Dsc 0248 ywimuq

Navy Strength is a serious bar with tropical cocktails.

It is 1am at Hula Hula’s new location, on Olive and Howell, and wall-mounted TVs run a lo-fi feed of the karaoke stage that suggests night scenes from MTV Spring Break: Twenty-somethings form brief rum-soaked chorus lines, dissipate. Around the bar, thatched umbrellas sprout from indoor tables. A coconut bra hangs from a red light. The bartender sports a gardenia shirt and theatrically flips bottles. Drinks—mai tais, painkillers—come strong and cloying.

Hula Hula opened in Lower Queen Anne in 2006 but moved to Capitol Hill in April. Both in its age and its aims, the bar is as close as Seattle gets to classic tiki. Owner Keith Robbins originally intended it as an homage, but questions of cultural sensitivity make Hula Hula feel like a time capsule.

The original tiki bars—1930s California places like Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s—were magpie’s nests of cultural appropriation, serving ham-stuffed egg rolls alongside cocktails in glassware that mimicked carvings of Polynesian gods and ancestors. Soon tiki boomed nationwide. In the ’50s, Trader Vic’s had become one of Seattle’s most popular restaurants. But by 1989 even Donald Trump closed a Vic’s franchise in his New York Plaza Hotel for being “tacky.” 

Lately we’ve seen a resurgence. Sun Liquor Lounge, Hotel Albatross, and No Bones Beach Club skew tiki. Rumba and Essex have tiki-themed days. The newest, though, and most conceptually nuanced, is Belltown’s Navy Strength, owned by Chris and Anu Elford, the husband and wife behind adjacent No Anchor. Chris attributes tiki’s rebirth in part to a reaction against serious cocktail bars, a return to fun. 

In Navy Strength, nautical rope binds a pillar, and tables have stickers slapped across them like well-traveled suitcases. Yet above the bar burn Edison bulbs, windows present a panorama of Second and Wall, and multicolored stools look more neo-mod than Kokomo.

Navy Strength then is its own magpie’s nest: a serious cocktail bar and a tiki deconstruction, the appropriative flourishes couched in qualification. “It’s a nontiki tiki bar,” says Chris.

Cocktails here are solid. A third of the menu contains classic tiki drinks, while the rest of the list globe-trots; the travel section focusing on a different region every six months. The lush, subtly fruity namesake cocktail riffs equatorially on an old fashioned. A happy hour punch—port, shortbread-infused gin—was one of the best $8 cocktails I’ve had. And the Escape Hatch proves that thoughtfulness, Jäger, rum, and drinks in coconuts aren’t mutually exclusive. It shows how far our relationship with tiki has come. 

If Hula Hula is a Tommy Bahama–clad 22-year-old bellowing Afroman’s “Because I Got High,” then Navy Strength might be that guy 10 years later. A better shirt, a deeper bank account—yet a persisting need for booze in coconuts. But once you invoke tiki, its connotations persist. One night, I stepped outside as two British women appraised Navy Strength, its window decals of swords impaling cartoon skulls, tropical bric-a-brac, a few tiki mugs: 

“I think that’s a bar.” 

“It looks tawdry.” 

Filed under
Show Comments
In this Article

No Anchor

$$ American/New American 2505 Second Ave

Rob Roy's walnut-clad sibling gives beer the same nuanced treatment that craft cocktails enjoy all over town. The tap list has some seriously unusual offerin...

Navy Strength

$$ Global 2505 Second Ave

This cocktail bar sibling to No Anchor and Rob Roy puts a modern spin on tiki, via sleek midcentury decor and a drink list that mixes classics (zombies, mai ...

Editor’s Pick

No Bones Beach Club

$$ Vegan 5410 17th Ave NW

The palm-thatched, bamboo-adorned evolution of the No Bones About It vegan food truck has morphed into a fully formed coastal-inspired plant-based restaurant...

Hotel Albatross

$$ Global 2319 NW Market St

Ballard, with its maritime heritage and preponderance of craft cocktails, might be the missing link between Seattle and tiki. Here, some of the guys behind O...

Sun Liquor Lounge

$ Global 607 Summit Ave E

With the Sun Liquor Distillery and Lounge on Pike/Pine no longer serving up its own eponymous batches of vodka, gin, and rum, it's back to the original. This...

Editor’s Pick

Essex

Recommended Menu 1421 NW 70th Street

At Ballard’s Essex, mason jars with Sharpie-labels—housing, oh, a celery tincture or a vanilla angostura—line the top shelf and sing trophy-like testament to...

Editor’s Pick

Rumba

Late Night, Recommended Menu 1112 Pike St

Hula Hula

Karaoke, Late Night 1501 E. Olive Way