Can Tiki Bar UnderTow Reinstate Phoenix’s Reputation as the West’s Most Polynesian Town?

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“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.

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.”

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.’’

“You get the sense at times that this was this little sleepy, dusty place,” says Jared Smith, curator of history at the Tempe History Museum.

“But that wasn’t really the case.”

As early as the late 1800s, Arizona was getting a heavy amount of press in California papers, tied economically to large markets of the West Coast and across the country, Smith says, through agriculture and one of the nation’s strongest cattle industries. We even had a burgeoning wine industry — and it was in Mesa of all places; liquor made from grapes was a great source of income for Mormon farmers.

When it came to drinking, Smith says, “trends that were big other places got big here.”

In 1878, the Salt River Herald was boasting that Phoenix, not Prescott, had the handsomest saloon in the territory, the Champion Sample Room, right next to the courthouse downtown. The bar “earned itself a reputation for neatness, quietness, and fine liquor that is a small fortune in itself.” The club room was well-stocked with up-to-date newspapers, and “Roundy the imimitable artist in mixology is always on deck.”

Phoenix would carry on its reputation for amenities in fine drinking into Prohibition (in Arizona it began early, in 1915), and would emerge on the other side of the Noble Experiment a thirsty state.

“Rum and tiki drinks got more popular,” says Robert Porter, who tended bar for five years at the newer Trader Vic’s in Scottsdale. “Post-Prohibition, any American spirit such as whiskey wasn’t very good as far as quality.”

Rum, a byproduct of sugar production and long traded with the Caribbean, would take center stage as Navy men, already familiar with its virtues, would continue to crave it upon their return to Phoenix and into the ’50s. Suddenly, rum bars and tropical drinks were in high demand in the Valley.

Anyone with deep pockets was looking to accommodate. Bill Ritter, who’d earned a good sum as owner of a local soft-drink bottling company, built the Safari in 1956, at the dusty corner of Camelback and Scottsdale roads. Designed by the late acclaimed midcentury Valley architect Al Beadle, it would become the talk of the town, frequented by celebrities, professional baseball players, and eternally tanned models and beauty queens. It featured African-motif dining rooms with zebra skin-clad waitresses, the Valley’s first 24-hour coffee shop, and the would-be legendary lounge and nightclub, the French Quarter.

In a 1997 New Times interview, Al Beadle remembered the hotel fondly.

“Jesus, at the end of a football game, it was an absolute race to get from ASU to the Safari."

“Who came?

“Hell, who didn’t?”

The Kon Tiki Hotel (“A little bit of Waikiki in the heart of Phoenix”), with its volcano rock and fire fountain, was built on Van Buren and 24th streets in 1962, under the guide of proprietor Stephen Crane, a significant figure in tiki with his Luau cafe in Los Angeles, a diner for celebrities. He established a deal to expand his Kon Tiki concepts with Sheraton, just as Trader Vic’s was expanding with Hilton hotels.

There would be a ’60s-themed Polynesian strip mall housing not only a tiki-themed Dairy Queen, with a large, thatched A-frame room, but also a tiki-themed laundromat called the “Polynesian Norge” and the Bali-Hi Motor Hotel erected on Grand Avenue. The sales literature for one apartment complex read, “At Sands West, your family warrior can retire from his daily battle to your private lanai and find relaxation. At Sand West … home is also protected from Kumumahanahana — God of Heat — by air-conditioning and superior insulation.”

A 2007 travel guide, Tiki Road Trip: A Guide To Tiki Culture in North America, written by James Teitelbaum, tasked itself with logging every tiki-culture concept that currently and ever has existed in every state of the U.S.

Arizona took up more real estate in the book than almost any other state.

But tiki didn’t last forever. By the time the Safari closed its doors in 1998, the proprietors were pining for business on the virtues of a self-serve taco bar.

Others suffered similar fates.

In 1958 Phoenix would get a Trader-Vic’s look-alike in The Islands, a restaurant and bar located at the northeast corner of Camelback Road and Seventh Street. That opening year, the Arizona Republic’s Maggie Savoy wandered up to the scene of the restaurant under construction, set to open a month later.

Outside, there was a massive tiki sculpture being carved by Milan Guanko, an artist from California whose career would be highlighted by his work at Disneyland. The Islands would be decorated with bamboo booths, taxidermy puffer fish, turtle shells, and shark jaws. It would be lined with palm fiber cloth from Samoa and wallpaper made in Fiji out of mulberry bark. Indoors, there would be volcanic rock waterfalls and a 20-foot canoe painted red, white, and blue. The dining area would feature four secluded rooms: the Rainfall bar, the Marine Room, the Waterfall Room, and the Tiki Room (one of these would later become the Cannibal Room).

A Cantonese chef named Buck J. Wong, who’d worked at Trader Vic’s for more than a dozen years in Chicago and Denver, and opened up Vic’s locations across the country, would be the restaurant’s opening head chef.

But one year later, Chef Wong left The Islands to become head chef for the Luau, a nearby Hawaiian restaurant.

And a year after that, in 1960, The Islands was sued on charges of copyright infringement and “unfair competition” by Victor J. Bergeron — Trader Vic himself — who claimed The Islands copied the menus of his Trader Vic’s restaurants, also built on Polynesian food and drink. (The Islands survived the charges and wouldn’t fold until 1983.)

A competitively minded Bergeron gave Old Town Scottsdale that first Trader Vic’s in 1962. John Wayne was a guest of honor at the grand opening.

It would last nearly 30 years before folding. Verity Bendel remembers the end.

“There were always like half a dozen old guys sitting at the bar like this.” She hunches her back, raises her elbows steeply so she’s just barely hovering over her imaginary bar top; her tongue lazily hangs out over what must be a decorative tiki mug at a dim old bar.

“I wanted ‘that one,’” she remembers, ordering from the colorful illustrations on the menu. “‘That one looks cute.’” Maybe it was that twinkling mural of Diamond Head, or the cute mugs, but she would become a return customer up until The Islands shut down, convincing other friends to come along.

“Before we went to whatever the hot new bar was, I was like, ‘Can we pretty please go? It’s really cool. You’ll really like it.’”

Some, Bendel says, came to love it like she did.

When asked exactly she’d been drinking during all of those trips to The Islands, a smile creeps across her face.

“For me, it was always about the atmosphere. It was never about the cocktails.”

From the ’80s on, tiki culture in the Valley was a sad shadow of itself. But in 2002, enough time had passed, and the ornate Drift Lounge would give a rowdy Old Town another shot at tiki decadence.

“It was the first bar gig I ever had in Arizona,” says Simon, who was born in Scotland and had worked most recently in London. “That place was one of the reasons I stayed … There was really no one doing good drinks in town at the time,” with the exception, he says, of Richie Moe, one of Phoenix’s veteran bartenders.

Simon remembers what he called unbelievable attention to detail in Drift Lounge’s exterior and interior designs, from a huge and pristine fish tank behind the bar, with tropical fish and a few small sharks, to modern, retro couches, a fireplace, and a patio lit by tiki torches. This extended down to the tiki mugs and wooden menus with illustrations of all of the drinks, a style popularized by Trader Vic’s. For the drinks, they had 12 different mugs.

“You’d go outside and you’d walk in the side, and there’s this door handle with this little hand-carved little guy, and you were like, ‘holy shit, these guys have the whole fucking concept down.’”

But Simon says Drift Lounge’s downfall, ultimately, was that the bar wasn’t using fresh juice in their cocktails.

“I came up to the owner, Bryan [Chittenden], because I’m fresh off the boat, and I’m saying, ‘Can we put some fresh lime juice in this shit?’” Chittenden, in return, remembers Ross as ambitious in ways he ultimately couldn’t accommodate.

“If that place was open today, or even two years ago, and if it had the drinks with the fresh juice up to par to match the atmosphere, you’d have had a great bar,” Simon says.

The Old Town Scottsdale crowd was, Simon says, looking for something else out of Drift Lounge. Ultimately, the bar drowned under a sea of orders for vodka Red Bulls and top-100 DJ sets, suffering from an identity crisis that would lead to closed doors by the end of 2010.

In 2006, a new Trader Vic’s opened in the refurbished midcentury Hotel Valley Ho nearby in Old Town.

“When Trader Vic’s opened up, they were doing tiki right. I’d go in there and order a mai tai and hang out for many hours,” Simon says. “Extra-dark rum … It was tasty as hell.”

Robert Porter remembers the grandeur of the place during his time bartending there. “It was very elegant and casual at the same time,” he says. “The servers were dressed immaculately in these great dinner jackets. There were very formal settings and glassware.”

Just a couple years later, in 2008, the economy took a turn for the worst. No amount of over-the-top tiki escapism — pu-pu platters, four-person punch bowls, and fiery waterfalls — could provide ample peace of mind.

“A lot of restaurants were going under,” says Porter.

“I did my fair share of the responsibility over there, but it still closed,” Bendel says.

“There really was nothing else. Nowhere else to go.”

“I remember watching it happen,” says Rich Furnari.

He was inside UnderTow, close to where the stairs end.

“I could hear Jason bringing a guy downstairs really slow. I said, ‘I wonder if this is Jerry Asher.’”

It had been a few decades since Jerry had worked as a high-volume bartender at The Islands, and the 71-year-old was taking his time getting down the stairs.

“He was moving pretty slow. But when he turned that corner and saw where he was, he got that pep back in his step,” Funari says.

“You can see it in someone’s eyes when they are genuinely happy.”

“I was sort of shocked,” Jerry says with regards to Jason opening up a tiki bar, decades after that ship had sailed during his own bartending journey.

“You know, that’s how I worked my way out,” Jerry says. “From there, I got out and into insurance, and then I got into selling cars. Next thing you know, I’m a finance director for car stores.”

He’s impressed with Jason and Furnari’s efforts.

“Boom. They did it. I was like, ‘Wow.’ I’m just very proud of him,” Jerry says of his son.

“When he’s been at UnderTow, he drinks those drinks. He drinks our drinks,” Jason says. “Some are classics that he orders. Jet Pilots. Drinks like that.”

“And he —” Jason pauses. “The only thing I can tell you is that he lights up like a Christmas tree. He’s smiling, and he’s telling us about the days when he used to do it.”

For Jerry Asher, says Verity Bendel, it’s probably like it is for her, remembering the nights at The Islands. “I can feel it in here,” she says. “They’re bringing back the whole feel. And all of the old tiki drinks.”

She says they’re making them correctly, by the way. By the age of 30, she says, she’d actually started to appreciate a well-prepared cocktail.

“And now of course I’m a cocktail snob,” Bendel laughs. “And the new tiki drinks are so good.”

From day one, many in the Tiki AZ group have been UnderTow regulars, who go as much for the atmosphere, to dress up in vintage floral patterns and to stick hibiscus flowers in their hair, as they do for the drinks.

And as for everyone else who walks down those steps?

Furnari says he realizes that people may not know what the hell is going on. They may not have been to The Islands or Trader Vic’s. This may be a drinker’s maiden voyage on a rum-bearing, Clipper Ship-style tiki bar. He just hopes they can transport people away from their phones to a bygone era — if only for a couple of rounds.

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