Fresh Fun at San Francisco’s Trad’r Sam Tiki Bar

Heads turned when San Francisco’s Trad’r Sam bar closed mysteriously in late summer. The legendary bamboo bar has been in operation in the Richmond district since 1937, the oldest continuously operating tiki bar in the world. The closure was due in part to a complicated and multifaceted ownership dispute among a brother and sister/niece, along with lease issues. The dust settled with John Munguia taking over operational duties for the first time in many years and the venue reopening in early November.

Aside from settling the lease and operational disputes, the downtime resulted in noticeable updates to the seating and decor inside the neighborhood hangout that in true dive bar fashion still only accepts cash. The bamboo booths named for tropical islands were long in disrepair and have been removed, replaced by new tables and chairs. The blenders and barstools are all new with the bar surface and floor refurbished as well. We noticed there was a greater emphasis on some cheap but well-placed tikis, which I think accented the many historic bamboo elements still in place inside. The previously graffiti-filled men’s restroom has been completely repainted, perhaps the first time in history where white walls were welcome in a tiki bar.

In the previous regime the hours were notoriously inconsistent, but after last week’s SF Standard article that said that bar opens early on Mondays I took advantage of a “wellness day” at work and decided to see how things are before noon in the Richmond. We saw Munguia tending bar with a few regulars who were drinking shots and beer and not the Polynesian Drinks referenced on the iconic sign outside. These regulars were already in party mode when we walked in and soon were treated to a whiskey shot bought by a customer for everyone in the bar. Another regular knew the inside of the venue better than Munguia, running behind the bar to find the remotes for the jukebox and TVs.

Which left it up to this writer to keep up the tradition of Polynesian Drinks at the Polynesian Drinks bar, ordering a Mai Tai. Trad’r Sam features a vast cocktail menu, though on a previous visit it wasn’t clear there was a substantial difference between a Mai Tai and Zombie aside from the garnish. But most the cocktails are just $9, indicating this is a place for inexpensive imbibing and not for refined reflection of craft cocktails. Indeed my island Mai Tai was prepared exactly like the one on my last trip in early 2022 and was so similar it evoked the “they’re the same picture” meme from NBC’s The Office.

But I come to praise Trad’r Sam, not to bury it. The Mai Tai wasn’t too bad, and I had even better luck when I ordered a Singapore Sling from bartender JJ who had recently arrived and really began the bar setup. The Sling contained a mix of rum, sloe gin, a couple cherry liqueurs, and a bit of juice and honestly was the best Singapore Sling I’ve had in a while. Meanwhile, a group of young men came in for some socializing and a couple rounds of tequila shots. I wandered over to the jukebox and immediately found some Gerry Rafferty and Gary Wright songs that tickled JJ and the group of young men. I kept looking and eventually found some Ventures and even a few Martin Denny tunes.

Sitting in the world’s oldest tiki bar listening to “Quiet Village” while sipping a tropical cocktail at 2:00 in the afternoon wasn’t a bad way to spend my “wellness day” after all.

Hardcore tikiphiles certainly have better options in The City, home to at least half a dozen top-tier destination tiki bars. But I think Trad’r Sam is worth visiting as well. True, one minute you might be relaxing with a drink and the next an inebriated regular will be hugging you while sliding over a whiskey shot. It’s that kind of place. It isn’t unsafe, though, and I’d have trusted those regulars to have my back in the event of any trouble. We can only hope that continued upgrades to the interior and maybe the cocktail program will follow with a resurgence of business and the ability to focus on hospitality rather than the judiciary.

Make & Drink: 3 Bottles of Rum Challenge

This is a fun video, as you’ll see if you watch. The idea is to pick just three bottles of rum for your collection, so while this was a tough choice I actually came to my three basically right away. And regular viewers will not be surprised when you compare my list to the video I did almost three years ago called the 5 Bottle Rum Challenge.

The video is part of the Make & Drink channel, where Derek has been producing excellent videos including a couple collaborations with us. See the previous De-Evolution of the Mai Tai and The Recipe That Made It Famous  and World’s Worst Mai Tai videos.

Craft and Classic Cocktails at Livermore’s Nightcaps at Rosetta

Finally made it out to check the cocktail offerings at Nightcaps at Rosetta in downtown Livermore. This is a coffee place named Rosetta Roasting during the day and transitions to a cocktail/desert (and yes, coffee) place during the evening. The back portion is dimly lit to set the mood. We think this would be a great place to hit before or after dinner.

There are plenty of classic cocktails on the menu, such as a Bee’s Knees, Martini, and Whiskey Sours. There’s even a nice 1944 Mai Tai that is prepared well and features traditional flavors. It didn’t bowl me over but for the venue and clientele it is perfectly reasonable.

We didn’t partake but there were a whole series of pies and cheesecakes that looked fabulous, and we could see the coffee being prepared as well as the cocktails. There’s also a small retail component with holiday offerings right now. Check it out next time you’re in downtown Livermore.

Miracle Holiday Pop-Up at the Fat Pigeon Livermore

The Fat Pigeon is the new name for the former Beer Baron in Downtown Livermore, newly reimagined as a cocktail bar. And just in time for the grand opening it’s doing the Miracle Holiday Pop-Up to acquaint guests. As such, the holiday decor was at a basic level and definitely not overflowing like places that have been doing these pop-ups for years. Nonetheless it was totally festive with music and plenty of good cheer from the guests.

That good cheer was put to the test due a staff member arriving late and also to an imprecise order for tables to be serviced (guess which table seemed to be in the black hole?). These issues can arise anytime but obviously when places are new and also super busy.

This year’s Miracle offerings were just as nicely varied as in past years, where classic cocktails get the holiday spice and ingredient twists to go along with festive names and fun glassware.

The Jingle Balls Nog was just okay, but we liked the Espresso Martini riff called Rudolph’s Replacement (served in the classic “Santa Rex” mug). Old favorite Yippee Ki Yay, Mother F****r is a Piña Colada riff with Ube Orgeat and just as great this year as it was last time. The Koala Cooler features Applejack and spice and I think felt the most like a Fall/Winter drink. The Christmapolitan had some really interesting flavors including a spiced cranberry syrup and it had a little bit of an apple taste to me, but still quite good. Elfing Around #2 with cognac and champagne was elegant and the mulled wine reduction served the holiday theme very well.

New this year is Marshmallows & Unicorns, served in a mug that was right up Mrs. Mai Tai’s alley. Definitely a little sweet leaning and including soda to lighten things up, this was a treat for several senses. The mug was priced at $20 at Fat Pigeon.

We really enjoyed our time at Miracle and are pleased to see a good new cocktail place in Livermore.

Tiki Tom’s Cocktail Deep Dive

We had a pre-dinner visit to Tiki Tom’s on Wednesday. We were surprised it wasn’t overflowing busy like it always seems to be but was quite mellow and about halfway full during the 5:00 hour when we rolled in. We ordered some coconut shrimp and enjoyed fast service and knowledgeable suggestions from the bartender.

You can’t always have the Ultimate Mai Tai at Tiki Tom’s (well, you could, but..) so I went deeper into the menu and had a Captain Cleo from the Beachbum Berry section. This is a Rum Runner variant that’s shaken rather than blended and leans more into the blackberry than banana, a good choice in my view. Rather delicious.

Meanwhile they were out of Mrs. Mai Tai’s favorite, the Ohana Punch, so she went for the Banana Hammock with light rum, banana liqueur, falernum, and juices. Definitely a lighter style drink that’s pretty good with only subtle banana notes.

I finished with a Tropical Itch, Harry Yee’s all-time classic dating back to the Hawaiian Village in the 1950s. This version was pretty good and even comes with a backscratcher with the Tiki Tom’s logo!

On the way home around 9:30 it was totally packed at Tiki Tom’s, just like we usually experience. Seemed like the place to be in Walnut Creek on Thanksgiving Eve.

Thanksgiving at Makai Santa Cruz

It was a beautiful day for a drive over the hill to Santa Cruz for lunch at Makai Island Kitchen & Groggery for Thanksgiving. We did this a couple years ago and had a great time with the family and thought we’d try again this year. Last time it wasn’t overly busy but the secret seems to be out since they were quite busy today.

At first blush, Makai seems like just another tiki-leaning Hawaiian place located at a tourist location. Sure there are great views of the ocean from Makai’s Santa Cruz Wharf location, but some of Makai’s special feature really elevate the experience. We asked to be seated in the rotating bar section, which we think is a kick and also means that every table gets a window view (it also means you’re not in the blinding sun all the time either). We also like the clear floor sections where you can see the ocean and even some sea lions underneath the restaurant.

Our food was pretty good, burgers for the boys and fish dishes for the adult. And some wonderful Crab Rangoon and Spam Musubi appetizers. Service here is friendly and pretty good.

It is nice to see Makai continuing with a heavy lean towards originals on their cocktail menu. Sure, the Mai Tai or Saturn are classics that do well but the originals I today were quite good and far better than you might expect if this was just a “tourist place”. They also have a bunch of nice mugs and glassware to collect if that’s your thing.

The surf-inspired original cocktal called The Bonzer has Lemon Hart Rum, allspice liqueur, Velvet Falernum, coconut cream, cinnamon, and lime. This was quite well-balanced; creamy but not too much so. Meanwhile, the Punch to the Skull was a great capper for me. I dug the cocktail made with Denizen white rum, Aperol, Velvet Falernum, Dry Curacao, and lemon juice. Just enough Aperol to not overwhelm the rest of the ingredients.