P Moss, owner of the Double Down Saloon punk-rock bar, was determined to save tiki culture in Las Vegas.
There had been a long dry spell. With the closing of Aku Aku at the Stardust and Don the Beachcomber in the ’80s, tiki’s torch went out until the dawning of Taboo Cove, which opened with The Venetian in 2001. That closed in 2005, though, and to Moss, the tiki-less town was just a shame.
“In a city like this — that’s built on fun — my God, it was a glaring void,” Moss said.
Those of the boomer vintage, it seems, have memories of being dragged in the family station wagon to a tiki palace in Hollywood or Poughkeepsie, N.Y., or Columbus, Ohio, during tiki’s heydays in the ’60s and ’70s. But the genre, which sort of personifies kitschy schmaltz — or maybe that’s schmaltzy kitsch — appeals to younger generations as well.
“Tiki bars are cool,” Moss said. “They always have been. I don’t care what city you’re in, if there’s a tiki bar — even a crappy one — people are going to say, ‘Hey, let’s go do that, for something that’s different and fun.’ But done properly, it’s a place where people want to go all the time.”
And so, in the post-Taboo Cove years, he thought about reviving tiki culture here.
“I had the idea for a while, but it wasn’t at the top of my list,” Moss said. He and business partner Chris Andrasfay, however, kept talking about it.
“We decided it needed to be at the top of the list.”
But first, they had to find a location, and they looked for two and a half to three years. Moss had a couple of specifics, one being that the tiki bar needed to be near the center of the city.
“These are not suburban things,” he said. “These are for people who go out all the time, and that tourists can easily get to.”
And it needed to be kind of interesting.
“Nothing being built today has any character,” Moss said. “And we needed something a little more intimate.”
Then the ’50s-era Frankie’s Bar & Cocktail Lounge, just west of Interstate 15 at 1712 W. Charleston Blvd., went up for sale. Moss said he had signed the papers and was in escrow two hours later.
At first, progress was slow. Carvers and artisans in the considerable tiki community were approached to work on Frankie’s, but it appeared they were otherwise engaged.
“Nobody wanted to work with us because they didn’t know who we were,” Moss said.
Then he crossed paths with Bamboo Ben, grandson of tiki pioneer Eli Hedley. The legendary Hedley was the sculptor of Aku Aku’s landmark statuary as well as the Enchanted Tiki Room and portions of Adventureland at Disneyland. Bamboo Ben, it seemed, was a punk-rock aficionado who was no stranger to the Double Down. And since Bamboo Ben is himself a tiki legend, the others suddenly had time for this new project.
Frankie’s the bar would have to be gutted, but Moss decided to keep Frankie’s the name.
“We kept the Frankie’s name out of respect for the history of the place and the history of this town, because everybody’s quick to blow everything up,” he said.
He and Bamboo Ben sat at the bar and sketched out the new interior on a napkin, and word spread.
“We wanted to keep this a secret and let it just explode,” Moss said. “It created a huge buzz in the tiki community, which is centered in Southern California but is spread far and wide. Everybody was trying to figure it out and guess where it was. Nobody got it. It was perfect.”
And 35 days after Moss got the keys to the place, Frankie’s Tiki Room opened to the public on Dec. 4, 2008.
“We gutted the place totally” in that period, Moss said. “Bamboo Ben was a magician.”
The artists had made furniture, wall coverings and wall decorations out of bamboo, 100-year-old tapa cloth, rattan, thatch and pufferfish. They had created tiki mugs unique to Frankie’s.
Other artists created the drinks. For those, Moss gives credit to Andrasfay and bartenders Allison Hartling and Mike Richardson.
Frankie’s Tiki Room was on its way.
“Frankie’s was a big hit immediately,” Moss said. “Not just locally, but globally. People from all over the world were coming to it as a destination, which was quite amazing. It was a major destination for Europeans.”
Why? Partly, Moss said, because of the tiki culture, partly because of Las Vegas.
“If you’re going to create something that’s good and it’s in Las Vegas, you’ve got to be a moron to screw it up,” Moss said. “There’s enough crap here people like. If you give them something unique in Las Vegas, they’re all over it. People look for an excuse to come to Las Vegas, and I gave them an excuse.”
The culture of Frankie’s Tiki Room continued to build.
“People like the bar for a lot of reasons,” Moss said. “It’s interesting, it’s cool, it’s beautiful, but what people really, really liked was the fact that we had a lot of original drinks that were clever-sounding — they had clever and fun names — and they were delicious.”
People were leaving, Moss said, with bags of souvenirs such as tiki mugs, and after a while, a book seemed like a natural next step.
“But when I thought about actually doing it, I started dragging my feet a little bit,” he said. “And justifiably so.” While he had written a couple of fiction books, “I learned the hard way, this was hard.”
He, Andrasfay, Hartling and Richardson started creating and culling. They decided 77 was a nice round number for the recipes, and 17 of them would be classic tiki drinks.
“Chris and Allison and Mike need to get a lot of credit, because there would be no book without them,” he said. “All of the original drinks, they created. They’re quite geniuses at what they do.”
The selection of recipes for “Liquid Vacation” wasn’t done lightly.
“You can’t just take what may be your best drinks; you have to have a blend of flavors,” Moss said. “They can’t all taste like ‘this.’ They can’t all be pineapple. We mixed it up.” There also was a mix of drink potency, represented as three, four or five skulls in the book.
They mixed the names, too, between the fun and the traditional.
“That’s what Frankie’s is,” he said, “a mix of the fun and the traditional.”
Moss also wrote a bit about the history of tiki culture overall and in Las Vegas, a little bit about each drink, the origins of the classics (“the Zombie was invented as a hangover cure”), listings of suggested ingredients and equipment, and recipes for syrups and, of course, the drinks themselves.
The book is available by preorder (to be shipped, autographed, on Monday) for $29.95 at frankiestikiroom.com and in stores and at Amazon.com by about July 1.
Both Frankie’s and “Liquid Vacation” seem poised to find an even wider audience. Moss, who also has a Double Down Saloon in New York City, is booked on “The Better Show” in New York on June 25 and is in talks for an appearance on “Today.”
There will be a launch party, open to the public, from 6 to 9 p.m. June 22 at Frankie’s. And, it seems, it will be reflective of laid-back tiki style.
“You can buy a book, have a drink,” he said, “and do whatever you want.”
(Full disclosure: “Liquid Vacation” was published by Stephens Press, which, like the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is owned by Stephens Media, and was edited by Heidi Knapp Rinella.)
Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@review journal.com or 702-383-0474.
1 ounce Cruzan guava rum
½ ounce Whaler’s Vanille rum
½ ounce Wray & Nephew White Overproof Rum
½ ounce lime juice
2 ounces guava nectar
½ ounce Whaler’s Original Dark Rum
Vanilla bean and edible flower for garnish
Fill a 10-ounce pilsner glass with ice, then add all ingredients except the Whaler’s dark rum. Pour the contents into a cocktail shaker. Shake well, then re-pour into the glass. Float the dark rum on top.
Serve garnished with vanilla bean and, if you’re feeling the appropriate high, a floral accent.
2 ounces Cruzan Citrus Rum
1½ ounces Cruzan Aged Light Rum
1 ounce Cruzan Coconut Rum
Dash Angostura bitters
2 ounces pineapple juice
2 ounces sweet and sour
¼ ounce Coco Lopez
Dash of simple syrup
5 lime wedges
6 mint leaves
Pinch of red Alaea salt
2 ounces club soda
2 ounces 7Up
Grapefruit peel and mint sprig for garnish
In a mixing glass, carefully muddle all ingredients except the club soda and 7Up. Add ice and shake well.
Strain into an ice-filled 17-ounce snifter, then top with equal parts club soda and 7Up.
Server garnished with grapefruit peel and a sprig of mint.
½ ounce Bacardi O orange rum
½ ounce Cointreau
½ ounce Hana Bay 151-proof rum
¼ ounce lime juice
1 dash orange bitters
1 ounce sweet and sour
2 ounces Fanta orange soda
Mint leaves for garnish
Build over ice in a 10-ounce pilsner glass, then pour contents into a cocktail shaker.
Without shaking, re-pour into the glass.
Serve garnished with mint leaves.
— Recipes from “Liquid Vacation” by P Moss