Even though California bartenders can lay claim to the mai tai (which they reportedly invented in the 1940s), this ever-popular tropical cocktail has become universally associated with the Islands of Hawaii. Indeed, these days, just about every bar in Waikiki offers a version of mai tai, each promising to be the best. Who kept their promises and who fell short? This investigative reporter was on the case.
The Edge of Waikiki offers tasty mai tais with a view. // © 2014 Skye Mayring
Chart House Waikiki
Every time I’m on Oahu, I make a point to visit the Chart House Waikiki, which is owned by legendary surfer Joey Cabell. Many of its island-style dishes lure me there, but I typically order the Kimmie Firecracker Unroll (a deconstructed spicy tuna roll) and the restaurant’s signature cocktail, the Guy Tai, created by one of Oahu’s best-known bartenders, Guy Maynard. (Fun fact: Maynard has been perfecting his award-winning recipe for 34 years.) This potent concoction of Bacardi Gold, Meyers’s Dark Rum and a mai tai mix made from scratch is poured over crushed ice and served in a 16 oz glass. One Guy Tai is really enough. So I had two.
Mai Tai Bar, Royal Hawaiian
After crowd sourcing on Facebook, it became clear that I’d have to hit the Mai Tai Bar at Royal Hawaiian before I left the island (it’s called the Mai Tai Bar for goodness sakes). The setting was just about as good as it gets. In the shade of the Pink Palace, I sat steps away from the beach and watched tourists catch their very first waves. There were three mai tais on the menu, all of which offer fresh-squeezed pineapple and orange juice and a float of Whaler’s Dark Rum. The signature mai tai was a winner and one of my favorites for the week. A word of advice: Skip the pupus (appetizers) here which are expensive and, at times, mediocre.
RumFire Waikiki, Sheraton Waikiki
Looking for a sweet deal? Head to RumFire Waikiki for its Pau Hana Happy Hour from 3-5 p.m. daily for drink specials and affordable eats, including kimchi fried rice, pulled short rib sliders and nachos made with Maui kettle chips. There are three “Epic Mai Tais” on the menu, but the staff likes to brag about the High-Maka Mai Tai, which uses 23-year-old Ron Zacapa Centenario as its base. The Rum Fire Signature Mai Tai was one of my favorites — especially when complemented with Indonesian stir fried edamame and a gorgeous sunset.
Barefoot Bar, Duke’s Waikiki
What to do on a Sunday afternoon in Waikiki? Only one thing comes to mind — the outdoor party at Duke’s Waikiki. Locals savoring the last of the weekend and tourists who want to let their hair down come to Duke’s Barefoot Bar to drink, dance and flirt. Expect to hear live island music performed by well-known local artists, including Grammy-nominated Henry Kapono. The Duke’s Mai Tai, retailing at $10, incorporates Hawaiian juices with two types of rum and orange curacao. To me, the mai tai tasted like bitter tea, and I had to trade it in for a beer. Thankfully, Duke’s offers quite the selection of Hawaiian-style brews, including Hapa Brown Ale, Longboard Lager, Fire Rock Pale Ale and Duke’s Pale Ale.
The Edge of Waikiki, Sheraton Waikiki
A short walk from RumFire sits the slightly more refined establishment, The Edge of Waikiki. The adults-only restaurant overlooks the Pacific Ocean and the Sheraton Waikiki’s expansive infinity pool. Go here for the most Instagram-worthy mai tai along the beach. The bartenders meticulously pour light and dark rums over pineapple juice and tropical liqueurs to create a near-perfect layering effect. Garnished with a slice of fresh pineapple and an orchid, this tropical concoction comes camera-ready.