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Monday, January 22, 2007

 

Tiki vs. tiki

Local tiki bar fans lamented the loss of downtown's Jasmine Tree when it closed forever last year. At the time, it was one of the last two full-fledged bars of its kind in Portland. Fortunately, the mighty Alibi Restaurant and Lounge was and is still going strong.

Now there's a new tiki bar in town. Thatch over on NE Broadway opened its doors recently with decor salvaged from the late-great downtown bar. With the spirit of the Jasmine Tree firmly in check, can this young upstart hold a candle to its perennial forefather over on N. Interstate? On Friday night a colleague and I visited both Thatch and the Alibi. I took detailed notes, carefully analyzing the strong and weak points of both tiki bars.

Actually, I scribbled a few things down on a napkin and now, four days later, I can't read my own handwriting. Nevertheless, I'm committed to slapping together a side-by-side comparison. Here goes....


DECOR:




Thatch: Thatch looks like the product of someone finally getting to fulfill a live-long dream. The entrance gives way to a small path over a murky lagoon, watched over by a "perky" tiki god. While the room is narrow, it may as well be the interior of a beach-side bar on Kaui. Three tikis and a large canoe lifted from the Jasmine Tree sit behind the bar beside a velvet painting of a nude decked out in Polynesian paraphernalia. Florescent blow fish hang over patrons sitting up front. An epic-sized painting of a tropical paradise can be found in a party area overlooking the rest of the place. If Disneyland's Tiki Room served booze, this is what it would look like.




Alibi: The exterior looks like something that crawled out of a nearly-forgotten corner of America's past, something that couldn't have possibly have survived past the '80s. Blinking neon lights and illuminated tiki Gods stretch towards the sky. Walk in through the main doors, look back and you'll discover that you've just passed through a glowing coconut. The front room is like a mash-up of a David Lynch dreamscape and a 19th-century whorehouse. Within mere feet of one another is a tropical fish tank, numerous tikis, red velvet curtains, a fountain, plush booths with mirrors and a black-lit hula girl mural. The less said about the karaoke room, the better. It looks a 50s-era rec room that's never been dusted. Thatch, as good looking as it is, can't possibly compete with the bulk of the Alibi but what tiki bar could? It's a big, lei-covered, possibly tropical fish in a tiny pond.

Winner: The Alibi


TIKIS:

Thatch: Around a dozen, by my count.

The Alibi: Lots.

Winner: The Alibi.


DRINKS:

Thatch: No one goes to a tiki bar looking for a stiff martini. Drinks tend to be big, colorful, overloaded with parasols and low on booze. I ordered a Pina Colada and, sure enough, it came in a tall glass shaped like bamboo. The bartender didn't skimp on the rum and the drink tasted great but it wasn't mixed very well. The Pina Colada was as slushy a snowman in a hot tub and it cost me $8.

Alibi: The Pina Colada here was smaller and topped with whipped cream and a cherry. If I was lucky, there was probably half a shot of Bacardi in there. While it was appropriately icy, cheaper than the one at Thatch and came with a cute, little umbrella, it also tasted like the bartender tossed in mix dating back to the bar's opening in the '40s. Survey says...bleech!

Winner: Thatch.


THE CROWD:

Thatch: A low-key crowd of all ages out for a night on the town. I found myself at a table with a group of employees from Mac Force. One rolled out an anecdote from his days at a small Christian college in South Carolina involving Easter Sunday, hangovers, two freshman, a fire-extinguisher and several packets of fake blood but let's stay focused. We're talking about tiki bars here.

Alibi: Two words: karaoke crowd.

Winner: Thatch


BACKGROUND MUSIC:

Thatch: Les Baxter, music tailor-made for a bar like this.

Alibi: A mix of '80s music turned up way to loud and warbling covers of "I Want Candy" drifting in from the back room.

Winner: Thatch.


BATHROOMS:

Thatch: New paint and a plaster oyster that holds the towels. Also, this tiki stares at you while you do your business:



Alibi: Worthy of a poorly maintained bus station. A colleague had to wait for ten minutes in the tiny women's bathroom while a drunk chick sorted herself out in its only stall.

Winner: That tiki is pretty creepy but I'm going to have to go with Thatch on this one.


THE STAFF:




Thatch: A group that looked like pals of the owner and seemed genuinely happy to be working in a tiki bar.

Alibi: Bored cocktail waitresses struggling to get through another night spent listening to karaoke covers and a fry cook reportedly pissed that we ordered a plate of fries ten minutes before the kitchen closed.

Winner: Thatch.




THE VERDICT:

While the strip mall location cramps its style, Thatch is tiki through and through. It's a full-blown tiki bar that doesn't compromise with '80s dance hits and a karaoke machine. On the other hand, it's been open for less than a month. Will straight-up tiki culture be enough to keep Thatch going or will it have to make several changes to build a returning clientele? The Alibi, despite the crowd it draws on weekends and the background music, is like an old grizzly bear (sorry, I couldn't think up an appropriate Polynesian animal metaphor. A old toucan maybe?). Sure, it's cranky and it's a bit rough around the edges but, after years of devoting itself to a fad decades past its heyday, it has every right to be.

And the bar that deserves to reign supreme over Portland tiki culture...remains undecided. Thatch is great but will it be able to roll with the punches like the Alibi has?

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