San Jose has been one of the largest U.S. cities without a legit tiki bar, shocking since there are so many tiki bars in San Francisco and Oakland that you’d think a single good destination would seem to draw everyone from Santa Clara and Southern Alameda Counties. San Jose was listed in an article on Critiki about cities lacking tiki bars back in 2017, where author Humuhumu noted the numerous home tiki bars in the area and that “It’s a discerning crowd, though, so when a place finally does open, it’ll have to be good.”
Today, if you’re looking for commercial tiki in San Jose there aren’t a lot of good choices. There is Hukilau in Japan Town, a nice family-run Hawaiian restaurant with a few tiki elements. We liked the food and vibe there, but the cocktails aren’t craft and lean heavily on vodka, which means that the beverage of choice is Kona Beer and not a Mai Tai. Totally worth checking out, but not really tiki.
Tiki Pete’s Well-Deserved Bad Reputation
And then there is Tiki Pete. Located in the heart of Downtown, the restaurant was rebranded from Da Kine Island Grill a couple years ago and named after the owner. There’s a thatched A-frame entrance and a cocktail menu that has a number of tiki classics and a couple different kinds of Mai Tai variants. So you’d think maybe this would be “good enough” for San Jose’s discerning crowd. You might think that, but you would be wrong.
A visit in 2019 went wrong from beginning to end. We visited on a Saturday evening before a concert at the Arena. The restaurant was quite full but we were seated basically immediately. There was a PPV boxing match on TV, so the event volume was quite loud and many of the patrons were there to watch. We ordered drinks and then our meal. After a while, my appetizer arrived, followed by a water for my wife (but not the water I ordered). Then my wife’s main course arrived, then a bit later by my main course. Food was at best okay and at worst less than adequate.
I asked the waitress what was taking so long with the cocktails and she went to check. As noted, it was busy, but I was watching the bartenders and they were not exactly rushing to complete orders. They had plenty of non-prep time and were talking with those sitting at the bar. I could even see that people who ordered after us had gotten their drinks. After more time passed my wife’s appetizer of Edamame arrived. Finally, I went up to ask Tiki Pete himself about our drinks. I mentioned that I had asked for a 1944 Mai Tai made with the Tiki Pete Barbados rum, at which point Pete smiled and high-fived me. I said I’d be more excited to get my drink. Pete then came over to our table with some shots from the Tiki Pete Rum, and said the cocktails were “coming right up.” Then we waited another full ten minutes and they took our drinks to the wrong table. After more confusion, we finally got our cocktails.
Unfortunately, they’re not following the prescribed ingredients in these cocktails; my 1944 Mai Tai had the distinct taste of ginger, as if they used Falernum rather than Orgeat. My wife’s guava martini was bland.
- Literally took over 45 minutes for my wrong-tasting Mai Tai to arrive
- None of the food came out when it should have, and wasn’t very good
- Barely any effort to “right” the wrong
- Free rum shots, but no other comped items as you might expect
- So, while Tiki Pete seems to be embracing a craft cocktail approach with their historical cocktails and limited-edition rum, they failed time after time to do the basic things a restaurant/bar should be reasonably expected to do.
- I’ll never go back to Tiki Pete, and you shouldn’t either.
The the above story was posted to the Tiki with Ray Blog, and sounds pretty bad, right?
It gets worse.
In my Instagram post promoting the Tiki with Ray article, Tiki Pete himself jumped in to sort of apologize (saying that it wasn’t indicative of the normal operation) but then saying the server was insecure. After which Tiki Pete outed the server as trans. No, I’m not joking. Then Pete said I was being rude to the server. Well, I also talked to Pete that evening and he gave me a high-five and some rum samples. So, I guess I probably wasn’t being too rude. I was most certainly terse, as we’d expect anyone to be if they waited 45 minutes for a cocktail order that arrived after we were finished with our meal. Not rude, though.
After all of this was published we heard from many tikiphiles who’d had their own disappointing experiences at Tiki Pete. It’s not a tiki bar. It’s party bar with Hawaiian leanings and a tiki veneer. All which is to say that San Jose still is a tiki desert. But there is hope is on the way!
We Can’t Wait for Good Tiki to Come to San Jose
The following image was posted on Instagram by BayAreaImbibers.
The location is the old Peggy Sue’s Diner at 29 N San Pedro St, around the block from Tiki Pete. And what’s this? Something like that looks very interesting.
The BayAreaImbibers did a little homework and found out that the location is now owned by the MDM Restaurant Bar Group, proprietors of Five Point and Farmer’s Union in downtown San Jose (worth noting: we once had an issue with an entree at Farmer’s Union and not only did they fix it right way without complaint, we were comped the item worth $25).
Though MDM’s website no longer contains info about Dr. Funk, the cached version gives us a hint of what this new venue is all about:
Coming Soon — Tiki is a catch-all term for mid-century-inspired motif of all things tropical, exotic and generally Polynesian. Tiki was a romanticized notion of island life inspired by the sentimental appeal of an idealized portrayal of the South Pacific, Hawaii, Polynesia and Oceania. Now, tiki walks the line between reality and myth. It acknowledges the Hollywood smoke and mirrors but also creates an atmosphere of authenticity.
So it definitely is “tiki” and not “nautical” or “tropical” or some of the other things people say when they want to avoid the term “tiki.”
The Dr. Funk Instagram account is now live, and they posted some details about the team behind this new venture.
buildout by @topnotchkustoms + @m_p_o_r_i_u_m_
• “Kahaka” lamps by @rocknrollwoody
• mugs by @tikidiablo
• jade tiles + bamboo work by @bamboocraftsman
• glass floats, puffer fish + traps by @oceanicarts56
• bar program by @kenwongdejanan + @bondtylerbond44
Ignacio “Notch” Gonzalez is the designer behind tiki bars such as Smuggler’s Cove, False Idol, and Hale Pele. Mikel Parton contributed to decor and art at Zombie Village. Woody’s lamps are in many tiki bars and mugs by Tiki Diablo are always coveted. So this seems like an all-star team.
All of which means that San Jose’s discerning audience is going to come in with high expectations, but I expect it won’t take long for Dr. Funk to be considered the top tiki destination in the area. I have high hopes. If the cocktails are good, and the decor is half as good as we’d expect from Notch this will be a great place to go. And assuming they understand that the tiki bar experience is about hospitality and escapism, then I’m sure their operations will be quality as well. We can all hope that Dr. Funk is the tiki destination that we’ve all longed for in San Jose.
The Dr. Funk website is now live.
We’ve been told that Thursday, December 16 is the official opening date.