Native Intelligence: New York

Midtown Tiki

Story by Sarah Rose. Photos by Robert Caplin.

For forty years New Yorkers have been too cool to love tiki. Captains of irony scoffed at carved heads, bare-breasted women in lei and Elvis’ uke. But this summer The Polynesian bar at the Pod Hotel opened to plaudits, rescuing fruit cocktails, tiki mugs and fantasy islands from Manhattan’s ash heap of sarcasm.

Bartender Brian Miller leans into the era of Trader Vic’s by celebrating its theater and romance. He was guided by memories of virgin drinks he had at Chinese restaurants as a kid. “The tiki mugs appeared to be laughing at me,” he recalls. Miller’s playful take is part of what’s making the recovery of tiki from tacky possible: All things Polynesia were fashionable in the ’50s, when Hawai‘i became a state, but by the ’70s—on the East Coast, at least—tiki was consigned to the far corners of kitsch.

It’s an ambitious project updating tiki, making it slick, but Miller teamed up with the Major Food Group, known in New York for modernizing nostalgia, then doing it one better. Chefs Jeff Zalaznick, Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi are famous for revisions of such cultural touchstones as the American Italian red-sauce joint. In the same vein, Miller’s version of tiki bridges two worlds, Oceania and Gotham, yesterday and tomorrow. To bring the fantasia of Poly-pop to modern Manhattan, the bar features a massive lānai over the blaring horns of 42nd Street. The pau hana (after-work) crowd orders towering pūpū platters of sweet baby back ribs and crab Rangoon.

But it is, of course, the drinks that make tiki. Miller’s cocktails are visual stunners, arriving in flaming skulls, fishbowls and giant clams, garnished with orchids or tiny treasure boxes stuffed with plastic pearls. While they bear Hawai‘i-related names like Merrie Monarch, Kamehameha and Eddie Aikau (a virgin), the drinks are far more resort-y than identifiably “Pacific.” But they are, above all, fun. For harried New Yorkers in need of a little Island time, Miller stands by the words of Don the Beachcomber:“If you can’t go to paradise, I will bring it to you.” “Simply put,” says Miller, “that is our inspiration.”