Pittsburgh Dining » On The Rocks

Local tiki enthusiasts hope to turn the tide with weekly Tiki Lounge gathering

"This is a type of drink, when made well, that's still pretty unknown by most people."

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Richard Swartz is a self-described jack-of-all-trades. He's worked as an industrial designer, a photographer and, while performing under his stage name "Lucky the Painproof Man," he is, is, according to Ripley's, the "World's Greatest Sideshow Performer." 

Swartz, however, says that his real passion is tiki culture. He even proposed to his fiancé — "with the help of a fire-breathing mermaid" and a banjolele — at last year's Hukilau, the nation's largest annual tiki gathering, in Fort Lauderdale.

But here in Pittsburgh, tiki culture has struggled to maintain a foothold — even in East Carson Street's Tiki Lounge. The décor is there, but the cocktails typically don't reflect the handcrafted spirit of tiki. 

Years ago, Swartz says, "Everybody would bring their own mugs, and we'd all hang out" at a weekly event called Tiki Tuesdays. But over time, "Those numbers drifted slowly. Sometimes I was the only person at the bar."

Inspired by his experience at the Hukilau, and by recent monthly meet-ups of local tiki enthusiasts (including myself and bartenders from Tender and Butterjoint) in the upstairs room at Joseph Tambellini, Swartz has taken things into his own hands. He's now running South Seas Thursdays, a weekly, made-from-scratch cocktail series that kicked off at the Tiki Lounge last week. 

Swartz, along with Greta Dunn of Café Notte (under the moniker Greta the Grass Skirt Goddess), plans on serving a rotating selection of tiki classics, including the Singapore Sling, Test Pilot and Ancient Mariner. 

The idea is to appeal to Pittsburgh's small tiki subculture, while also introducing the drinking public to a style of cocktail that — aside from the work of Tender bartender Craig Mrusek — has long been absent from the local bar scene. 

"This is a type of drink, when made well, that's still pretty unknown by most people," Mrusek says. "They have the impression that tiki drinks are overly sweet and terrible, when, in fact, there's a long history behind them of making incredibly elaborate, well-balanced cocktails."

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