The Atomic Tiki has only been open a month and a half, and owner Brian McCabe, known by most as Skinny, has big plans. "I'm already changing the menu and adding new drinks," he says. "I'm taking down that wall and building a big bar."
This is good news because anyone familiar with the history of tiki bars in America knows that bigger and better is always the right move when it comes to tiki joints. Critiki.com describes the American post-war tiki bar as an "over-the-top themed restaurant" that emulates what we imagined Polynesian culture to be like.
I've always pictured tiki bars as a gaudy marriage between my parents' childhood home videos and the backyard parties in Edward Scissorhands if they took place on a beach. As it turns out, I am not wrong. Quick research on Critiki turns up the Dobbs House Luau, a clown show of a restaurant once open on Poplar with an A-frame roof and a huge Moai out front.
The Dobbs House Luau closed in 1982, and aside from whatever Bahama Breeze is trying to be, the Atomic Tiki is one of only two tiki places that exist in Memphis. Skinny and his staff have crafted a pretty solid menu of tropical drinks, from the typical Mai Tais and Zombies to the more modern Midnight Train, made from Amaro and Kraken rum. Spongebob's House is a fruity blend served in a pineapple, while Bang Harvey's Dead comes with an edible flower for a garnish ("It's okay, if you're going to eat a flower," my friend says). The Buck Nasty is a bourbon drink with allspice dram, a liqueur made from allspice berries. The Milk Punch, a popular Tiki throwback, is spiced rum, nutmeg, and half-and-half — and truly delicious for those of us who enjoy the occasional beverage made with dairy. Signature drinks are just $10-12 and are house concoctions, while staples are original tiki recipes or twists on them (for example, a new drink debuting soon is the Long Island Iced Teaki). A third section of the menu is devoted to bowls, larger and more ... interactive drinks that might be better shared. I ordered the Spongebob's House for myself, though, so there is only a little shame in consuming a bowl by oneself.
In the old tiki restaurants of the '50s and '60s, the cuisine was basically Chinese-American "dressed up with pineapple," according to Critiki, which might have been its undoing, considering the way the humble pineapple is disparaged locally for its appearance on pizza. "Unpredictably, we've done a lot of food sales," Skinny says. I try the top-selling Polynesian meatballs which live up to the hype. Skinny is also redoing the food menu to include more vegan and vegetarian dishes. It is expected to be available on April 6th.
The tiki bars of old Memphis might've featured working volcanoes or waterfalls, and Skinny is slowly building up his kitschy interior design to do the Dobbs House Luau proud. Netting hangs from the ceiling and knick-knacks adorn the walls: mermaids, surfboards, and, inexplicably, a plunger and Gone in 60 Seconds VHS tape. While some might exclaim, "Hey, that's not tiki, that's just tacky!" most of us will see it for what it is: a fun, neighborhood bar that lets the drinks be the star of the show and the wall plunger play a supporting role.
"We want the neighborhood to dictate what we are," Skinny says. The bar is right around the corner from Crosstown Concourse on Overton Park, meaning there is soon to be a lot of neighborhood to dictate Atomic Tiki's direction. He envisions his space as a bar for neighbors to walk to for local beer during happy hour or late at night for a tropical nightcap. I imagine that, over time, the place will accumulate more wall art, more ridiculousness, and become a destination bar for those who want to experience an uncommon drink. Tiki is the logical next step for Memphis mixology that prides itself on innovation, and while a tiki cocktail doesn't feel as mature as a barrel-aged whiskey drink, it sure is fun to order something with a plastic monkey in it. Take a hint from your grandparents, who saw Polynesia as an exotic place soaked in rum and full of hula girls and built a whole restaurant phenomenon around it. Be the neighborhood and dictate to Skinny what you want: a Jet Pilot in your hand and him in a hula skirt.