Paradise Reconsidered

Seattle's Tiki Bar Scene Makes a Comeback

From Trader Vic’s to Hula Hula, the city has a long, complicated history with tiki bars. Its newest, Navy Strength, is well aware.

By Stefan Milne October 18, 2017 Published in the November 2017 issue of Seattle Met

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