Right from the moment when you step through the black-currant–coloured curtains at the door, it’s pretty clear who the Shameful Tiki Room is taking aim at. Everyone is, of course, technically welcome, including weekend warriors who wouldn’t know a Mystic Lamp from a Mauna Kea Kiaha and those who’ve not only bought Seagram’s completely abominable Zombie in a can but actually enjoyed it.
But it’s the Mai Tai–addled minds of the cocktail-nation obsessives that the Shameful Tiki Room is out to really blow. We’re talking folks who dream of one day visiting Barbados for no other reason than you can find falernum on the shelves of every island supermarket. We’re talking tropical-drink anthropologists who’ve tried every concoction at Tiki-Ti in Los Angeles, including the incapacitator known as the Stealth. And we’re especially talking those who still can’t believe a bunch of village-idiot hotel executives ripped Trader Vic’s out of the West End’s Bayshore Inn, stuck it on a fucking barge, and then towed it to the ass end of Brentwood Bay on Vancouver Island.
For those reasons and more, it won’t be long before this impressively executed spot on Main Street starts making South Pacific–size waves beyond the shores of Lotusland. Forget making a yearly pilgrimage to the Molokai Lounge in Fort Lauderdale—you can now get your tiki fix without leaving Vancouver city limits.
What you get is a full-on, insanely detailed throwback to the days when dressing up for dinner meant pulling on your best Duke Kahanamoku Hawaiian shirt or passion-flower print dress. Owner Rod Moore clearly decided to go the extra distance here, decking the place out right down the washrooms, which feature framed-in-bamboo prints of swaying hula dancers and tiki-themed light switches.
As for the room itself, get ready for faux-Polynesian overload, from the thatched roofs over the bar and side-booth seating to lighting fixtures crafted out of scallop shells and oversize red, green, and blue Polynesian fishbowls. Tables have retro-looking postcards lacquered into the finish, the walls are lined with tribal prints imported from the South Pacific, and there are enough detailed tiki carvings to impress Trader Vic himself. In the tradition of bars dating back to the glory years of the ’40s and ’50s, the vibe is dark and exotic, to the point where it’s like being lost in another world the second you walk through the door and then wait for your eyes to adjust.
Moore says he canvassed other tiki enthusiasts for ideas when putting together his place, including Martin Cate, owner of the widely praised Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco.
“He said, ‘Don’t go cheap: even if no one in Vancouver knows what tiki is, they will all know what cheap is,’ ” Moore says, interviewed by the Straight on the phone. “If they walk in and everything looks like it comes from a party store, people will be able to tell and they’ll think the place is a joke.”
The Straight made two visits to the Shameful Tiki Room, both of them centred around the drinks. In a move that will thrill purists, Moore, a hard-core tiki enthusiast, has committed to making cocktails the way legendary masters like Don the Beachcomber created them in the ’30s. Nothing on the menu is coming out of a chain-restaurant–style bar gun. Instead, the staff creates everything—including essential ingredients like falernum and orgeat syrup—from scratch.
“When I started going places like the Tiki-Ti, Smuggler’s Cove, Forbidden Island [in Alameda, California]—the drinks are works of art, and they take it very, very seriously,” Moore says. “Freshly squeezed citrus, in-house syrups and mixers, high-quality ginger beer. And the drinks are all measured with jiggers—you don’t take a chance and go, ‘Well, that’s close enough’ with a free pour.”
Visit number one featured four hits, a miss, and a great reminder why the Shameful Tiki Bar is best approached with caution. Despite what TGI Friday’s has conditioned us to think, classics like the Mai Tai and the Zombie are not meant to appeal to girl-drink drunks.
“We’re doing Zombies, Mai Tais, Navy Grogs in their original form, as they were crafted—as real cocktails,” Moore says. “I remember making someone a Navy Grog, and they took a sip and went, ‘This is a man’s drink.’ That’s an interesting way to put it, and I agree with that. It’s very strong, very balanced, and a little on the tart side. It’s not syrupy or sugary sweet and served with plastic flying monkeys and fake umbrellas.”
The Zombie was indeed served in its original incarnation, which is to say packing a lethally boozy rum punch; this isn’t your parents’ grenadine-overloaded bastardization, so if you don’t like your drinks strong, move right along. Instead, try the Pain Killer, which went down smooth and too quickly, with rum and coconut blended beautifully and accented by fragrant cinnamon and spices. Less successful was the Scorpion. When served at tiki palaces like Kelbo’s in California, the drink featured subtle passion-fruit syrup and orgeat undertones; this one was overpowered by the lime juice and probably could have done without about half the ice, which watered things down too quickly.
By the time round three arrived, all hell had broken loose. Sporting a mix of flavours exotic enough to make you wonder if someone had squeezed Carmen Miranda’s headgear into a bowl, the Tiki Puka Puka was gone before you could say, “I’m unable to feel my extremities” in Hawaiian. A liquor-addled attempt to sample my guest’s potent Rum Barrel for a second time resulted in the glass skidding across the table and landing on its side, the contents suddenly everywhere.
Luckily, in addition to being keen students of a largely forgotten craft, the staff at the Shameful Tiki Room are also smooth. The bartender quickly suggested that the light coat of ice-generated frost on the glass was probably responsible for the accident, not medium-grade inebriation. It was therefore possible to exit with some semblance of drunken pride, as opposed to doing, well, a walk of shame.
Not to disrespect the steady diet of delightfully obscure surf tunes or the screening of cult horror film Blood Tide on the Shameful Tiki Room’s two tiny black-and-white, behind-the-bar TV sets, but the second visit was highlighted by arguably the most entertaining item on the menu. Improbably, it didn’t come in a glass. Instead, the Don’s Mix vintage-style sampler ($20) came on a plate, the just-the-right-side-of-charred chicken, beef, and pork skewers unfussy and accessorized by a mini bowl of spicy nuts, pickled vegetables, grilled peppers, and “top secret” sauces. The star was the pineapple fried rice, which was not only awesomely beamed in right from the ’50s but was made to look like a mini-volcano topped by an alcohol-soaked lime that burned brightly for a good minute. There are other offerings on the food menu, as well—chilled prawn appetizers, and stews and curries—but, really, why bother? It’s just going to cut into your drinking time.
The lone disappointment of the cocktails sampled on visit two was the Blue Hawaiian, which looked great but was strangely tasteless, as if someone had forgotten the all-important shot of fresh lemon and simple syrup. The Three Dots and a Dash, which promised a “complex array of secret ingredients” delivered, quite deliciously, including subtle but winning undercurrents of what may or may not have been falernum and pimento liqueur and bitters. The only thing that kept us from ordering a Mystery Bowl (which is celebrated by the ringing of a gong behind the bar) is the fact that everything went pleasantly out-of-focus after a Jet Pilot, which was, as the menu promised, indeed potent.
The final verdict? For both its insane attention to detail (check out the wall of rare kitsch-cool vinyl) and its commitment to doing things old-school, the Shameful Tiki Room has done everything right, even if drinks aren’t cheap ($12 for a Zombie or Navy Grog and $15 for a Three Dots and a Dash).
Go now, because once the word gets out among North America’s hard-core tiki heads, getting a table is going to be as impossible as finding a genuine Mai Tai in Vancouver. You know, one that’s actually made with, as per the original recipe, genuine Martinique rum. And, no, it shouldn’t surprise you that you’ll find that most fabled of tropical drink concoctions on the menu here, served exactly as originally created by Trader Vic. Yes, this place is that good.