Jen Akin shakes up (sorry) traditional tiki. Image: Amber Fouts
Manager Jen Akin calls it “the fajita effect.” A bartender walks a drink, carefully, through the tight interior of Inside Passage; every table pauses, hushed, to take in the spectacle. It could be the glowing wooden treasure chest that trails tendrils of dry ice and harbors gentle funk and vanilla notes. Or the anglerfish-shaped mug: placid eyes, kelp garnish, tiny light dangling from its faux dorsal spine. Its ceramic belly is full of yuzu, absinthe, and Japanese rum. Suddenly every customer wants to order the spectacle that just passed by, no matter the flavors inside.
Is this a little like buying a wine because of its cool label? Well, yes, but it’s easy to understand the need for some decision-making guidance at Inside Passage, a borrowed reality of underwater cocktail bravura. A sliding door inside Rumba, Capitol Hill’s library of distilled cane spirits, is the sole portal to this tiny new bar, where drinks go beyond rum and Northwest touches reorient traditional tiki culture to our own shores.
It’s a testament to Inside Passage’s many visual layers that the enormous tentacled sea creature suspended overhead in a perpetual state of mid-slither, isn’t necessarily the first thing you notice when that door slides shut behind you. Some of the town’s most dazzling bartenders spent last spring at home crafting fake cephalopod suckers. Hot rod fabricator turned bar buildout auteur Notch Gonzales architected the result of these labors; she goes by the name Kiki.
“Have fun!” a two-top of strangers, high on flair, exclaims to me one night as I navigate the compact space for my first seat at a bar since early 2020. “Immersive bar” is the industry term for a place like this. One that spirits you away from adulthood’s email-answering, parking spot–finding mundanities, to an elaborately designed room full of ornate drinks. San Francisco has Whitechapel, which mimics a steampunk train station; Los Angeles’s Scum and Villainy channels Star Wars geekery. But this style of bar usually means tiki.
Is Inside Passage a tiki bar? It takes plenty of bamboo-driven, thatch-roofed cues from Don the Beachcomber, the 1930s Hollywood hangout that wrote this motif’s origin story. Tiki diehards (don’t let the festive shirts fool you; they can make sneakerheads seem chill) will marvel at the collection of rare ceramic mugs protected on high shelves. But Akin and Rumba owner Travis Rosenthal interrogated 90 years of this concept’s highs and lows and steered into slightly different waters. Like the ultimate Twitter zinger, ascribing limitations yielded something better.
Special delivery. A wooden box painted to mimic a two-day Prime package—black packing tape, swooshing arrow on the side. Look closer: Images of brains and a ghoulishly dripping logo subvert the corporate packaging. It holds a custom-designed glass, its contents glowing an eerie blue, thanks to the magic of LED ice cubes (Inside Passage must buy these by the shipload). Next to the mint garnish, an undead hand made of green plastic appears to claw its way out from the impeccably crushed ice.
The Amazombie 2.0 exhumes tiki’s classic zombie cocktail, with a trio of cachacas—from local company Novo Fogo—in place of rum. Back at Rumba’s Wednesday tiki nights, it came in a taped-up cardboard box. “Things got soggy, quickly,” remembers Akin, who built the sturdy new wood versions herself, since the commercial market was a little light on drink vessels shaped like undead Amazon packages.
Much of Inside Passage’s DNA, refined and codified, comes from those weekly tiki nights. Every Wednesday, Rumba’s staff set aside its usual MO—classic daiquiris and rhum agricole plucked from the back bar’s 750-bottle collection and sipped like a whiskey. The garnish game escalated quickly. Edible flowers and umbrellas became flaming limes and miniature inflatable swans, then, once night, an entire child’s sandbox set repurposed as a drinking vessel.
Customers dug it. “People desperately wanted Rumba to be a tiki bar,” Akin remembers. But a proper tiki bar connotes escapism. Something hard to come by in a room with large windows looking out on Pike Street’s Saturday night escapades. Plus Akin, like plenty of others in her industry, had concerns about its other connotations. As The New York Times puts it, a few white guys from Depression-era California “took rum from the Caribbean, food from Asia, and iconography from the Pacific Islands, put ’em all in a shaker, strained the results, and called it tiki.”
So Inside Passage took a cultural do-over. The staff ditched certain elements (scantily clad ladies as decor, Māori religious idols as drinkware). They replaced colonial escapism with a different latitude of Pacific noir. Sure, our own Northwest waterways are better suited to technical rain gear than Hawaiian shirts, but we do have sunken ships, rum-running, the occasional menacing sea creature. Rosenthal points out a tiki mug in the back bar collection inspired by Sloth from The Goonies. “Obviously Goonies is our Pacific Northwest pirates!”
The bar doesn’t use the word “tiki,” save a short explainer on the website; most visitors won’t notice the difference. Especially when cocktails weave nautical and Northwest themes into the fruit-and-spice canon of tiki drinks, then package the result with crushed ice and LED-lit maximalism. The MOHAI-tai introduces smoked hops to the tropics; a brooding update on the panorama punch served inside the new (and rotating!) Space Needle back in 1962 comes in an actual souvenir glass. It’s older than most people who order it.
After a pandemic delay, Inside Passage emerged this past June, bearing a level of detail only achieved when creative people suddenly, unwillingly, have time on their hands. Scan the shipping label on Akin’s handcrafted Amazombie box and you can read an article about the SS Princess Sophia, one of the most famous, and fatal, shipwrecks on the bar’s namesake waterway.
But Inside Passage (the bar, not the shipping lane) presents darkness and treachery with a bit of Disneyland sparkle to it. Less Pirates of the Caribbean, more Ariel marveling at her underwater room of purloined people stuff…and maybe trading her seashell bikini for some nice neoprene. She’d appreciate the Dinglehopper cocktail, a Little Mermaid deep cut made with mezcal and garnished with a fork. “I want to order it so badly,” a woman sighs to her date one evening, as a bartender sets a lime aflame atop someone else’s Dinglehopper. “But I don’t like mezcal.” She settles for a Ballard Fogcutter, whose smoked salmon crostini garnish qualifies as restrained in this room.
The fajita eFFECt ripples once again as a bartender uses two hands to walk a turquoise mug toward one of the hut-like booths. It’s shaped like a rice cooker, plastered with stickers. Inside Passage has exactly 10 of these; dropping one would be an expensive party foul. Waves of dry ice “steam” cascade from beneath the lid. A smooth, violet concoction rattles gently inside; a lumpia on a skewer waves from its depths like a cattail. The bartender presents the Four Boys cocktail to an enthralled table. “It’s made with real boys.” The humor is droll, but the drink itself has layers beyond ube and rum.
In tiki’s nascent days, Don the Beachcomber introduced drinkers to the pleasures of his “rhum rhapsodies.” Beach hired a mostly Filipino staff, unusual for the era, but kept his bartenders secreted in a back room. That was partly to protect his recipes from copycats, as legend has it, partly to create that mystique that remains with tiki today, the fiction that this hollowed-out pineapple filled with ice and rum appeared magically out of nowhere. Today, the bartending community knows these tiki progenitors as the Four Boys; another QR code tucked between the decals takes you to a Punch article that tells their story.
Between all that ambient dry ice, the Bigfoot- and Ballard-themed drinks, and the tentacled oversight of Kiki, you might not notice the code. Or the framed photo of Ray Buhen, the only member of the quartet whose name isn’t lost to history, behind the bar. Just the refreshing surprise of rum and rice milk, ube and lime in a drink that puts their story in the center of the room.