My current home city of Dallas, TX has a very rich history of tiki. Don The Beachcomber resided at the corner of Meadow Rd. and Greenville Ave. for close to a decade in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The Ports O’ Call called the 37th floor of Dallas Sheraton home for almost 20 years, starting in 1960. Of course, Trader Vic’s comes to mind, with not one, but two runs in the building that was the Dallas Hilton. This was the last bastion of Dallas tiki, unfortunately closing in 2010 after a major plumbing issue.
Fast forward to 2017 – the city was abuzz with talk that a new tiki bar, Pilikia, was set to open just north of downtown Dallas, and would finally end the tiki drought. Naturally, there was a lot of excitement in Texas, as the state in general is sadly very light on tiki bars. My boyfriend and I live very close by, so we made the 20 minute walk to give it a try (and get ourselves moving at the same time) on their soft opening night.
When we arrived, we noticed a small line building outside the entrance, which was flanked by two tall tiki poles, and blocked by what I would call a bouncer, dressed in a suit and dark black coat. It had sort of a night-club feel right off the bat, with a velvet rope along the path to the door, which would be opened to let a few people in, and then arbitrarily closed (I noticed this happening a lot). Nonetheless, Todd and I were excited to go in and see all the changes made to the place, which was previously occupied by a sports bar, I believe.
Before we made it in, I heard a soft “boom-boom-boom” sound coming from inside the bar, and I realized that it was not the music I would expect to hear in a real tiki bar. Instead, it was dance club-type music, which was immediately disappointing. We had hoped to hear some exotica or lounge music, which would have been more appropriate for a bar like this, but c’est la vie. We walked in and noticed that one nice thing about the bar was the lack of windows. It was dark, as any good tiki bar should be. There was also an abundance of tikis, with a huge one right by the bar that looked like it could be breathing fire. I rather liked this – it was pretty kooky. I also liked the furniture inside – lots of comfortable-looking seating, including some cozy spots by a warm fireplace. I might have sat down, if it wasn’t for the “Reserved” signs in pretty much every spot. I was told later by one of the owners that I could sit in those spots if I wanted, but I would have to move once the party holding the reservation came in. I didn’t even know you could make reservations for the soft opening night – I know it wasn’t advertised to the general public. Oh, well.
Todd was tasked with ordering the first round of drinks while I walked around, made observations, and snapped photos. Their back patio area is pretty large – there is tons of seating there…cozy, for sure, but pretty generic. There is no actual Oceanic art to be found here. The stools are carved tiki heads, and there are paper lanterns everywhere, which I thought was nice, given what they had to work with. I noticed that there were large bamboo panels in a few places, which looked like covers for big-screen TVs. I sure hope they don’t plan on breaking them out – those never belong in a good tiki bar. Again, I wanted to sit in some of the warmer, cozier spots outside, but the pesky “Reserved” signs were occupying every spot I wanted to get comfortable in…about half the seating areas, both indoors and outdoors, had these signs. I finally found a spot that would work, and sat down to wait for Todd.
Todd came out with a Zombie and a Mai Tai. The very first thing I noticed was the garnish, or lack, thereof. My Mai Tai was garnished with an orchid, and nothing more. It tasted very mediocre – I could taste a little of the flavors I have come to recognize, but it was forgettable. I definitely think the drink could have been improved with the proper lime half and the mint sprigs that typically accompany it. Todd’s Zombie did not have any garnish at all – only a swizzle, an umbrella, and a bendy straw. Both of us had considerable trouble sipping our drinks, because the ice was crushed to the point where it kept getting stuck in the straws. After about 5 minutes, Todd was nearly done with his drink – and he voiced a tremendous dissatisfaction with it. He didn’t like the fact that the flavors of the rums were lost, leaving him to taste mostly fruit juices.I tasted the Zombie as well, and found this to be true, except I tasted mostly cinnamon. I don’t think there was any Pernod in it whatsoever. Nonetheless, we wanted to try one more round, and see if it would be better. This time, Todd wanted the Mai Tai, and I tried a Painkiller. A waitress came to take our drink order, and Todd asked for an extra shot of Cruzan 151 to top his Mai Tai (his preference). About 15 minutes later, she brought out our drinks. Todd took a sip and noticed it was very much not a Mai Tai. I tasted it and immediately noticed a coconut flavor. Todd, being Todd, drank it, because wasting rum is not something either of us are inclined to do. My Painkiller was not much better, unfortunately. The flavors were there, but lackluster compared to other places I have tried it at.
We decided to split after the second round. The dance club music was loud and very obnoxious for our taste, and the drinks had been less than what we expected. I paid for the second round, and when I got my check, it confirmed what I suspected – the extra shot of rum in Todd’s Mai Tai wasn’t Cruzan 151, but Cruzan Coconut. To make matters worse, that extra shot cost about $8. The drinks were $15 each. I was floored. The tiki drinks I have had in SoCal cost only about $10-$12 each on average and were far and away much, much better than these. I genuinely felt I had been ripped off, and I don’t say that unless I really mean it. On our way out, I let the waitress know she had made a mistake, so that perhaps another customer in the future could be spared the same boo-boo.
To their credit, the owners of Pilikia obviously put some thought into a few things – the decor, although kind of “safe”, was fairly comfortable, which I liked. The bar had that dark feel to it that I love about many tiki bars, too. The rums they use are actually good rums – I saw the familiar Appleton Estate rums, as well as Plantation and Diplomatico. These are all things the owners can build on – they have a good start, but there are lots of areas for improvement.
The drinks can be improved upon greatly with two things – a deep understanding of rum, and consistency. Many of the best tiki bars out there have bartenders who truly understand the flavors of the different fine rums used in tiki drinks, and how to make them work. Having good rums isn’t enough – you have to create balanced drinks with them, and I am not sure Pilikia is there yet. The ice problem, and the lack of proper garnishes also indicate a lack of consistency, and perhaps, knowledge. Perhaps the Smugglers’ Cove by Martin Cate, which is like a textbook for a tiki mixologist, should be required reading. They could be making good drinks – they just need more time, and more practice.
The most important improvement is learning the meaning of tiki culture, and having a passion for it. Anyone can learn how to make the drinks with the right rums, supplies, and motivation. Anyone can pad their walls with bamboo, thatch a roof, and stick tiki idols all over the place, but unless the culture is respected and understood, it doesn’t have the same feel. Bouncers in suits hanging around, and velvet ropes to cordon off people at the entrance belong at the Oscars, or at an Uptown nightclub, not at a tiki bar. Tiki is about inclusion – everyone is welcome, and treated the same way; I didn’t get this feeling at Pilikia. I think it would have been nice for the owners to walk around and talk to all the patrons – introduce themselves, ask them how their drinks were, and how they liked the place. I noticed a few people were greeted by the staff with smiles and handshakes. Others, like myself and Todd, weren’t given the time of day. What I walked away with was the feeling that there were two types of patrons – those who were VIPs, and everyone else.
Lastly, tiki bars are unique. Each of them has that special something – that thing that keeps people coming back. Even some tiki bars with not-so-great drinks have their loyal clientele. What is unique about Pilikia? To be honest, so far, the only thing that makes it unique is the concept. It still has the feel of a typical upscale Dallas bar – except with bamboo, tikis, and tropical drinks. I sure hope Pilikia becomes a real tiki bar, because Dallas deserves it. Get rid of the awful music, the bouncers, the velvet ropes, and make the bartenders the best tiki bartenders in the city. Create an atmosphere of inclusion, where everyone is treated as a VIP. This is the core of what true American tiki culture is all about – it should be there for everyone to enjoy, and it should be treated with the respect it merits.
For Pilikia’s website, click here.