Can Tiki Bar UnderTow Reinstate Phoenix’s Reputation as the West’s Most Polynesian Town?
Keifer Gilbert serves up drinks at UnderTow.
“Oh, look! There’s the old Trader Vic’s!”
Verity Bendel is pointing at Citizen Public House, a sleek bar and restaurant in the heart of Old Town Scottsdale. She’s right. From 1962 to 1990, the spot was home to the Valley’s original location of Trader Vic’s, the iconic Polynesian-inspired chain.
Past the metal and cement and a trendy urban mural, you can still see the mountain peak-like roof structures where a thatched roof hung high. The craft cocktail-minded Citizen serves a piña colada, but that’s about all that’s left of tiki culture in Old Town — indeed, in much of metro Phoenix.
Bendel remembers the first time her dad, born in Hawaii, took her to that old Trader Vic’s. She was a child. “My dad must have needed a drink,” she jokes. “It was nostalgia for him.” Bendel got a little soft drink of her own, in a coconut mug.
She never forgot the experience, and she’s pretty much been looking for it ever since.
For a while, she didn’t need to look far. Not long ago, the Valley was “the West’s most Polynesian town,” says Joan Fudala, a Scottsdale historian. She notes the tropics-inspired building streak in Scottsdale and nearby in Phoenix in the 1950s and ’60s, an era that followed the return of World War II vets from the Pacific.
Along with the architecture came the tiki bars, like Trader Vic’s, a 500-seat restaurant and bar called The Islands, and the bars at the Safari and Kon Tiki hotels. The last of the Valley’s notable Polynesian watering holes, a newer 2006 iteration of Trader Vic’s at the Hotel Valley Ho, closed in 2011.
Regardless, Bendel is a tiki lifer.
A Valley native, the 55-year-old works in insurance by day. By night, she’s the co-founder of Tiki AZ. Bendel met Richard Ridley, the group’s other founder, a couple of years ago in Tucson at Dean Short’s Kon Tiki, previously a chain but the only one left in America. The tiny strip mall bar was celebrating its 50th anniversary a few years late.
After a couple of drinks, Bendel turned to Ridley and said, “We need to get our Arizona tiki shit together!”
And so they began a Facebook group of tiki devotees that’s been meeting for drinks and growing in numbers since 2013, despite their desperation for tiki-related venues that didn’t really exist in the Valley.
They tried Bikini Lounge, a dive on Grand Avenue. Though the atmosphere was spot-on, the drinks at the time weren’t tiki. (In the last year, the bar has added dive-quality tropical cocktails to their menu, caught slow-footed amid today’s nationwide tiki revival.) The group hung out at Hula’s Modern Tiki, too; the drinks were passable, but the atmosphere and the staff felt faux. But Tiki AZ grew in backyards and barhopping, and today there are well over 200 members.
Meanwhile, other cities were definitely getting their tiki shit together.
2016’s Best American Cocktail Bar — awarded annually at the Tales of the Cocktail, the Oscars of the cocktail world — is a tiki bar, Smuggler’s Cove, located in San Francisco.
Smuggler’s Cove’s owners Martin and Rebecca Cate have spearheaded the modern tiki revival in the U.S. In addition to winning the award, the couple released a book by the same name (published by Penguin Random House), which was this year’s blockbuster summer cocktail “cookbook.”
Martin Cate has partnered in and opened tiki bars that succeed with complex drinks made from quality spirits and fresh juices, contextualized by island recipes new and old. The aesthetic is fun, the bars characterized by attention-grabbing, maximalist tiki decoration. Others have followed suit, and finally, this summer, Phoenix caught up.
Tiki is back, in a big way, in a tiny basement bar on Indian School Road.
Jason Asher, a co-owner of UnderTow, is the son of Jerry Asher, who tended bar at The Islands, a legendary tiki-themed Phoenix watering hole.
Every night at UnderTow is a dark and stormy one, in one way or another.
The tiny bar — located in central Phoenix beneath Sip Beer Garage — was an instant hit. From its first weekend in August, the cocktail concept had two- to three-hour waits for a sought-after seat at the bar — to get a zombie, share a scorpion bowl, or try something new and different. After just a few weeks, UnderTow switched their approach to a reservation system — which brought clearer skies ahead.
Even still, thunder crashes periodically (from hidden speakers), and pretty much the only light in the space streams down in rays through a grated hatch door, separating the ceiling from the sunny cafe above.
“UnderTow is like Disneyland. It’s like Pirates of the Caribbean,” says Ross Simon, a longtime Valley bartender and proprietor of Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour in downtown Phoenix. “If it were me, I would have put in some misters. Maybe got some splashing going on down there.”
Hidden underground, the 30-seat bar is designed after the cargo hold of a 19th-century clipper ship — big sails, built for speed.
Doug Horne, a well-known artist and illustrator in the national tiki community who now lives in Long Beach, California, grew up nearby. In grade school, he’d take his bicycle to the Bike Barn across the street. In later years, he remembers getting the oil changed in his car at the Avis Lube — now Sip. He remembers sitting where the waiting room was, and he knows what UnderTow used to be: an oil-changing bay.
Going down the stairs, being confronted by a tribal mask, and hanging a left into the dark bar, you can smell the smoke of freshly fired cannons (actually, it’s a drink called the Smoking Cannon, smoked to order with burning cinnamon). Stacks of barrels and rope crowd the back wall. Every support beam is hand-carved; the bar’s columns are done in the style of Easter Island’s moai statues. On the outer walls, portholes look out on maritime activity, looped footage played on LCD screens, as the cargo bar makes its voyage.
During certain steel drum sequences in the exotica music — scattered piano, wind chimes, chirping birds, and chattery cabasa — softly filling the space, black lights will illuminate hidden decorations; a treasure map is revealed. Just when you think you’ve taken it all in, you notice a few stray details you hadn’t before.
“It’s sort of like Indiana Jones,” says Rich Furnari of Barter & Shake, a brand he and co-founder Jason Asher started to house UnderTow. They also operate Counter Intuitive, an Old Town Scottsdale bar with a rotating theme, each focused on historic drinking from the past, buoyed by a dash of fictional narrative: New Orleans Estate Sale (the deceased man loosely based on Furnari’s grandfather); Picasso’s Cuba; secretive Chinatown drinking societies (inspired by trips to visit that same grandfather in the Bronx — they’d walk through Chinatown, pick up takeout, and watch kung-fu films back home). The two spent seven months creating cocktails in the spirit of the Mexican Prohibition-era horse racing track Agua Caliente. Halfway through November, they began their newest theme, Bemusement, a mysterious storyline menu that unfolds weekly and builds toward a big surprise ending.
“Sometimes, history is a little too fresh,” Furnari says. “A lot of the time, we’re looking for something that hasn’t been done in a long time. We want to bring attention to that.”
He adds, “I aspire to be as good of a man as my grandfather was … I think I’ve always been very nostalgic — looking for ways to tie his life into mine.”
For Jason Asher, there’s a family angle as well. His father, Jerry, worked at The Islands as a bartender in the 1970s — something Jason didn’t know until he began digging into Phoenix’s history as a tiki mainstay.
“It came out in conversation,” Jason says. “And when I began to work on this project, he began to shed some more light on it.”
Jerry began to tell Jason of his own bartending days.
“For me, diving into the history of drinking in Arizona, the beverage and the alcohol industry, has always been a big part of my world,” Jason says. “It’s my career. And finding something that resonates and makes sense here in Arizona, that allows it all to come back to home base, is something I’ve been looking for for a long time.”
He adds, “Even now, everybody in Arizona believes that moving to another city is the only way to continue your career, to take it to another place.”
Not for Jason, not so far. In 2007, he joined the bar team at Jade Bar at the Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort in Paradise Valley, at a time when only resorts and big hotels had the money to gamble on a new brand of drink-making that emphasized fresh juices and a culinary approach to cocktails. There, he and Micah Olson (who now owns craft cocktail stalwarts, Arcadia’s Crudo and the newer Okra in central Phoenix) had a chance to put mixology on the map in Arizona.
Their approach to the newly minted term “craft cocktails” was not only unrivaled in Phoenix, but was on pace with upstart craft cocktail scenes in San Francisco and New York. In 2010 Jason was named GQ’s Most Inspired Bartender, landing on the cover of the magazine.
Olson has started restaurants in Phoenix with serious bar programs; Jason Asher, in the meantime, became the director of mixology and craft spirits for Young’s Market, a heavy-hitting liquor distributor in the Southwest, a post he’ll hold until the end of 2016, when he’ll move to continue working with Furnari as his full-time business partner.
Asher has been digging into the uncharted territory that is Arizona’s immense and colorful drinking history — namely, tiki. And now, the past and present are coming together nicely in Phoenix.
Asher and Furnari’s bar aims for both an escapist atmosphere and tiki drinks informed by history and the modern day. The 36-cocktail menu is split evenly between originals created by the UnderTow staff and historic ones, a handful of which became classics under Arizona’s colorful tiki reign from the ’50s through the ’70s.
Those classics were part of Jerry Asher’s nightly cocktail shake at The Islands, when he began working in his early 30s, at the tail end of the ’70s.
A friend’s brother was a manager there and got him the job. It helped that he’d been frequenting the spot for drinks, and that he was a well-known bartender around town. But he says he always wanted to work at The Islands — to make the exotic cocktails, floating orchids across scorpion bowls (that’s how you met the girls) — and join in on the Polynesian-style party; there was a band playing most nights of the week, and the family-style restaurant would transform into a bar once the sun went down.
“We would dance, do the hula — play with fire,” Jerry recalls.
He remembers The Islands co-existing with the original Trader Vic’s in Old Town Scottsdale.
“But Trader Vic’s was a chain.”
Since tiki bars and restaurants were closing at alarming rates by this point in the ’70s, that made The Islands not just one of the Valley’s but the nation’s last thriving refuges of its kind.
And Jerry says it was still swinging. “It was a big place. It was like a nightclub. The bar itself sat nearly 30 people.”
He remembers one cocktail in particular, a real strong drink, he says, made with Hamilton 151-proof rum, the Jet Pilot. And there was this deal — that if you could drink three of these, then you’d get the fourth for free.
“There was this guy who said he could do it,” Jerry says. “ And I said, ‘Well, all right.’”
By the third drink, the man began to slouch heavily in his stool. Then he fell off of it.
Jerry said to his bar back, “Let’s get this guy out of here.”
“We were carrying him out of the bar when his leg fell off. It scared the living hell out of us.”
There he was, in their arms, and there was his leg on the ground. It was wooden, they found out. A prosthetic for a veteran. “We put him on a bench outside and put his leg down on his lap.
“It was a fun place to drink.”
Martin and Rebecca Cate, owners of the celebrated Smuggler's Cove tiki bar in San Francisco, visited UnderTow in August to sign copies of their book, Smuggler's Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki.
It’s fitting that the tiki bar was born in Hollywood.
Don’s Beachcomber Café, later called Don The Beachcomber, was patched together by a man named Ernest Gantt, who’d later change his name to Donn Beach. In the mid-1920s, he’d used his college money to travel the oceans of the Caribbean and South Pacific, ultimately landing in Hollywood and wooing filmmakers who offered him a job decorating film sets, according to Martin Cate, co-author of Smuggler’s Cove and owner of the bar of the same name.
Gantt saved enough money to open a small bar, one that was not much to look at before applying his decorative expertise. The year was 1933.
“And that decision,” Cate writes, “changed the course of American cocktail culture, dining, and design for the next 40 years.”
By the late ’40s, there were close to 20 locations of Don The Beachcomber.
Meanwhile, in the late ’30s, a man named Victor Bergeron, inspired by travels to Havana and New Orleans — and unquestionably a bit influenced by Donn Beach’s success — had launched a bar in Oakland, California, he called Trader Vic’s, a new Polynesian drinking haven that would soon become one of the most recognizable names in tiki, let alone bar and restaurant scenes across the world as it expanded. By 1960, there were 25 locations worldwide, with the first Scottsdale location opening in 1962.
It had helped that in 1944, Bergeron had created what would become a universally known cocktail, the mai tai.
In the late ’80s, none other than current President-elect Donald Trump announced the end of the tiki trend. In 1989, Trump purchased The Plaza Hotel in New York for $360 million — and deemed the flagship Trader Vic’s there too “tacky.”
“Trader Vic’s does not fit in with the image of the hotel that I want to achieve,’’ Trump told the New York Times in a January 1989 story announcing the closure.
“My entire family will be very sorry to see it close,’’ said President Richard M. Nixon, through a spokesperson. ‘’It was always our daughters’ favorite restaurant, and it quickly became mine too.’’
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