After the age of 10, dress-up events like Halloween and theme parties, even fancy occasions, lost their appeal for me. Normal people enjoy coming up with fun costume ideas and can’t wait to make a big entrance at the party. I kind of hate that part. So when someone says, “Wouldn’t it be fun to go to a tiki bar?” I’m thinking, “Not if it means I have to put on a grass skirt.”
Imagine my delight when, the other day, I found myself standing at the entrance to one of New York City’s hottest tiki bars, PKNY. The doors, tightly closed against the daylight of the real world, are painted with a palm tree and bamboo lettering that says simply, “TIKI BAR.” Despite the bar’s reputation for amazing tiki cocktails, all I could picture was a room full of scantily clad people, singing and shaking their hips in unison, sipping from plastic cups full of blue slush.
Defiantly wearing black jeans and a plain t-shirt, I took the plunge into this netherworld of rum and kitsch.
As my eyes adjusted to the cave-like darkness, the faint scent of coconut and pineapple washed over me. I could hear sounds of ‘50s electric guitar over bongo drums and the din of laughter. Blue and pink blobs of light revealed themselves to be tiki masks hanging on the bamboo-covered walls. From behind the bar, Richard Boccato, co-owner of PKNY, greeted me as I came in.
Taking a seat the bar, directly in front of a ceramic parrot sprouting 24-inch florescent straws from the top of its head, I looked around. To my great relief, there was not a grass skirt in sight. In fact, the only tropically-clad people there were all behind the bar lighting limes on fire and stuffing hollowed-out pineapples with paper umbrellas and flamingos. “OK,” I thought, “I’ll stay for a drink.”
But as I found out, you can’t have just one drink — they are just too good. Whatever was in my hollowed-out pineapple disappeared before I knew what hit me, and the tension in my shoulders eased as the rum and coconut flooded my synapses. I even caught myself swaying along to the music — just a little bit. People around me were drinking from communal cocktail punch bowls, laughing and enjoying the time away from reality. No forced participation in tropical-themed activities. No costumes!
“Tiki is a mental escape, an emotional escape,” said Boccato from behind the bar. “What do you do when you want or need to escape? People want to go to a place that looks ridiculous, and hopefully has girls in coconut bras.” The coconut bra thing is still not happening, but this place did feel a bit like vacation. “What the heck, I’ll have another drink,” I said. This time it was a classic Mai Tai, the big daddy of tiki drinks. PKNY garnishes theirs with a sprig of mint and a bright fuchsia orchid.
It was clear that the bartenders at PKNY take their craft seriously, but they also leave some room for fun and extravagance. “A lot of us used to work in fancy cocktail bars and wear suspenders,” Boccato said. “We were tired of the inclement weather in New York. It’s still an island, so this is our island’s tiki bar.”
I’m tired of inclement weather, too, and even if I’m not wearing a sarong and flip flops, I might be able to convince myself that it’s summertime — that is until I push open the doors and end up back on the cold streets of New York’s Lower East Side, next to a pile of garbage bags and a honking taxi. Maybe I’ll go back in for one more drink…