Throughout the years, Las Vegas has been home to many a tiki destination: There was Don the Beachcomber at the Sahara, the Aku Aku at the Stardust, I used to enjoy 2 for 1 Mai Tais at Trader Vic’s outside the Planet Hollywood. Nowadays, authentic tiki is as scarce in Las Vegas as it is in most other cities – with one exception.
Frankie’s Tiki Room opened at 1712 West Charleston, near UNLV’s Shadow Lane Campus in 2008, and has been a destination tiki lounge ever since. While for some locals it’s just another neighborhood bar with video poker machines and unusual decor, those in the know come from miles around to drink their fill of tiki ambience and potent tiki drinks.
The whole concept of tiki is to create a place to get away. When you enter a tiki bar you leave behind the everyday world and enter a place where you can truly relax. Both the drinks and decor are exotic and fanciful, hand crafted art. The stresses of everyday life that follow you into most bars: news, politics, even sports – are intentionally left at the door. Drinks are strong, typically rum based (a nod to the mid-20th century origins of tiki, and to its popularity in tropical climes), and are crafted from fresh exotic juices, spices and liquors. Menus are cryptic and intriguing – the exact recipes often closely guarded secrets. On all counts, Frankie’s delivers.
The first thing you notice when you enter Frankie’s is that you cannot see. The lighting inside is so dim that I needed a special lens for my camera to photograph the lights themselves. Once your eyes adjust, you begin to see the decor. A floor to ceiling tiki with dice for eyes guards the front door. The room is lit by colorful hanging blowfish lanterns. There are carvings on the walls, and on the backs of chairs.
Bamboo is everywhere and human sized hand carved tikis lurk in every corner. A collection of vintage tiki mugs decorates one wall. Behind the bar it’s wall to wall booze – and not just the standards, but hundreds of rums and liquors, many that you probably haven’t heard of. There are more tiki mugs (for sale) and t-shirts as well. A carved wooden sign taunts “Free Rum Tomorrow!”
Two televisions are perched behind the bar, but you will never see a conventional broadcast. The sound is muted and the video is made up of random clips from an eclectic mix of b-grade horror and Gilligan’s Island meets vintage burlesque. A jukebox plays surf and exotica. There’s a carnival style coin-op vice-tester machine. The drink menu is divided between traditional and modern original tiki drinks, rated from two to five skulls for potency. The five skull traditional Zombie contains many rums including Lemon Hart 151 and has a two drink limit “for tradition’s sake.”
Drinks are $9, and worth every penny for both potency and flavor. For $23 you can get your drink in a souvenir tiki mug, which you can keep. I’ve somehow wound up with quite a collection of these unique mugs over the years. Bar staff is friendly and efficient, and the clientele is a mix of tikiphiles, rockabilly, and locals who don’t seem to mind sharing their quirky neighborhood bar.
- Free rum, today! The paytables on the bar-top video poker machines aren’t that great, but if you pop in a 20 and play full coin your drinks are on the house.
- Get a seat at the bar, if you can. The fancy carved seats at the tables are cool looking, but rather uncomfortable.
- If you try the “Vice Tester” everyone will know it. The lights of the machine are far brighter than anything else in the bar.
- If you go in late March/early April, this place is completely taken over by the Viva Las Vegas crowd, and will be packed to capacity throughout this annual rockabilly fest.
- Finally, designate a driver or take a cab. One five skull drink and you could be teetering on the edge of the legal limit, depending on your tolerance.