Life’s a Beach

By John Chandler May 19, 2009 Published in the April 2007 issue of Portland Monthly

"If you can’t get to paradise, I’ll bring it to you." That famous motto of Donn Beach, the visionary proprietor of Los Angeles-based Don the Beachcomber, which opened in the early 1930s, defined what is widely considered the first successful tiki bar and restaurant in the United States. Tiki trendiness has ebbed and flowed since then, and Portland’s tiki tally certainly tumbled with the closing of Trader Vic’s (now home to El Gaucho) in 1996 and of downtown’s Jasmine Tree last year, but there are still a few local opportunities for rum fun.

The Alibi has been the big kahuna in Portland since its Polynesian makeover in the late ‘40s–but there’s a new act in town. Thatch is a skinny, one-room affair offering a well-studied ambience that only an avid tiki collector could achieve–whence the colored blowfish lights and the outrigger hanging behind the bar. Even the restroom sports a giant clamshell towel holder and a tiki soap dispenser. The mai tai ably asserts that the bartender has mastered juice-to-hooch proportioning, and while the fog cutter features pineapple in a prominent role, its potent co-stars (rum, gin and brandy) provide solid support.

The Alibi does, of course, offer quadruple the space of Thatch, and its fish tank, Polynesian idols and flirtatious island-girl paintings defy comparison. Unfortunately, while you can drink in the atmosphere, it won’t improve your drinks’ quality: The cocktails are rather feeble, all fruit and not enough punch. And if you’re not a fan of karaoke, the distractions are limited to people-watching and sucking up secondhand smoke.

Over in Johns Landing, beach bums can wet their whistles at Billy Bang’s Restaurant & Castaway Lounge, where sun-splashed walls decorated with palm-tree cutouts suggest Jimmy Buffett rather than Bora Bora. Drinks range from dreadful–as in a sloppily assembled tequila-cinnamon nightmare called the Sativa–to decent (as in the rum-based Tiki Tea and Billy Punch). On the food front, the Haitian pepper shrimp is perfectly cooked and flamethrower hot. At the tail end of winter, a blast of tropical heat can make up for an ocean’s worth of seasonal shortcomings.

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