Though Austin’s steamiest season technically came to a close after Labor Day weekend, we never really have to say goodbye to summer — at least not our favorite parts — thanks to a new eastside bar serving up “vacation by the hour.”
Bar star JR Mocanu, known for the next-level cocktails he created as beverage director of VOX Table and bar manager of Nickel City, teamed up with designers Will Bryant and Cody Haltom to open Last Straw in mid-August, taking over the space formerly occupied by Chicon on East 6th Street. And while much of the cocktail menu skews playful and boozy, the trio decided to abandon tiki culture for a concept that is equal parts tropical oasis, psychedelic fern bar and throwback pop culture-infused daydream: a place where you’re more likely to hear Beach Fossils, Fela Kuti, or Wu-Tang playing than, say, Martin Denny.
“Tiki bars can be a caricature of themselves…and we didn’t want to encroach on that area,” says Bryant. “We also didn’t want to be irreverent in a condescending way or not do it right.”
Courtesy of Resplendent Hospitality
“It is tiki in the sense that it’s escapist but we try to come at it from a different direction that doesn’t fall in the normal vernacular of tiki culture,” adds Haltom. “It’s funny – the idea that you can escape from your life for two hours on a Tuesday. You know, like corporate escapism.”
Tiki cocktails have been rising in popularity through the past few years (at bars like Whisler’s, Roosevelt Room, drink.well and Nickel City), and right now Austin is undoubtedly experiencing a full-on tropical renaissance. Last fall, Pool Burger began slinging tiki drinks behind Deep Eddy Cabaret shortly before Craftsman launched a seasonal thatched-roof bar in their backyard. Hot on the heels of Last Straw, She’s Not Here opened last month on 2nd Street, offering tropical drinks with a Pacific Asian twist. Next week, Texas Tiki Week will bring a week of tikified events and classes to town. And later this year, Tiki Tatsu-ya will open in the former Backbeat space, becoming the city’s first full-fledged, year-round tiki bar.
“I almost wanted to go Three Dots and a Dash — over the top tiki — but we started stepping away from that,” explains Mocanu. “I realized I like to go to tiki bars once in a while to get a good tiki drink, but I also want to be able to feel comfortable having a Lone Star or Manhattan or Old Fashioned.”
Courtesy of Resplendent Hospitality
At Last Straw, you can slurp a piña colada out of a pineapple and there is indeed a tall riff on a Blue Hawaiian (called The Breakfast Club). You may also order a Mai Tai, which comes in a tiki mug, or share a flaming Scorpion bowl with a few friends. But that’s where tiki classics end in lieu of original libations like Sunburnt in Tulum (made with Suerte Blanco, chamomile, lavender, honey, lime, grapefruit, orange oil, and bubbles) and the Tugg Speedman Went Too Far (Plantation Pineapple rum, ginger, lemongrass, turmeric, coconut cream, lime, tiki bitters, and shirodashi).
A menu of boilermakers offers shot-and-a-beer specials with cheeky names like Poor Life Decisions (Montucky and Wild Turkey Rye 101) and Busmans’ Holiday (Modelo Especial and Suerte tequila). While he does currently carry El Dorado 12 Year and Foursquare Premise, Mocanu says most of the other rum selections are more conducive to cocktail building than sipping. However, later this year he’ll be launching a rum bar featuring about 30 different high-end selections.
Rather than chopping and carving elaborate cocktail garnishes, certainly a hallmark of tiki drinks, Mocanu’s team spends their time prepping housemade ingredients like apple butter, 48-hour orgeat, rumfire-fortified falernum and a coconut cream that adds creaminess and depth to every drink it touches. They share the kitchen with chef Johnny Romo (formerly of Apothecary Wine Bar), who’s created an equally fun, cravable menu with offerings ranging from dumplings and fried rice to burgers and nachos.
“We wanted to streamline everything and keep it simple,” says Mocanu. “We didn’t want to do over-the-top garnishes and make people uncomfortable if they’re not used to tiki. We just want to be a kind of an introduction to that culture.”
Likewise, you won’t find any bamboo or tiki torches on the walls here. Instead, Bryant and Haltom gave the space their own playful spin with a boldly color-blocked agave desert mural, potted plants galore and a sherbet-hued gradient creating a virtual sunset. Also setting the scene are framed prints of iconic vacationers, from the Golden Girls and Clark Griswold to John Candy and E.T. donning Hawaiian shirts.
“We try to filter this through our own influences and try not to make it too overt of a reference point,” says Haltom. “No particular culture, no islands. We just didn’t want it to feel like you walked into a stereotype. We hope it covers a wider range.”
California-based designer Eric Trine of Amigo Modern fabricated customized stools, which pop with daffodil and teal metal legs, and tables with terrazzo tops cast from concrete and crushed stained glass. Andrew Neyer designed the contemporary Edison wall sconces and bar pendant lights. As the sun goes down, the interior lighting sizzles to infrared, casting a warm, exotic glow throughout the space.
Those who want to experience vacation on the daily can become lifetime VIP members for $1,000, securing one free drink per visit per day, 25% off food and invites to special events. But if everyday life looks like this, what’s to become of vacation?
“Maybe my next vacation won’t be on an island,” ponders Mocanu. “It’ll probably be somewhere cold, like Paris or Montreal.”