A taxidermy puffer fish with one glued-on googly-eye stares down from its thatched-hut perch at the new Kapu tiki bar in Petaluma. Its spiky mate sits across the room, permanently blown into an angry balloon, observing the loud mashup being built below of faux Polynesian, Pacific pirate, midcentury, Indiana Jones, rock-a-billy and pinup Americana that defines tiki bars. That and a whole lot of rum drinks with umbrellas.
Kapu, a Hawaiian word meaning “forbidden,” is part of the adventurous vibe of the bar, with an entrance that looks like a cave of cooled lava, hand-carved wooden totems on every surface and a million other details, like plastic geckos stashed here and there and Spanish “pieces of eight” coins embedded in one of the bars.
Though Kapu won’t open until fall, general manager and beverage director Michael Richardson says he’s about 60% finished with the build-out that includes a private Captain’s Room full of ahoy-matey charm, the larger Silk Room with a 20-foot dancing dragon and antique pachinko games, the main tiki-hut bar, semi-enclosed dining huts and an outdoor patio.
“Tiki bars are always evolving,” says Richardson, who compares his maximalist vision to “your grandma’s curio cabinet.” Even partway through completion, every surface is already plastered with embellishments.
Much of the look comes from professional tiki bar designer Ben Bassham, whose grandfather, designer Eli Hedley, is credited with cultivating the “beachcomber” aesthetic in the early 1940s in Southern California. Decor for Kapu also comes from Oceanic Arts in Southern California, a legendary purveyor of Asian and Pacific Islander crafts that inspired, for better or worse, the tiki craze in the 1950s and ’60s.
Richardson is no stranger to the tropical bar motif. When he was a mixologist at Frankie’s Tiki Room in Las Vegas, his modern takes on classic drinks like the mai tai and more refined rum and fruit drinks were legendary. Several of his recipes were included in “Liquid Vacation: 77 Refreshing Tropical Drinks from Frankie’s Tiki Room in Las Vegas” (Stephens Press LLC, 2013).
David “Duke” Ducommon of Duke’s Spirited Cocktails and an investor in Kapu first recruited Richardson in 2020 to open the tiki bar in Petaluma. But first Richardson oversaw the beverage program Burdock Bar in Healdsburg, also backed by Ducommon.
It must be said, though, there’s no getting around the wooden god in the room: For some, the “exotic” themes of tiki bars are offensive. Using sacred Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and Maori gods as bar decor can be seen as exploitation. Though much of the beachcomber and Polynesian aesthetic that went into tiki decor at restaurants like the Tonga Room and Trader Vic’s was a blend of real and imaginary iconography — a sort of nostalgic homage to the South Seas after World War II — it also encompasses Europe’s colonization and subjugation of Asian Pacific people.
Richardson says he’s faced pushback in the past about appropriating from tiki culture. He gets it, and says people are entitled to their opinions. He believes in supporting and commissioning indigenous artists, like Balinese woodworkers who made many of the statues in the bar, and enjoying tiki’s unique history.
Kapu will include a full restaurant menu, most likely a modern fusion of flavors from the Pacific Rim, Richardson says, though the menu is still in development.