In order to fully appreciate Thatch, Robert Voltz's new lounge on NE Broadway, you need to know a little bit about the history of the tiki bar. While they're now generally considered retro-kitsch, tiki bars were once known for skillful bartenders, well-made cocktails, and an ambiance that offered a fanciful escape from the daily grind. The first tiki bars opened in California in the 1930s, and they gained in popularity after WWII, when soldiers who'd been stationed in the Pacific Islands returned with a taste for the exotic. Our little port town had a clutch of them, notably the upscale Kon-Tiki bar at the Lloyd Center Sheraton.
With this history in mind, Voltz has made a deliberate attempt to conjure the classy, escapist tiki bars of old. Entering Thatch feels like stepping into a time machine and emerging in an era where paper umbrellas and Martin Denny records were the height of fashion. The meticulously decorated lounge contains some very concrete links to the tiki bars of Portland's past: Three of Thatch's tiki statues come from the now-defunct Jasmine Tree (before that, they could be found in the Kon-Tiki). And if the local pedigree isn't illustrious enough, Voltz also managed to score several tiki statues from Trader Vic's in New York.
Voltz explained all of this to me from a booth in his funky little lounge as I sipped a potent (yet deceptively fruity) Fog Cutter and tried to absorb all the information he was rattling off. The very booth I was sitting in, Voltz told me, came from the Jantzen Beach Denny's—the last Denny's in the area to be stripped of its old-school Googie fittings (Googie is the futuristic style of design prevalent in the '50s and '60s).
On the night I was there, Voltz pulled out a design book to better explain Thatch's decor, cracked a bottle of bubbly when a regular customer came in to celebrate some good news, and bought my friend and I a round of drinks after saying, "I don't know where you stand on the whole 'journalistic ethics' thing...." He has a real knack for drawing people in—if he'd been wearing a Hawaiian shirt, it would've been easy to imagine him as one of the charismatic, welcoming proprietors of an original tiki bar.
The emphasis at Thatch is on drinks and ambiance; food isn't the focus, and the limited menu sticks mostly to a selection of simple pu-pus (appetizers) including chicken skewers, barbeque pork, and vegetarian spring rolls. The Crab Rangoon was my favorite, little deep-fried dumplings stuffed with cheese and a hearty chunk of crabmeat—the greasy veggie spring rolls were less appealing.
The cocktail menu reflects the tiki bar tradition of serving fine, fruity cocktails that often use rum as a base. Bartenders use fresh juice to muddle up potent combos like a classic Mai Tai or Fog Cutter (rum, gin, brandy, OJ), and a kickass Blue Hawaiian.
Thatch is never going to drive the Alibi out of business: Portland will always have room for kitsch, neon, and karaoke. Thatch is a whole different animal: A cute, stylish little lounge featuring well-crafted cocktails, friendly service, and restaurant design that doubles as a boozy mini-lesson in recent American history.