It’s “Weird Science” Wednesday at Hidden Harbor, and I’m poking a spoon into a take on the Painkiller in which a hollowed-out lime hull holds pebbles of the tiki classic frozen into “Dippin’ Dots” via liquid nitrogen.
The mash-up of molecular mixology and tropical kitsch seems a bit off-kilter, yet it’s just weird enough to work. In fact, “just weird enough to work” seems to be the hallmark of Pittsburgh’s tiki scene, which is now home to a growing community of tiki artists, a local rum boom, tiki-themed webcomics and a professional sword-swallower who has become its leading spokesperson.
Hidden Harbor is the type of “tiki moderne” bar that would fit into any major city, in the vein of Chicago’s Lost Lake or San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove. It opened its doors in January in Pittsburgh’s affluent Squirrel Hill neighborhood, with a deep rum bench and a split-identity vibe: a clean, nautical design on one side of the space; darker, jungle-esque decor on the other, all beneath the watch of a seven-foot-tall tiki idol.
But look closely and you’ll notice the place is long on local flair. The hostess stand, tables and benches feature inlays made by local metalworker Ange Tu’ulaupua of Tui Pasifika, which specializes in Polynesian-inspired jewelry. There are wood carvings and tiki mugs made by Pittsburgh artisan Taboo Island and nearly a handful of Pittsburgh-made rums: Maggie’s Farm makes theirs from turbinado sugar; Wigle Landlocked is made from buckwheat honey (and no, they don’t call it rum, but rum aficionados will recognize it as distinctly rum-like); and molasses-based Stonewall Rum is from the producer better known for making Boyd & Blair vodka.
There’s arguably more aloha spirit per capita in Pittsburgh than any other American city. But why, exactly, has it flourished in a once-gritty rust-belt city known for its determined industrial heritage? What’s the allure for a city situated at the junction of three rivers, yet without a drop of seawater in sight?
“Although tiki was a phenomenon born and raised in California, the movement’s migration to the Midwest was enthusiastically welcomed,” says James Teitelbaum, the author of Tiki Road Trip: A Guide to Tiki Culture in North America. In his book, Teitelbaum lists a number of now-closed post-war Pittsburgh spots, such as Chin’s Polynesian Garden, the Conley Inn in Irwin, PA, noted for its “Hawaii in Pittsburgh” hula show and the Hu Ke Lau, which had indoor palm trees spreading fronds across the ceiling. The proliferation of these places in Pittsburgh back in the day “demonstrated the demand or even necessity for tiki as an oasis from the drudgery of life in the chilly industrial rust belt,” he says.
A half-century after this first boom of Pittsburgh tiki, the scene was reborn by way of a single bar.
The Embury opened in 2008, the vision of Spencer Warren, who then owned a nightclub called Firehouse Lounge. Inspired by a visit to New York’s Milk & Honey, Warren turned the nightclub’s coatroom into a little eight-seat speakeasy, manned by Fred Sarkis, an import from Chicago. He named it Embury, after David Embury, author of 1948’s influential book The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks.
Night after night, local bartenders flocked to Embury, and slowly the craft cocktail gospel began to spread throughout Steel City. By 2010, Embury had introduced the city’s first craft tiki cocktails by way of its “Tiki Tuesdays.” It was an eye-opener.
“We always had Trader Vic’s knockoffs out in the suburbs,” says Sean D. Enright, author of Pittsburgh Drinks, a forthcoming book about the local cocktail movement. “I knew what tiki was—and I wasn’t interested in it, to me it was that old, grandfather’s, dusty, Floridian, hotel style of drinking.” But reimagined with fresh juice, quality rums and a craft-cocktail aesthetic, “it blew me away.”
Firehouse closed in 2011, and Embury along with it. But by that time, others were lifting Pittsburgh’s tiki torch ever higher. One of those people was Lucky Munro.
Munro, who is best known as Lucky the Painproof Man—a sideshow performer who specializes in munching on light bulbs, sword-swallowing and other feats—is a also bartender, distiller, brand ambassador for Maggie’s Farm and the de facto mascot for Pittsburgh tiki.
“I love tiki. I live tiki,” says Munro. “I’ve been to nearly every tiki bar in the U.S. I have over 300 rums at my home bar and nearly 1,000 tiki mugs stuffed among actual artifacts from the South Pacific.”
Gregarious, with a booming voice, patchwork quilt of tattoos and long resume of tiki-centric activities, it’s little surprise that everyone in the tiki community seems to know Lucky, even beyond Pittsburgh. He hosts regular tiki pop-ups at Acacia, a bar otherwise known for classic cocktails, as well as “The Rum Room” at Maggie’s Farm distillery. He can rattle off the names of all the home tiki lounges (“The Boom Boom Room, The Lei Over Lounge, The Aku Aku Room…”) and is in the process of building his own bar, to be called Lucky’s Cane and Grog.
Lucky’s tiki saga began unfolding after Embury’s tiki night had folded. He and D.J. Coffman, creator of the Bigfoot and Tiki webcomic, started hanging out regularly at Tiki Lounge, a very traditional tiki bar constructed in 2002 featuring soda guns and forgettable drinks, along with other tiki enthusiasts.
By 2013, he’d launched South Seas Thursdays Tiki Lounge—along with Greta (Dunn) Harmon, now of Hidden Harbor—offering craft tiki drinks. “The bar was packed for the first time ever on a Thursday,” Lucky proudly remembers. It was the beginning of a revolving door of Pittsburgh tiki nights (there are now more “tiki nights” than there are days of the week to indulge in them all) and an ever-growing group of tiki die-hards, collectively identifying as the keepers of “Pittiki.”
This enthusiasm has spilled over into a number of tricked-out home tiki bars, which function as more insular gathering spaces for Steel City’s tiki tribe. Perhaps the most famous of these is Pia Colucci’s “Lei Over Lounge,” an elaborate home bar that pays homage to her former job as a Pan Am stewardess.
She’s been building her living room getaway for a decade now, adding a thatched tiki hut and a ten-foot-tall Moai statue made out of chicken wire and papier-mâché, surrounded by tiki torches, uplighting, plants and a fog machine. “When I do something, I do it one thousand percent,” she says.
The city, meanwhile, has blossomed. Within the past couple of years, it’s become a growing hub for technology-driven businesses, with bright young minds from Carnegie Mellon University opting to stay in town to work at newly built hubs for Google and Uber or film production companies like 31st Street Studios. It’s gone a long way toward improving the city’s fast-growing food and drink scene. But Pittsburgh retains its scrappy, DIY vibe, which might explain why it has cultivated such a singular homage to tiki. That, and perhaps the weather.
“Oh yes, can’t forget our terrible winters,” says Adam Henry of Hidden Harbor. “We’re longing for tropical escapism.”