The pitch for the Polynesian, restaurant empire Major Food Group’s massive new Midtown West tiki bar, sounds kind of like a tagline out of a cheesy travel brochure: Partner and bartender Brian Miller wants to bring a piece of the Polynesian islands to Manhattan.
But Miller’s got serious cocktail cred. He spent time at some of the most esteemed cocktail dens in New York, like Pegu Club and Death and Co., before joining MFG at ZZ’s Clam Bar. Since 2011, he’s championed tiki drinks in New York — hosting outlandish tiki nights while battling the stereotype that the beverages are mostly gaudy, colorful sugar bombs.
At the Polynesian, opening on Friday at 400 West 42nd St. at Ninth Avenue, that intense cocktail training will go toward creating a light-hearted, tropics-inspired bar fitting some 200 people in an indoor-outdoor third-floor space. Miller — who calls himself a pirate and regularly wears close to ten wood-bead bracelets — sees it as a way to create complex drinks without the buttoned-up suit, vests, and ties that have helped define the environment of modern craft cocktail shops.
“It just has a fun aspect to it, after taking myself so seriously,” he says. “Tiki was a way of letting my hair down.”
It’s an on-brand venture for Major Food Group, which is perhaps best known for convincing people that Italian-American classics are worthy of fetching fine dining prices at Carbone. Partners Jeff Zalaznick, Mario Carbone, and Rich Torrisi gravitate toward opening restaurants with genres that have been around for years, sticking to traditional bones but turning it into an over-the-top experience.
Tiki bars indeed have a long history; the first mainland U.S. one, Don the Beachcomber, opened in 1934. For the Polynesian, the crew researched the past and culture of tiki bars, as well as that of the Polynesian islands, to build the space and menu. It’s intended to be decidedly inspired by the islands and attempts to avoid the kitschier iterations that started popping up over the decades since Don and Trader Vic’s first opened.
Created by Pod Hotel designer Vanessa Guilford, the space has elements like a geometric wood and stone floor built to look like tapa cloths, a woven art craft from places like Tahiti, Tonga, and Hawaii. Oversized plants are scattered indoors and throughout the expansive outdoor patio, which has direct sightline to Times Square. Bamboo and wood line the ceilings, a reference to island huts, and there’s turquoise everywhere, which is supposed to remind people of water.
The drink menu, too, has nods to history, both to the islands and tiki bars. Miller’s version of a whiskey sour is named Merrie Monarch, the nickname for King David La‘amea Kalākaua, a “flamboyant and fun-loving” elected king who particularly loved music and dance. Kalākaua also reportedly had a strong relationship with Jewish people on the island; the drink, as an ode, contains syrup made with Hawaij, a spice blend commonly used by Yemeni Jews.
Another drink, the Damned to the Depths, is a take on the Don the Beachcomber iced butter rum drink Pearl Diver; the Polynesian’s version has two rums, absinthe, lime juice, orange juice, guava puree, bitters, and a gardenia mix.
People from Miller’s extensive time in the cocktail world also pop up across the menu in little winks. The Commodore Daquiri, made with rum, orgeat, ube extract, and juices, comes stirred instead of shaken — a remembrance of cocktail legend Sasha Petraske, who before his death once convinced Miller to unconventionally stir the drink at Death and Co. All drinks will start at $15, with large-format drinks for multiple people falling under the $100 mark.
A short food menu is available as well, with dishes also pulled from past tiki menus. Crab rangoon here is made with phyllo dough and stuffed with a crab that’s been seasoned with lots of black pepper, and a dramatic pu pu platter will arrive with a variety of dishes. Other dishes lean toward the snack side, like pork spring rolls and coconut shrimp, though a burger is an option.
The Polynesian opens as tiki bars regain nationwide popularity — and as many people have been taking a more critical look, questioning the cultural sensitivities of the style. Last summer, an Oregon tiki bar rebranded following an outcry from people of Polynesian ancestry, who said that cartoonish displays of traditional iconography were offensive. A curator at the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific Islander Center told NPR that though Pacific Islanders have largely ignored tiki bars, seeing cups with carvings of Hawaiian gods or ancestors still “can be hard,” suggesting it can feel invalidating to the culture.
Miller admits that over the years, culturally insensitive mugs and illustrations have popped up at tiki bars. He even saw an old Trader Vic’s menu where islanders were illustrated with “big lips and slanty eyes; it wasn’t a good thing,” he says.
But the bartender — who first became interested in the islands on family visits to Hawaii and also lived there briefly — finds discussion of cultural appropriation around tiki to be “kind of sad,” verging on “cruel and mean,” he says. “Tiki comes from a place of happiness and generosity and family and kindness,” he says. “Cultural appropriation, when people are trying to pin that tail on tiki, they’re coming from a negative place. They’re looking for a fight. They’re looking for an argument.”
The Polynesian is a “very personal” project, says Miller; although he is “by no means Polynesian,” he probably knows “more about Polynesian history than mainland American history,” he says. His hope is that the bar is “shining a light on the Polynesian culture” in a way that encourages diners to learn more. The large fish bowl drink Humuhumunukunukuapua’a, for instance, is named for Hawaii’s state fish, something he wants people to say out loud when ordering “to submerge themselves in the culture,” he says. Staff is also trained on not just menu items but also on Polynesian history, Zalaznick says.
“I want people to know more about it. I want people to be inspired,” Miller says. “Tiki is much more than cocktails to me.”
All that said, nothing’s really supposed be taken that seriously here. That Merrie Monarch cocktail will arrive in a bright orange, yellow, and red mug that’s custom made by Tiki Diablo. A large-format drink, Exotica, will come out on dry ice so that it’s smoking. Miller will likely wear a sarong behind the bar at some point, and other bartenders may do it as well. “It’s really our homage to where this was and where it came from,” Zalaznick says. “As with all of our concepts, it’s all classics brought back to life. It’s gonna be fun.”
The Polynesian opens on Friday, May 25 in the Pod Hotel. It’s open from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., Monday through Friday, and 12 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday.