Thursday, September 12, 2019


Bamboo Ben is in San Antonio today. That's him to the right, in this 2004 photo by Lee Unkrich. "Who is Bamboo Ben?" you may ask. Well, I'll tell you: Bamboo Ben is the foremost tiki bar designer and builder working today. He's the grandson of Eli Hedley, who earned the moniker "the Original Beachcomber" and did design work for many of the great, original tiki bars and restaurants back in the 1940s and 1950s. Bmaboo Ben has built and/or designed dozens upon dozens of tiki bars over the past 20-plus years, including Strong Water, Mamahune Kauai, Bamboo Club, Zombie Village, TikiCat, Frankie's Tiki Room, Pacific Seas, Kona Club, Forbidden Island, Jan & Dean's Tiki Lounge, plus many, many lush home tiki bars all over the country, ranging from Pixar directors in California to Austin's own Moai Ice House.

And he's in San Antonio. Today, September 12, talking about a tiki bar build.

This is a big freakin' deal, to us the technical term. Tiki culture by an large avoided Texas during tiki's heyday, mainly because 1) Texas' historically restrictive liquor laws and 2) lack of basements curtailed the home bar culture. Even so, over the years Houston and Dallas have played host to outposts from Don the Beachcomber, Trader Vic and Stephen Crane. Austin had Steak Island. Even Corpus Christi had the Lahala House. Of Texas' major cities, only San Antonio--ironically, the one with the biggest tourism industry--has had no full-blown tiki experience. Oh, sure, San Antonio has had a few places that flirt with tiki cocktails (Hot Joy is the current fave) but nothing that fit the traditional, escapist exotica mold.

Exactly where Ben may work his magic with lauhala matting is not confirmed (and really, he's not under contract yet that I know of) but it's easy to make an educated guess. Last November, Ben Olivo reported in the San Antonio Heron that the old Witte Building, located at the end of the River Walk on 135 E. Commerce St., was in line for a major makeover that would include a full-blown tiki bar at river level (photo by Ben Olivo):

The group behind this project is Chris Hill, who owns the popular Esquire Tavern a short distance away. Houston Eaves is attached to manage the tiki bar. These are well-established movers and shakers in the San Antonio hospitality scene, and they have money behind the project. This isn't a fly-by-night, on-the-cheap attempt to cash in on tiki's current popularity. From what I've seen, they've done their research and are doing everything right. Hiring Bamboo Ben (or at least having serious discussions with him) is yet another sign they're determined to avoid any missteps with this project. In February, Olivo reported that the project had received approval for 11 gas-powered tiki torches. Wow! That's some serious infrastructure along the lines of what Disney has at the Polynesian Village, or the Mai Kai in Fort Lauderdale. That's not cheap, or fast, or easy. It's flashy and eye-catching, and will literally stand out as something unlike anything else that currently exists on the River Walk.

I, for one, cannot wait to see this open. Heck, I can't wait to find out what it'll be called. One thing's for sure, though: Inertia counts for a lot. This project is a lot farther along than any other abortive tiki efforts in recent years have gotten. Pitfalls remain, but knock wood, I think this thing is really happening.

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