The Bali Hai Restaurant on Shelter Island is a San…
When you think of Hawaii, you probably think of sipping tropical cocktails on a sun-kissed beach. And when you get to Hawaii, you’ll find people drinking them down like water. In Hawaii, they don’t serve the traditional Trader Vic’s Mai Tai. Instead, they serve a more tropical version of the Mai Tai that Trader Vic created for the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in 1953. This version of the Mai Tai uses pineapple juice to give it a lot more sweetness than the classic Mai Tai and finishes the drink with a dark rum float. Variations of this drink are what you’ll find at every bar in town.
Looking for a reason to drink a little more, we decided to seek out the best Mai Tai in Waikiki and started by tasting at the bar in our hotel: Duke’s at the Outrigger Waikiki.
The bar at Duke’s was packed. It’s a beautiful place and boasts a great view, as it sits right above the beach and has both indoor and outdoor seating. We spotted a Mai Tai on the menu right away, as well as a Tropical Itch, another Hawaii-born tiki drink. We asked the bartender what the difference was, since the menu described the drinks with the same ingredients. He told us that they were the same thing, but that the Mai Tai had POG (passion-orange-guava) juice in it. We love POG, but it was a huge miss in this ultra-sweet Mai Tai. The Tropical Itch wasn’t much better, but at least it wasn’t pink. We couldn’t finish either and set aside the challenge for another bar.
The next on our list was the Rumfire lounge at the Sheraton Waikiki. This was another beautiful lounge with great views. They have more than a few Mai Tai options on their menu, and they even include orgeat (along with pineapple juice and a dark rum float) in the “Build Your Mai Tai” option. We opted to try their “signature” Mai Tai, made with white rum, passion fruit, honey, orange curacao, lime and pineapple juice – with a dark rum float. That doesn’t sound like most Mai Tais, but who doesn’t like a signature drink? This one did have a nice bit of passion fruit to it, but it was also extremely sweet and not anything we expect from a drink called a Mai Tai. Rename it and add a bit more acid and we’d consider drinking this one again.
Going down the line of beach-front hotels, we headed to the Mai Tai Bar at the Royal Hawaiian. We stopped here at night, when the bar was quiet and relaxing. This bar had the most expensive menu that we encountered, with both cocktails and food (especially food) that were quite a bit more expensive than the food at neighboring hotels. The hotel itself, however, is gorgeous and a bit more upscale, so it wasn’t that surprising. This Mai Tai (pictured at the top) finally delivered a Hawaiian-style Mai Tai – and we would have been really disappointed if they didn’t. The drink was pleasant on a hot summer evening, but we found outs to be heavy on the dark rum. We noticed that one bartender measured carefully, while another sloppily free-poured everything, so the drinks seemed very inconsistent. If we had had the more meticulous bartender, perhaps this one would have been a bullseye.
The Tiki’s Grill & Bar has to take home the prize for the most unsual Mai Tai we encountered on this trip. This drink was labeled the 1944 Mai Tai and we thought that we might actually have hit on a traditional Mai Tai – until we read the description of the drink. It was made with light and dark rum, orange curacao, “fresh juice” and a Liquor 43 Passion Fruit Foam. Now, I don’t think that Trader Vic was putting flavored foam on many of his drinks, but we went along. The drink was actually quite good and we (Nicole, really) enjoyed the creamy foam. We’re not sure it was a Mai Tai, but we’ll give it a gold star because it’s a drink that we would have again.
Our final Mai Tai of the trip came from Bill’s, an outpost of Sydney-based chef Bill Granger, who Nicole is a huge fan of. We were tiring of drinking [bad] Mai Tais by the end of the trip, but we decided to give this one a try on the recommendation of our waiter. Fortunately, it was worth the risk. The Mai Tai was listed as using white and gold rums, apricot brandy, spiced pineapple juice, almond (orgeat) and lime – and the resulting drink was a delicious twist on a classic 1944 Mai Tai. So delicious that we had a second round, even though we were sharing a platter of Bill’s signature pancakes for dinner that night. This one takes the prize as our favorite Mai Tai of the trip because it was balanced and delicious, even though it wasn’t exactly a traditional Hawaiian-style Mai Tai.
Now, fans of La Mariana Yacht Club will note that we didn’t include it on our list. This is because we were in Honolulu on a very, very brief trip and simply didn’t have the time to swing on by. We were also sick of drinking lousy Mai Tais by the end of our weekend and found it difficult to motivate ourselves to try to get in just before closing on a Sunday night to try another. We’ll get it the next time and see how it stacks up.