Tiki and Surf Bars Give Tropical Refuge from Winter Chill

By Andrea Swalec on March 5, 2013 6:47am 

NEW YORK CITY — The weather outside is frightful, meaning it's the perfect time to stick your feet in the sand and sip a strong cocktail out of a coconut shell.

Tropical-themed bars across the city give shivering New Yorkers a fruity — and often boozy — taste of the islands without the need to scrape together funds for airfare.

DNAinfo.com New York got the scoop on some of the most popular places to enjoy spring break in the city — from a Queens spot that says it's been a tiki trendsetter since the 1970s, to a Brooklyn bar that lets neighbors store their surfboards inside.

Blast-from-the-Past Vintage Tiki Bar

The tiki bar trend was hot in the '70s, and it was then that the Fresh Meadows, Queens, restaurant King Yum's transformed itself from an ordinary Chinese restaurant to a tiki-style tropical getaway.

Owner Robin Ng, whose late father opened the restaurant in 1953, said his family provides one of New York's original tiki experiences — pupu platters and all.

"We're the originals, and a lot of [other bars] copied the style we started off with," he said about the restaurant, which is located at 181-08 Union Turnpike and decked out in bamboo.

King Yum's serves exotic drinks at Queens prices ($7.95-$9.50), including the Tabu for Two, "a frosty froth of fine rums, orange, lemon and lime," and the Boco Loco, which consists of coconut milk, light rum and Cointreau, served in a fresh coconut shell.

Included on the extensive menu are American-Chinese classics like roast pork fried rice ($9.95) and specialty fare like the Polynesian Duck — boneless Long Island duck prepared with a special sauce, pea pods, pineapple and lychee ($18.75).

Asked what the difference between King Yum's and other Polynesian-inspired bars in the city, Ng's answer was simple.

"A lot more practice," he said.

Tiki-Style Bottle Service

For a club experience with an island twist, merrymakers can head to Riff Raff's, the 360 Park Ave. South bar where Lindsay Lohan and Josh Hartnett have been spotted. Located in the basement of its sister establishment, The Hurricane Club, club patrons can expect a dance music-fueled party with tiki touches like bottle service liquor presented in communal bowls. Waitresses give tribal face paint to groups that shell out big bucks to reserve tables.

"You'll see someone at Riff Raff's who spends $5,000 and then gets coated in face paint," club operations director Ryan Harris said.

But it's not easy to get past the velvet rope at the night spot, which opened in 2010.

"If you don't know anyone there, you can't just walk up and get in," Harris said. "We try to make it accessible, but when you're paying so much money, you want that exclusivity."

Classic Tiki Cocktail Bar

Those looking for classic tiki fare can simply head upstairs to The Hurricane Club, above the rowdier Riff Raff's. Based on kitschy island-themed bars of the 1950s, The Hurricane Club serves cocktails ($14-$17) in tiki mugs, with a different mug used for each drink on the menu. Customers who bring — or make — friends can even order group drinks served inside watermelons ($48 and up).

Cocktails served in coconuts are another popular option at The Hurricane Club, which has hundreds of fruits delivered to its kitchen every day.

Club operations director Harris said he thinks the spot, which opened in 2010, fills a niche on Manhattan's East Side.

"The bar was designed to be an in-between spot for people who don't want to go to a regular bar in Murray Hill and don't want to go to a club either," he said.

The menu includes Crispy Peking Pig with steamed buns ($38), the 12-ingredient Island Jungle chopped salad ($22) and an aged sirloin with scallion butter ($39).

During dinner, Hurricane Club customers can sing along with the picks of an in-house DJ five days a week. The tunes run the gamut from '70s rock to electronic hits, Harris said.

Laid-Back Taco Joint Owned by Surfers

People in search of a summer-in-the-winter spot as acclaimed for its food as it is for its colorful drinks can head to Réunion Surf Bar, at 357 W. 44th St. near Ninth Avenue.

Fish tacos are one of the biggest sellers at Réunion (two for $11.95, three for $14.95). For the menu full of food options — such as shrimp po' boy sliders (two for $11.95, three for $14.95) — the restaurants' operators drew inspiration from street food worldwide, general manager Topher Mikels said.

"It's all based on the food trucks where we would eat after surfing around the world," he said.

Like other bars on this list, Réunion serves tropical drinks with fresh fruits including mango, guava and passion fruit. But its owners don't consider the watering hole a "theme bar," Mikels said.

"It's just two surfers who wanted to create an environment with surfboards and feel at home," he said. "We've prided ourselves on becoming a destination bar where people can go for a getaway without even leaving the city."

If would-be Réunion fans need more convincing to stop by, they can consider the bar's rotating list of 10 flavored rums. Réunion infuses coconut, apple, cinnamon and even bacon into the booze they serve.

Boozy Brooklyn Year-Round Beach

Nothing says summer like sand between your toes. People longing for warmer weather can check out the Williamsburg watering hole The Surf Bar, where the floor is covered in fine white sand.

"The whole thing is designed like a surf shack," general manager Nicolai Vilstrup said.

First opened in 2001, the 139 N. Sixth St. spot maintains 5,000 pounds of playground sand, raking it daily and straining it once a week.

Surf Bar serves up mai tais ($11) and other beverages in tiki cups with paper umbrellas, or in hollowed-out coconuts. The food menu includes clam chowder ($6.50) and lobster rolls ($16).

The bar speakers play "exactly what you would expect when you walk into a place like this," Vilstrup explained, meaning reggae and Hawaiian music are on heavy rotation.

And the surfboards inside the bar aren't only for show. Local surfers leave them there when they aren't hanging 10.

Rock-and-Roll Tiki Bar

People in search of an East Village take on the tiki bar can check out Otto's Shrunken Head at 538 E. 14th St. Open for the last decade, this festive dive with low-cost drinks is decked out in vintage fabrics, pinup girl posters and a selection of gnarly shrunken heads that people have given the bar over the years.

Among the most popular items at Otto's are the "dark and sweet" signature drink the Shrunken Head ($10) and Pang's Punch, another secret recipe with a special ingredient that makes it glow blue in the dark, co-owner Nell Mellon said. The Volcano Blast ($26), "a flaming volcanic rum eruption," is large enough to serve three or four people.

No matter the weather, Otto's feels like a getaway, Mellon said.

"You feel like you're on vacation," she said, "like you're in Hawaii when you're here."

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