Interior Design

A Water Feature, Rum, and Other Essentials of an Authentic Tiki Bar

June 15, 2016

Martin Cate runs today's most acclaimed tiki bar—Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco—and just wrote a book spilling his secrets and recipes.

Here are his 10 essentials for making a tiki bar rumble, many of which can be interpreted for your own underground tiki bar—or a tiki party, if you’re only looking to dip your feet in.

1. Escape!

From the outside world, from your job, from all of life’s stresses. A good tiki bar should provide a transportive experience that allows your worries to melt away. Keep the outside out by blocking windows and avoiding televisions or other distractions. Creating an atmosphere where conversation is encouraged and phones are turned off lets you focus on your friends.

Fugu sees all.

A photo posted by Smuggler's Cove (@smugglerscovesf) on

2. Darkness and atmospheric lighting

Evocative lighting that captures a sense of permanent dusk eases you into your evening. A soft and inviting light puts you in a mind for cocktails and relaxation, and makes everyone look better, too! Televisions cut through this like a bolt of lightning.

3. Exotica/Hapa Haole music

Exotica music by performers both legendary and contemporary adds the right mysterious feeling. Exotica music (including such artists as Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, the Tikiyaki Orchestra, and Ixtahuele) was the seemingly inevitable emergence of an imagined soundtrack evoked by the tiki craze, in which non-Western rhythms, percussion, and “other-worldly” vocals create a sense of the “exotic.” A little Caribbean, hapa haole, and more can make it more up-tempo if desired.

4. Water feature

People are naturally put at ease by the sound of gently running water. Even a small countertop water feature can do wonders.


All of the above add to what I call the tikigemütlichkeit, a play on the German word gemütlichkeit that describes a sense of coziness, but also importantly a kind of comfort and shelter. So it’s also important to make people feel ensconced by building huts or coves or other areas of shelter and protection. Whether guests are sitting in a small hut with friends or winding their way through a warren of small rooms, you want your bar to make them feel “safe.”

6. Polynesian art, including carved tikis made from real artists

A tiki bar needs tikis. That may seem obvious, but celebrating the work of artists both from the South Pacific and those inspired by their work recognizes the artistry and skill of real carvers. Don’t fill your space with plastic party supply store junk.

7. Natural building materials

Bamboo, palm cape, and woven mats bring the feel of the tropics inside your hut: Layering the materials and keeping the natural unevenness gives your space visual depth.

8. Beachcomber and nautical décor

Flotsam and jetsam, cork and rope, rigging, crates, cargo, barrels, and more add to the sense of collected and eccentric clutter that adds further interest and conversation topics for the guest.

9. Fresh juices

Vibrant fresh citrus and quality natural ingredients wake up your cocktails and remind us why people first fell in love with exotic cocktails over 80 years ago. These are not the synthetic travesties of the 70s, these are layered and complex drinks to be savored.

10. Rum

Oh, and did I mention rum? The tiki bar was born serving the varied, complex, and magnificent rums of the Caribbean. A well thought-out selection of a wide range of flavor profiles and ages will ensure your guests learn to celebrate this noble spirit, either on its own or in creative combinations that will make your drinks sing.

For more of this sort of thing, Martin's book is Smuggler's Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki.

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Martin Cate

Written by: Martin Cate

Owner of Smuggler's Cove in San Francisco