If the line outside the door on a recent Friday night is any indication, Oakland's new neighbor, The Kon-Tiki, is a buzzy respite these chilly winter nights.
The watering hole opened its doors only a few weeks ago, and has been slinging tropical drinks and island-inspired fare ever since. Christ Aivaliotis, captain and co-owner, got hooked on tiki while bartending at Flora in Oakland. Hounding expert resources like Beachbum Berry and the tiki team at Alameda's Forbidden Island for recipe tips, he fell in love with the sweet simplicity of the tiki drink, and the easy breezy mood that comes with it. Years later, he dreamt up a list of tropical cocktails to pair with Hawker Fare's inventive Thai cuisine, and eventually opened a separate cocktail bar, Holy Mountain, upstairs.
Naturally, an all-out tiki bar was the obvious next step.
Despite the growing number of island-inspired bars in the Bay, tiki bars are nothing new—in the 1940s and 1950s, they were in abundance, including one particularly popular chain that inspired The Kon-Tiki's name (inspired by a 1947 trans-Pacific expedition). Kitschy, palm-filled hangouts known for sweet-but-stiff drinks gathered gaudy decor and exotic trinkets, in an effort to transport guests to far away places.
In contrast to the rising scene of gastronomic cocktail-making and sleek, buttoned-up venues, Aivaliotis says the legacy of bars brimming with quirky souvenir-decked walls and an mishmash of exotic flairs was utterly refreshing.
While tiki drinks of yore carried two simple requisites: to be strong enough to do the trick and sweet enough to hide it, The Kon-Tiki's concoctions are a little more inspired, and made with fresh-squeezed juices, housemade syrups, and thoughtfully complex spirit bases. Take the Virgin's Sacrifice, a song of tequila, mezcal, passionfruit, pineapple gum, and a surprising tincture of rum-soaked chili; or the large format Volcano Bowl, made with rum and Spanish brandy and served aflame. The secret recipe known as the Zombie is so dangerously delicious it comes with a warning: only 2 per guest. If rum conjures up memories of sad cola cocktails or one too many drinks on the beach, think again. The Kon-Tiki's impressive rum selection (over 80 and counting), with a range of complexities and flavors, may just change your mind.
"Theres a lot of great rums ready to pour," Aivaliotis says, "but the drinks themselves have layers that you don't get from one rum, but from blending the rums to get the flavor profile that you want."
Drawing from Aivaliotis' art school past and from travels with co-owner Matt Reagan, The Kon-Tiki bursts with island spirit. They brought tiki carvings from San Diego and L.A., oceanic art inspired by travels from the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, and the Polynesian Islands, and filled the space with bamboo shoots, palm fronds and fishing nets. The intricate front door was carved by local artist Woody Miller, whose work appears sprinkled throughout the space. Want to sit under a palapa? Easy. Want to eat with your hands? You can do that too.
Though not exactly your average finger food, the menu was designed to be fun, approachable and slightly messy, while remaining high quality. Paying extra attention to ingredients, the team focused on organic produce and sustainable meats and seafood for every flavor-filled option, from the crab and shrimp Rangoon dip to Aivaliotis' favorite, the double-patty cheese burger with pineapple-onion jam and an optional addition of fried Spam. Best of all, the food is served all night, and is bold enough to stand up to your cocktail(s) of choice.
"We're trying to be fun, not just another serious bar with serious cocktails and serious mustaches," Aivaliotis says. "We wanted it to be different, kind of silly. Here you can just let your guard down and have fun with it."
// 347 14th St. (Oakland), thekon-tikioakland.com