Denver's unusually humid air had me craving my former Los Angeles home, where -- toes in the sand -- we'd drink homemade blended margaritas (because you can't afford to go out in L.A.). I was pining for a sandy vacation when my friend invited me to Adrift, Denver's quintessential tiki bar.
The interior at Adrift, a small place at Broadway and Cedar Avenue, is charming, with bamboo-covered walls and lamps made from what appeared to be real blowfish, but we didn't spend any time inside. Instead we hit the back patio and nestled into an evening of Caribbean-Polynesian splendor.
When my friends told me we were going to a tiki bar, I was expecting a little more tiki. There's plenty inside, but the back patio is small, like a cement box with a just touch of tiki: straw awnings above most of the tables, a surfboard, potted plants, the blowfish lamps and the classic totem poles. I can imagine it's difficult to transform an urban cement patio into a laid-back tiki bar, but a great fire pit -- which the staff fired up for us after sunset -- and island-inspired food and drinks transported me to vacation mode more so than the atmosphere.
The entrees are inspired by a hodgepodge of island and tropical cultures, from the Cubano sandwich to the Louisiana-style po'boy to the Thai peanut noodle bowl. The cultural pilfering extends to the appetizers and small plates, so forgoing the big entrees and instead sharing smattering of smaller fare will take you to more destinations.
We started with chicken satay, crab cheese wontons, edamame, and mufungo chips (made from plantain) with a coconut rum reduction that was almost better than the chips themselves. And I love when a restaurant adds a little kick to simple, steamed edamame, as Adrfit does with a spicy togarashi: a Japanese spice mixture of red chili pepper, sesame seeds, ginger and orange peel. If the entrees are calling out to you, a plate or two of tacos de carnitas are tasty enough to share among friends.
I am generally not one for froufrou drinks, but when in Rome -- or perhaps Roatan -- do what the locals do; I settled on a macadamia nut chi chi with a happy-hour price of $5 (normally twice that). When I closed my eyes, I could imagine sipping that drink on a beach. I don't like my drinks too icy or sweet; this one had just enough of both. My next drink was less than perfect: the banana daiquiri should have been called a vanilla daiquiri. It was advertised as containing Madagascar vanilla, but as its name has "banana" in it, I was expecting the yellow fruit to dominate the drink. The vanilla was just too overpowering (although my friends seemed to like it), so I asked to return the drink. The waitstaff handled it perfectly, taking the drink off the bill and replacing it with a rum runner, which was so good (and huge!) I had two.
The drink concoctions (and the fire pit) are surely the best part of Adrift's patio. While we sucked down fruity blended drinks, the table next to us, a partying sextuplet of parents who had been friends for over 30 years, shared a planter's bowl, the older cousin of the more common scorpion bowl. Adrift calls the planter's concoction a traditional Jamaican recipe with three liquors, wine, and three juices. If that's not enough, it's topped with a flaming shot of 151 rum. The Scorpion is similar, but is sized for two or three drinkers, where the much larger Planter's serves four or more. You can also get what I'll call the Caribbean long island ice tea: the Zombie has six liquors in it, with a splash of bitters, grenadine and lime. It's not for occasional sippers, as it's very "alcohol forward," said my friend, between sips. Adrift also has the standard choices: beer, wine, and everyday cocktails.
Since Adrift is a flashback to the classic tiki bar craze from 1950s to 1970s, the music included oldies and surfer tunes, which I appreciated. Later in the evening it switched to '80s smooth rock with Hall & Oates -- a personal favorite -- dominating the speakers, all of which inspired an 80s dance lesson from the partying parents (fueled by their planter's punch).
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The one downside was the dumpster odor adrift in the air at the back of the restaurant. While faint, the occasional waft made it to our table. It actually made the fantasy vacation a bit more realistic if a little less pleasant -- the smell could have been the usual watery musk of fish, trash, and pollution found backing many tropical resort destinations. But the drinks make up for the aroma and the lackluster patio, which is makes it a decent city stand-in for a tropical getaway.