“No matter how you look at it, it all began on a boat,” says Daniel Parks, beverage director at Financial District tiki bar Pagan Idol.
The latest drinking destination to come from Future Bars, this escapist oasis derives its name from the wooden statues that embody the spirit of Polynesian pop culture. Pagan Idol is a bar on a mission, a space that sets out to tell the story of tiki from exploratory voyage to tropical island.
It’s not the first Future Bars endeavor to home in on a sliver of the cocktail tradition — but with a smoke-spewing volcano and drinks lit on fire, it may be the most whimsical.
Owner Brian Sheehy “had always wanted to do a tiki bar,” Parks says, and after opening Tupper & Reed in Berkeley, the group’s East Bay outpost, he decided it was time. The space has been open nearly six months now, like an after-work Pan Am Clipper to Fiji for the suits and ties of the FiDi plus any assorted jaguar gods.
A trip to Pagan Idol begins in the Captain’s Quarters, a tavern-like front bar reminiscent of a stalwart naval vessel. There’s a steering wheel in the front window, illuminated portholes, an aquarium, and brilliant crackin’ light fixtures crafted by glassblower Ivan Mora. It’s a little more luxurious than the balsa wood raft of the Kon-Tiki tale, and opens for business at 4 p.m. daily.
A substantial, leather-bound book of rums — arranged by country of origin — supplements the splashy menu of 16 illustrated drinks. The book opens with a playful note from a character called “Doc,” and features hand-drawn graphics of more than two dozen rum-producing regions. Off-menu orders are welcome, although why anyone would opt for, say, an Old Fashioned in a tiki bar is beyond me.
The bartenders are decked out in Hawaiian shirts and floral leis, but they’re serious about the construction of their cocktails, which range from traditional to innovative and include time-honored ingredients such as falernum, crème de cacao, fassionola, orgeat, and ron de Venzuela — as well as amusing additions like aloha, relaxation, ancient curse, and death (alone, in the rain). Drinks are ornately garnished with banana leaves, umbrellas, orchids, and fruit wedges, and several are served in specialty bowls and glasses — though the innate pirate qualities of certain visitors has dissuaded the staff from serving cocktails in overly valuable vessels.
House specials include a lip-puckering Mai Tai float made with Rhum Martinique and ron de Venezeula, and the dangerously drinkable Banana Life, a simple sipper that won’t make you think too hard (or at all) as you wrap your lips around the straw. Another trademark of Pagan Idol is it’s well-honed use of fire in the production of the Fassionola Gold — a shared bowl beverage whose lemon oil-soaked sugar cubes are set aflame by a blowtorch and a flairosol filled with rum. (Warning: Emits showers of sparks, sort of).
While most of the drinks are ambitious in appearance and straightforward in flavor — and boozy, very boozy — several are also somewhat serious in their complexity. Flavored with notes of lavender, rose water, citrus, and hibiscus, the City of Refuge toes the line between masculine and feminine, while the Bird of Paradise dusts a savory note of dried-plum powder and sea salt on its cloud of passion fruit whipped cream.
The Captain’s Quarters are sectioned off from the rest of the establishment by a locked door, and as the front rooms begin to crowd, an air of anticipation builds. Visitors start asking when “the island” will be opened for business.
“It usually takes about an hour to get there,” says a bartender, playing along. “There may be a tail wind, but we’re making good progress today.”
Not long after this announcement, a bell is rung alongside shouts of “land ho!” and guests are allowed to explore the back bar at will. Though the Captain’s Quarters never empties, the island, with its sticky floors, private grass huts, wicker stools and mercurial volcano, does tend to be more popular.
The focal point is a 9-foot-tall, hand-carved statue of Lono, the Hawaiian god of peace and fertility. It was carved by Ivan Mora, the same artist who did Pagan Idol’s blown glass (as well as the spectacular chandelier in Bourbon and Branch). Along with a second statue, carved by Al Evans, these two tikis embody the spirit of the island — which is mostly one of whimsy, with very few human sacrifices in the caldera.
“I want this to be the bar people go to to have fun,” Sheehy said at Pagan Idol’s conception.
And so it is. This isn’t really a place to get serious about your beverages. It’s a place to get silly, to slurp frothy drinks through swirly straws and stick little umbrellas in your hair under a fiber optic ceiling beside an erupting volcano that spews smoke over a koi pond. (“When the gods are angry,” Parks says.)
It’s a bit gimmicky, and a bit schmaltzy. But that’s the point.
A. K. Carroll / SF WEEKLY