Among big-ticket tiki, the Times Square Polynesian is the latest—and arguably most expensive—example, launched under the umbrella of Major Food Group, which runs such concepts as The Grill/The Pool in the former Four Seasons space, ZZ’s Clam Bar, and Carbone. With the exception of the Trader Sam franchise, the Polynesian, launched within a hotel, also seems the most explicitly targeted to tourist traffic.
It’s a particularly lavish, theatrical experience. The 200-seat indoor/outdoor space features an intricately carved wooden bar topped with lava stone glazed an oceanic turquoise. A “pirate room” is secreted away in the back, centered around an enormous round table topped with a pirate’s map of Polynesia and illuminated by an oversize, gilded hanging lamp shaped like an inverted cocktail coupe. It’s not hard to imagine the space for corporate meetings; it’s even easier if you imagine all the corporate honchos wearing eye patches.
Adding to the drama, Brian Miller, a co-owner, bartender, and self-declared “pirate,” presides over the operation, cutting a Jack Sparrow–esque figure in his trademark sarong and tricornered hat. According to the Mariners’ Museum, pirates are associated with the Caribbean in the late 17th and 18th centuries, not Polynesia, adding to the tropical mash-up.
The revelers at the Polynesian may be more interested in rum drinks than a history lesson, yet allegations of cultural appropriation have long dogged the tiki industry. Tiki was, after all, a key export of the tourist culture built upon the stolen Kingdom of Hawaii, which was a by-product of Hawaii’s transformation from sovereign nation to U.S. territory to state. Is a respectful approach even possible? Yes, insists Shelby Allison, a co-owner of Lost Lake, in Chicago: Today’s tiki is “more conscientious and more considerate,” she says. “We’re able to leave behind the old tropes that were problematic in tiki bars of yore.”
Others, including Miller, hope to sidestep implications altogether: “I don’t want to get into arguments. I don’t want to talk about cultural appropriation. I’m not looking to fight,” Miller says. “We’re not about that ... I want to bring tiki to more and more people. We’re just trying to honor the culture and shine a light on tiki cocktails.”
For Miller, the Polynesian is the culmination of several years of hosting semisecret tiki nights at venues across Brooklyn and Manhattan. The cocktail menu features some of his original cocktails, such as the derelict, a potent, banana-spiked sipper featuring a quartet of rums; the playlist, which on opening night bounced from reggae to Run-DMC, is also his. “Hopefully down the line we are the greatest tiki bar in the world,” he told me.
Although the Polynesian-branded glassware isn’t (yet) available for sale, it’s a reminder that merchandising also is part of the tiki-bar economy. For example, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, the proprietor of Latitude 29, has his own line of tiki merch on the website Cocktail Kingdom. Similarly, Chicago’s Lost Lake sells mugs, T-shirts, even “garnish kits” for decking out cocktails at home. The mai-tai mug is a particularly strong seller, Lost Lake’s Allison reports. “Mugs are a huge source of revenue for tiki bars,” Allison notes. It also helps offset the cost of theft, she says, a problem many tropical-themed bars face, thanks to patrons seeking souvenirs. “No one is stealing coupe glasses at Death & Co,” a speakeasy-style bar in NYC, “but at least five ceramic pieces walk out my door every Saturday night.”