My boyfriend and I stumbled into the Kona Club in Oakland completely by chance. Don’t you just love when that happens? You’re out and about, then suddenly, a Tiki Bar is open in front of you like a tropical mirage… and the whole day is vastly improved.
Our goal on this dreary Saturday was to hike the paths in the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland. Don’t think I’m creep, I just dig looking at the headstones (dig might have been the wrong word), and the hills are good for working off some of the excess libations that I’d enjoyed over the holidays. Besides, we had a goal, Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, is buried there, and I was determined to find the headstone this time. (For those of you who don’t know, the Black Dahlia is a famous murder case from Los Angeles in the late 1940s. James Ellroy wrote a fabulous novel about the case that transports you back to that time and place. Read It).
As we approached the cemetery, we saw the sign for the Kona Club. Why haven’t I heard of this before? We live in Alameda. What the heck? My boyfriend said it must be closed up, and we started plotting to purchase the sign. (Really, purchase, both of us are a bit old to be climbing around on buildings to steal signs, besides, that would be bad Tiki Kharma, and who needs that?)
After our hike (no Elizabeth Short headstone sighting, despite following instructions very carefully), we headed back past the Kona Club…. and saw the OPEN sign.
I admit I almost jumped out of the car before it stopped.
When we opened the door, and the smell hit us like a wave… you know it, Rum, dust, spilled drinks, damp wood. It’s a smell bars just can’t scrub or air out. I smiled… home.
Inside the Kona Club is decorated in loads of Tiki Kitsch . Wonderful woven wall coverings and velvet paintings of native beauties cover the walls. Behind the bar, shelves loaded with mugs and Tiki Tchotchkes (we started playing the “I have that one and that one” game). Colorful Puffer Fish Lamps dangle above the bar adding a warm glow to room. There is even grass hut trim over the booze giving it that “we’re actually outside on an island” feel. And in the center of the bar back, a big ass volcano! (Was hoping it would erupt; and was wondering why the hell a polar bear was climbing it?)
Our bartender, Connor, who looked like he would be more at home in Dublin pouring pints, handed us a menu, and gave us some tips. I took his advice and ordered the Beachcomber Zombie, a killer drink with a pineapple base that I just love. My boyfriend ordered the Navy Grog, which he pronounced delicious, but wouldn’t share. (He knows me well, my sips turn into gulps).
Chatting with Connor, we learned that the Kona Club was originally called the Kings X, and is one of the oldest bars in Oakland (side note, Fantasy Football was “conceived” and first played in that bar). Rumor has it that the bar may have had a brothel upstairs (there are some interesting secret passages). And the bar even managed to stay open during the Prohibition (secret passages apparently hid bathtub gin as well as girls). So the place had history (explains the vibe and the smell), just not as a Tiki Bar.
Kona Club History
I asked how the Kings X went Tiki. Apparently the Kings X owners sold out, and the new owner, Doug Miller, had a huge collection of Tiki Stuff that his Ex didn’t appreciate. Together with Bamboo Ben and Crazy Al, they created a Tiki Haven and it all fell into place. New décor, great carvings, new drinks menu, an Ex/X and really nice location (right around the corner from the final resting place of Victor Bergeron (our next cemetery quest)…. yet it maintains that “been there forever” feel.
While the Kona Club is a Tiki Bar. It remains a neighborhood bar. You get the Tiki Look, but you also get a pool table and TVs that play Football games (at least by day). The mix works. Locals were having beers, and a neighborhood couple was in the pool room sinking some balls. Yet, there were others like us, Tiki-philes searching for rum drinks and a cool mug. We met a great guy in a cool shirt (someone please tell me where I can find Tiki Buttons!) who turned us on to a place in Sacramento. ROAD TRIP!
Always Time for Another Tiki Drink
Finished my drink, and needed another (it was HIS turn to drive). The Kona Club’s Magnum PI T- shirt with “real men drink Chi Chi’s” logo had me curious, so I gave it a try. (I’ve always been a sucker for a guy in Mustache wearing an Aloha shirt) It really was everything that Tiki Drinks are infamous for… sweet, cloying… like melted ice cream with a kick. (To be fair, Connor warned me) but, in the end, I was slurping up the dregs with my straw, wishing I had time for another. (Note to self- get a bottle of Macadamia Nut liqueur for my home bar).
We bought a Pint Glass (my guy brews his own beer, so Pint Glasses are a Bar essential in our home) and, of course, a Tiki Mug. The mugs are a bit funky, they look like carved bamboo, and are rough and unfinished on the outside (Connor claims it’s so we can paint and finish it ourselves… like that’s gonna happen). Both were wrapped up in bubble wrap to make the trip home safely.
The Kona Club brightened what could have been a drab drizzly East Bay afternoon. I can’t wait to see what it’s like at night!