Our city has mezcal bars, patio bars, craft beer bars and even a hotel bar that exclusively stocks whiskey. But until this spring — when the Lost Lei opened — downtown Austin didn't have a full-blown tiki spot.
The Lost Lei doesn't resemble traditional tiki bars with their midcentury-inspired decor, owner and general manager Derik Cooper admits. He wanted to present Austin with "a modern take on tiki." Nonetheless, you'll still feel as though you've stepped away from the bustle of the city and into a basement-level tropical paradise complete with a thatched-roof bar, colorful tiki mugs and enough rum to swim in.
Cooper said he decided to open the Lost Lei to showcase rum, which he loves but notices hasn't gotten the attention it deserves.
"Being in the industry as long as I have, I've felt that rum is a very underappreciated spirit," he said. "Everyone consumes vodka. Everyone consumes tequila, especially in Texas. Then there are very specific drinkers for whiskey. Less so for gin. But rum has always been seen as a sweet spirit, and that's just not doing it justice. Rum can be more like a sipping cognac, if you pick the right one."
He can point you to any number of bottles behind the bar that will do the trick. There are 82 kinds of rum on the shelves, although Cooper and his assistant general manager, Nolan Pope, hope to grow that number to 150. One day, some of the more rare options might be available to taste in flight form; for now, the drinks menu focuses on cocktails both classic and original.
>> RELATED: Find out this year's Official Drink of Austin at returning event
Like any good tiki bar, the Lost Lei offers well-known, island-ready cocktails such as the mai tai (Jamaican rum, orange, lime and orgeat) and the zombie (three types of rum, falernum, lime, grapefruit, cinnamon, pomegranate and absinthe). The latter is so boozy that guests are limited to just one. But Cooper wanted house creations as well, such as the popular Washed Ashore (coconut rum, blackstrap rum, lemon, orange, passion fruit and cranberry).
Pope — who has known Cooper since their days on the baseball team at a Houston-area high school — helped to come up with some of the housemade drinks, an aspect of the job he enjoyed.
"You put on your mad scientist hat and create a menu," he said.
They kept that hat on even after the bar program was complete, tweaking recipes to perfection. The opening menu was kept small to help the bar staff adjust but has since been expanded. In the fall, seasonal drinks will be added with spiced or dark rums. Cooper likes to keep playing behind the bar, finding fun flavor combinations, because "the best part is when you figure it out, and you see the guest's eyes light up," he said.
Visitors to the Lost Lei, on West Fourth Street a block from Congress Avenue, might well light up as soon as they step inside. The below-ground bar feels a little like a speakeasy, as it's accessed through a staircase on the side of Capital Grille, where Spaghetti Warehouse used to reside.
But once you're inside, you're clearly in a tiki bar. The bar framed by a thatched roof runs along one side of the long room. In the middle are a couple of structural columns that couldn't be removed, so they were decorated with skulls and outfitted on the bottom with barrels that Cooper turned into tables. Rounding out the tropical decor are multicolored lights that can be dimmed for a cozy, festive atmosphere.
>> RELATED: Spritz, please: Where to sip Italy's low-alcohol drink in Austin
Of course, there are a couple of decorative elements that aren't terribly tiki-like — on purpose. The bar top is made of quartz; below it, there are bluish-green subway tiles intended to remind you of the ocean.
During the research and construction stages of the Lost Lei, "I tried not to visit too many tiki places, because we wanted something different. Austin appreciates when you go for different," Cooper said. "But the more places you visit, the more you put yourself in a box of, this is how you do it. I had more of a modern tiki concept in mind."
Regardless, the Lost Lei is an undeniable tribute to the cocktail movement that launched in the 1930s with Don the Beachcomber and, later on, Trader Vic. The two men, separately, combined elements of the South Pacific and Caribbean into the eclectic tropical aesthetic tiki is known for today.
Downtown Austin has had tiki bars in the past — the short-lived Pleasant Storage Room farther down West Fourth Street, followed by the since-shuttered Isla in the same building. And certainly, there are tropical-themed concepts you can find elsewhere around town. Pool Burger is an outdoor hangout near Deep Eddy Pool that serves tiki drinks, while Last Straw on East Sixth Street aims to be an indoor vacation away from the urban bustle. But the Lost Lei, which truly embraces the tiki spirit, is on a level all its own.
Not into rum? Well, Cooper and Pope hope to change your mind. If not, that's OK, too: Tiki cocktails with vodka and tequila are on the menu, as are unrelated classics such as the old fashioned and the Moscow mule.
There's no doubt, sitting at the bar, that you'll get an education in rum — some of the bottles are eye-catching, and the bartenders are all too ready to share their knowledge, Pope included. Taking on this project with Cooper, he's learned a lot about the spirit made from sugar cane byproducts such as juice or molasses.
"Rum is more than Captain Morgan," he said. "There's just so much versatility because Jamaica, all the different Caribbean islands and Central American countries, they all make rum but do it so differently. There's so much more wiggle room and diversity with rum than other spirits like vodka and even whiskey."