THE BEST TIKI BAR IN AMERICA, BY HOTRODDERS

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Good friend and tiki bar owner/historian/expert, Martin Cate, floored the drinking world on the West Coast a few years ago with his latest fiery watering hole, Smuggler’s Cove. Another tiki bar in San Francisco? Sure, why not? But it wasn’t just another. In a city with a rich history of tiki bars reaching back to post-WWII when returning G.I.s – flush with drunk-ass tales of the South Pacific and the tattoos to back ‘em up – cashed in on the ginchy fantasy world of Exotica, the concept of a tiki bar was nothing new. But Cate wasn’t building a typical tiki bar.

“Tiki” was a purely American cultural phenomenon that took hold as a form of escapism from the McCarthyistic Fifties – a fantasy land based on what the mysterious islands of the South Pacific might actually look, taste and sound like if the native folks were alcoholic white folks who sorta liked the jazz music of black folks and wanted a reason to go out in public dressed like Cuban folks. The tiki bar concept spread like a spilled Flaming Zombie from West to East in mid-century America, but fell out of fashion and into disrepair by the Eighties, waaaaaay unfortunately.

But with the advent of the Rat Rod movement and the Lounge scene in the early Nineties, Tiki came back. As we remember hanging out with Yankee Dave Walter years ago while he showed us his collection of contraband from the doomed Kahiki, it was clear that our generation was bent on re-lighting the tiki torch and incorporating it into our own version of custom car culture.

And that brings us to Martin Cate. He’d already gone gangbusters with his Forbidden Island in Alameda, CA, but Smuggler’s Cove was different: a rum bar based on the Caribbean Experience. Where Tiki had outriggers, Caribe had pirate ships. Totems? Dutch distillery ruins. Hawaiian shirts? Guayaberas. But what Tiki and Caribe always had in common was rum. And Cate knows rum. What he also knew was who he had to tap to build his Caribbean fantasy rum bar: Notcho Gonzales.

We just introduced you to Notch as part of the SFMOMA Maker exhibit last week, but it got us to thinking we hadn’t been back to the bar he helped Martin design and build. A two-story interior waterfall and vat-sized Scorpions? How could we not be in there every night? But what really got us was the June/July issue of Esquire and its Best Bars In America series: Smuggler’s Cove was billed as “…perhaps the nation’s reigning Tiki bar…”

Hands fucking down. What a hotrodder did for the Aliʻi of Tiki bars to build the adult version of “Pirates Of The Caribbean” could only be pulled off here in San Francisco. Smuggler’s Cove definitely deserves the Esquirian adulation and we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention how the worlds Tiki and custom car came together to do it. We love that shit.

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