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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

There’s a mermaid doing somersaults on a TV screen in a lamp-lit room. Exotica spills from unseen speakers. Carved wooden faces hang on a wall, alongside a signed photo of Don Ho. Floral-festooned patrons sip cocktails out of ceramic mugs. The bartender is lighting drinks on fire.

But, no, this is not a tiki bar. Definitely not. I guess?

According to owner Rory Snyder, The Reef—which opened Feb. 4 inside the tiki-style Caliente Tropics Resort in Palm Springs—is a “tropical libation sanctuary.”

Snyder says those who take their tiki very seriously—dubbed tikiphiles by some—would likely object to The Reef calling itself a tiki bar, because it doesn’t completely adhere to all of the criteria of a true tiki bar.

Um, OK.

“In a lot of ways, it is a tiki bar, but I don’t want to be restrained and confined by the parameters of, supposedly, what tiki is,” said Snyder, who is also a self-admitted tikiphile. “I don’t want to be defined just by tiki.”

Let’s talk about tiki for just a second. For all intents and purposes, there are four, let’s say, “tiki-style” bars in the valley: The Reef, Bootlegger Tiki, Tonga Hut Restaurant and Bar, and Toucans Tiki Lounge; all are in Palm Springs, and all bring a little something different to the table.

We have a section of tiki drinks on the menu at Truss and Twine, where I work, and I’m often asked: “What is tiki?” The word “tiki” comes from New Zealand and the Marquesas Islands. In Maori mythology, Tiki was the first man created.

What most Americans see as “tiki” and its surrounding culture is the creation of one man—Ernest Gantt, and his Hollywood bar and restaurant Don the Beachcomber. Gantt started Don’s Beachcomber Cafe just off of Hollywood Boulevard in 1933 at the age of 26 after traveling the Caribbean and south Pacific following his high school graduation. Gantt returned from his adventures with a unique collection of exotic, Polynesian ephemera and a taste for exotic, Polynesian drinks.

At Don’s Beachcomber Cafe, he put it all together. The mix of the bar’s ambiance (puffer-fish lamps, nets, traps, shells, driftwood, etc.), Gantt’s exotic drinks and presentation (served in a coconut, with fun names like The Zombie, etc.), and his personal showmanship (wearing cutoff pants and weathered clothing) was something truly new and unique. In 1937, Gantt moved his joint to a bigger space across the street, named it Don the Beachcomber, and officially changed his own name to Donn Beach.

Following Beach’s lead, a number of others opened extremely popular “tiki” restaurants, and the “tiki craze” spread throughout the United States. That lasted until the end of the 1960s, when “tiki” all but died. On life support, tiki culture was kept alive by a handful of enthusiasts throughout the ’80s and ’90s, almost as a form of counterculture. In the late 1990s and 2000s, alongside the craft-cocktail movement, tiki culture went through a revitalization, which has led to where we are today. In other words, tiki is cool again.

“(Like) the advent of being allowed in your 40s and 50s to like comic books and Star Wars, tiki was always kind of that thing that was the redheaded stepchild and mockable,” Snyder said. “But now we embrace our geek and can be proud tikiphiles.”

The Reef and, more significantly, the Caliente Tropics hotel own a substantial slice of tiki-culture history. The A-framed Caliente Tropics, originally just called The Tropics, opened in 1964, the heyday of tiki, as part of Ken Kimes’ 40-motel empire, five of which were Polynesian in theme. According to Snyder, all the tiki statues on the grounds are original and are from the famed Oceanic Arts in Whittier, made by noteworthy tiki-carver Ed Crissman. Tiki Oasis, the largest tiki event in the country, which is now held annually in San Diego, started at Caliente Tropics in 2001 as a fundraiser for the then-struggling hotel.

In its salad days of the ’60s, The Tropics housed the Congo Room steakhouse and underground Cellar Bar, which was popular with a number of celebrities who vacationed in Palm Springs, including Elvis Presley and members of the Rat Pack. The Reef now occupies the space where the Congo Room once was. (An adjoining restaurant space will soon be home to Evzin Mediterranean Cuisine.) Additionally, Snyder has brought more tiki events back to Palm Springs with his Tiki Caliente parties, which he’s thrown since 2008 at Caliente Tropics.

“I love this hotel,” Snyder said. “This is my dream home. I’ve always loved this place. I love the history here. The greatest gig in the world is being an owner of this bar in this historic tiki hotel. I get to sit in the tiki mecca of Palm Springs, which is the Caliente Tropics Hotel.”

OK, enough history lessons. Let’s drink.

It’s Saturday around 7 p.m. The bar is really filling up fast. It’s an eclectic mix of folks. Bar manager Brandon Glass shakes me up some cocktails while the guy next to me is telling me how he lives “right behind” the Jelly Belly factory.

I start with the Hot Hula Hibiscus, which is basically a spicy margarita variation with tequila, jalepeño and hibiscus syrup, giving the drink a slight floral note. It’s light, refreshing and well-balanced, with the right amount of heat—and it’s served in a kitschy-cool cactus glass.

Next, I try the Hemingway Daiquiri, a classic which The Reef honors nicely. The popular daiquiri variation, with grapefruit juice and maraschino liqueur, was supposedly created at the La Floridita bar in Cuba, for famed writer and imbiber Ernest Hemingway. This one is legit.

I finish with a frozen piña colada out of a slushy machine. Cocktail snobs would surely raise their noses in disdain at such a sight … but, damn, it’s delicious. I add a float of dark rum to the top, because, why not?

The Reef’s cocktail menu contains many tiki classics like the Mai Tai, Singapore Sling and Painkiller. However, The Reef doesn’t stock the high-end spirits that some cocktail bars in town do, and the bartenders don’t jigger-measure the drinks.

“Truly, it’s not about eyedroppers and super-accuracy as much as free-flowing fun and keeping it loose,” Snyder said. “I like to think of the bar as part of the show.

“The one part of tiki I don’t get these days is that somehow, tiki and mixology crossed. The pretentiousness of mixology, to me, in a lot of ways doesn’t mix with the ohana of tiki.”

History, fun, good drinks, great ambience and customer service … is The Reef a tiki bar or not? And does it even matter? I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

Patrick Johnson is a journalist and head bartender at Truss and Twine. He can be emailed at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Below: The Reef opened Feb. 4 inside the tiki-style Caliente Tropics Resort in Palm Springs. Photo by Patrick Johnson.

Published in Cocktails

The New York Company Restaurant Closes After Three-Plus Years

After more than three years in business, The New York Company Restaurant, at 1260 S. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs, has closed its doors for good.

“We know you enjoyed dining at The New York Company Restaurant,” said a note sent to the restaurant’s email list on April 25. “So, we want you to know that our last day serving our guests was at Sunday’s champagne Brunch on April 23rd. It was a great run while it lasted … three-plus years of spending wonderful evenings together. Our party is over despite all we could do to create success. We know that we will miss you!”

This closure saddened me for several reasons. For one thing, one of the finest meals I’ve had in the Coachella Valley occurred last year at The New York Company Restaurant. For another, I got to know some of the folks there due to the restaurant’s participation in the inaugural Palm Springs Craft Cocktail Week, during which New York Company bartender Joey Tapia won both the Audience Choice Award at the Palm Springs Craft Cocktail Championship, and top honors at the Non-Alcoholic Craft Cocktail Championship.

While the closure saddened me, it certainly didn’t surprise me. I don’t know all of the things Neil Castren, Ken Misa and Wally D’Agostino did to get the word out about the restaurant, but I do know the place escaped my consciousness, more or less, for most of the time it was open—even though I live just a five-minute drive away. I rarely saw advertisements for the restaurant, and its social-media presence was nearly non-existent. If someone like me—a media-savvy person who writes about food on a regular basis—was never somehow motivated to check the place out, what chance did The New York Company Restaurant have with other potential customers?

Perhaps there’s a lesson here: Marketing and publicity, or a lack thereof, can make or break a restaurant.

So long, New York Company. You’ll be missed.


Coming Soon to Palm Springs: 716 on 111

After the sudden closure of the beloved Dickie O’Neals due to the death of its owner in the spring of 2015, the building at 2155 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs, sat vacant until Frenchy’s Sports Bar and Grill came along in late 2016.

But within months, Frenchy’s was gone. However, the building won’t be vacant for long.

Keep your fingers crossed for an August opening of 716 on 111. The restaurant, owned by couple Christopher Krayna and David Hoffman, already has a Facebook page that’s full of useful information. For example, the page tells us that 716 on 111 will use “always fresh, never frozen” ingredients, often from local purveyors; that the menu will include “real deal” chicken wings, as well as a cast iron-prepared filet over a crisp wedge iceberg salad; and that a life-sized buffalo sculpture will somehow be involved.

Watch the 716 on 111 Facebook page for updates.


In Brief

We’re getting more and more information about the restaurants coming to the big downtown Palm Springs redevelopment project along Palm Canyon Drive north of Tahquitz Canyon Way. A press release issued in mid-May by Grit Development—formerly known as Wessman Development, before John Wessman, y’know, got indicted—revealed that Il Corso, a longtime Palm Desert restaurant, will open a spot in the development. Other restaurants will include Stout Beer and Burgers, a Tommy Bahama and a Starbucks Reserve. … New to Cathedral City: Justin Eat and Drink just opened its doors at 68784 E. Palm Canyon Drive. The menu of the “upscale casual” restaurant includes appetizers (“Snack Time,” says the menu header), tacos (“Taco ’bout It”), salads (“Rabbit Food”), sandwiches/burgers (“Things on Bread”) and entrees (“Grown Up Stuff”) including a prime hanger steak and a mushroom risotto. For more info, call 760-904-4093, or visit www.facebook.com/justinrestaurantcc. … A few doors down is another new place: Pollo Doky’s, at 68718 E. Palm Canyon Drive. Peruvian fare—most notably rotisserie chicken and chicharron (pork) sandwiches—is what you’ll find at this fast-casual joint. For more information, call 760-832-6878, or head over to the restaurant Facebook page. … The Reef is now open in the bar area at the Caliente Tropics, at 411 E. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. Rory Snyder’s bar/restaurant replaces The Congo Room, which fled the property amidst claims of leaky roofs and storm damage. Visit www.thereefpalmsprings.com to learn more. … Now open: Blackbook, in the old Café Palette space at 315 E. Arenas Road in downtown Palm Springs. The stylish-looking joint serves appetizers, sandwiches, chicken wings, salads and tacos; call 760 832 8497 or visit www.facebook.com/blackbookbarandkitchen for more info.

Published in Restaurant & Food News