he includes adobo in the twice-cooked pork belly dish. And, as he is formerly a chef at Hawker Fare, Bonilla has also found a way to add Thai flavors into the menu. The chicken sandwich, for instance, is brined in buttermilk and green curry paste and served with papaya slaw.
“I want the flavors [in the dishes] to be as big as the flavors coming from these drinks. I don’t hold back. Nothing’s subtle,” said Bonilla. “If I’m putting in spices, I’m putting a lot. Real flavor bombs to stand up next to these drinks.”
Prices range from $8 for the Grilled King Trumpet Mushrooms starter to $14 for The Burger and $35 for the Kon-Tiki Pupu Platter — a large selection of rotating small bites, seasonal dishes and treats. The platter’s current iteration features Korean short ribs, crispy head-on shrimp, twice-cooked pork belly with pineapple mustard, crab rangoon dip with fried wonton chips, spicy macaroni salad, grilled trumpet mushrooms and pan de mie toast.
Other excitements to look forward to at The Kon-Tiki include live music in the palapa and rotating art features from local artists.
“We don’t have TVs because this is an escape,” says Reagan. “We want you to come in here, forget what time it is outside, just have a stiff drink and eat some really delicious food.”
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