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Posted at 2:03 PM ET, 06/11/2007

Mai Tais Drying Up

By Fritz Hahn

It's almost always a sad occasion when a neighborhood restaurant makes way for a chain drugstore, especially when it's somewhere as storied as Yenching Palace, which served its last plate of General Tso's chicken yesterday and will reopen as a Walgreen's later this year.

For five decades, Yenching Palace was a neighborhood fixture in Cleveland Park, and, as has been often reported, the place where Russian and American diplomats met when they were negotiating an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Yenching's decor -- heavy on the jade, vases and faux-leather booths -- were a throwback to its heyday in the '60s and '70s. Still, the old-school Chinese food has been in decline for years, and it never seemed busy when I'd stop by for a bite to eat.

What I'll really miss, though, are the tropical drinks.

A friend and I went in to pay our respects on Saturday night, starting our adventure by splitting the Flaming Volcano -- a giant ceramic bowl filled with 32 ounces of rum, brandy and fruit juices, and capped by a small well of high-alcohol rum that had been lit on fire. To drink the volcano, we had to use long, brightly colored straws. Dinner followed, and while the food was nothing special, we loved the Navy Grog, Mai Tai and Scorpion Bowl that arrived at our table. Wonderful rum drinks that seemed so exotic in the '50s, when Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber fueled the craze for Polynesian cocktails.

The evening served as a reminder that outlets for tropical drinks have declined in recent years, even as the "martinis" at most lounges get sweeter and fruitier. Honolulu, run by former Trader Vic's head bartender David Chan, was leveled in 2004 to make room for a Beltway on-ramp. Island Jim's has closed for good, with the owners of the outdoor Brookland bar choosing to focus their attention on Colonel Brooks's Tavern instead. And now Yenching Palace.

In downtown D.C., the only place I can find a classic Mai Tai is in the decidedly un-tropical surroundings of Central Michel Richard, where the bartenders make a light, snappy version that's pretty darn close to Trader Vic's original recipe. Alexandria has Mango Mike's, where you can get a pina colada in a coconut husk and sip pretty decent grog under a palm tree on the patio, and I've made the trip out to Herndon to sample the old-fashioned tiki drinks at the Luau Garden. Meanwhile, the tiki-filled bar at Continental is too-frequently hit-or-miss. Maryland boaters love Vera's White Sands, where they can dock their yachts before sipping a Mai Tai.

But the question, readers, is where you go when you're looking for a perfect pina colada, a giant flaming bowl of rum, or mixed drinks served in ceramic glasses embossed with hula girls. Know of an otherwise unremarkable Asian restaurant with killer drinks? If you have suggestions, please add them in the comments field below. Thanks.

-- Fritz

By Fritz Hahn  | June 11, 2007; 2:03 PM ET
Categories:  Bars and Clubs  
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Want to find more such restaurants?

Check out Tiki Central's Locating Tiki forum:

Or check out the Critiki Website:
"A Worldwide Guide to over 600 Tiki Bars, Polynesian Restaurants, and other sites of interest to the midcentury Polynesian Pop enthusiast."


Scottes' Rum Pages

Posted by: Scottes | June 11, 2007 4:16 PM | Report abuse

Two recommendations for good tiki drinks.

1) Pacific Restaurant, in Sterling. They have a tropical drink menu that is about 6-8 pages, and includes the standards like the Mai-tai, Suffering Bastard, Navy Grog, Zombie, and many others. If you're ambitous, go for the 48 oz Zombie. The food is good, and the piano player even knows a few Martin Denny tunes. There are some tikis on display.

2) Peking Inn, in Falls Church. This restaurant is known mostly for their duck, and for being a favorite Bush family hangout. But the drinks are also strong and excellent. The mai-tai served there comes very close to matching the look, feel, and taste of David Chan's Honolulu mai-tai.

D.C. could really use a Trader Vics

Posted by: Vern | June 11, 2007 5:24 PM | Report abuse

We used to have a Trader Vic's. It was in the hotel at 16th and K.

We need a nice beach-style bar that does tiki drinks.

I saw some on the menu of the Thai place on 6th where Mr Yung's used to be the other day, but didn't try them. Maybe the gurus could check that out?

Posted by: Sarah | June 11, 2007 7:53 PM | Report abuse

the best mai tai i have found is in my house :D

seriously, if you want the original, i urge you to buy the grog log by beachbum berry and mix it yourself.
you will not be disappointed.

Posted by: johnny dollar | June 11, 2007 8:57 PM | Report abuse

David Chan sells his Mai Tai mix online at

Posted by: Skeeter | June 11, 2007 9:39 PM | Report abuse

No need for a mix. You can make a better one by yourself - just 2oz rum, .5oz orgeat, .5oz curacao (or Cointreau or Grand Marnier) and 1oz lime juice. Shake, strain and garnish.

Frankly, I'm more curious about where you can get a decent old-fashioned in this town. Not one of those orange and cherry muddled abominations.

Posted by: Matt | June 12, 2007 10:38 AM | Report abuse

Vern: I haven't been to Pacific in years, but I'll give it another shot. I'm really curious about the Martin Denny!

Scottes: I know all about those sites (I have some vintage tiki glasses and books), but on Critiki, for example, every place they list from Washington D.C. has been closed for years. Not very helpful.

Matt: Don't get me started on Old Fashioneds. My go-tos for the classic whiskey drink are the Round Robin Bar at the Willard and the Town and Country Lounge at the Mayflower. With the right bartender (and I'm stressing this), I've had great rye whiskey versions at Bourbon and Temperance Hall, but you really need to make sure your bartender knows what they're doing. Firefly used to do a nice version, but I'm not sure it's still on the menu.

Posted by: Fritz | June 12, 2007 1:33 PM | Report abuse

This might sound odd, especially considering the reviews for its food, but City Lights of China in Dupont has wonderful drinks served in tiki-ware as well. They're strong, tasty, and cheap, and might be the replacement you've been looking for.

Oh, and Meiwah in the Golden Triangle had great tiki drinks (including mai tais)last time I was there on Christmas Eve.

Posted by: BT | June 12, 2007 4:48 PM | Report abuse

Honolulu was so incredible. Cinder Block bunker on the outside, trip into the 1950's on the inside. The host / owner and his wife were the best hosts. I still curse the new Wilson bridge on ramp for killing it off..

Posted by: Jon | June 13, 2007 10:22 AM | Report abuse

I'm a sucker for a good mai tai and the best found is by a former Trader Vic bartender who has a chinese restaurant in Bethesda. Drink menu looks a lot like the old Hilton version downtown and food has a few old favorites. Shanghai Village
4929 Bethesda Ave, Bethesda, MD 20814
Telephone: (301) 654-7787

Posted by: weski | June 21, 2007 3:58 PM | Report abuse

I'm a sucker for a good mai tai and the best found is by a former Trader Vic bartender who has a chinese restaurant in Bethesda. Drink menu looks a lot like the old Hilton version downtown and food has a few old favorites. Shanghai Village
4929 Bethesda Ave, Bethesda, MD 20814
Telephone: (301) 654-7787

Posted by: weski | June 21, 2007 4:00 PM | Report abuse

There certainly was a Trader Vics in DC. I was there as a naive 13 year old. My brother Steven was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and we had a nice dinner there. I still miss him.

Posted by: David Bennett | June 30, 2007 7:08 PM | Report abuse

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