Whenever I walk into The Monkey’s Paw Tiki Bar, I’m never ready to be swallowed up by the darkness.
But dark it is — there are no lights, except from the glare of the TV showing B movies and the colorful Hawaiian shirts worn by the bartenders. So I find myself standing near the doorway, waiting for my eyes to adjust.
By the time I’ve pulled a chair up to the bar, I’ve forgotten that I’m on Main Street in Springfield and start to wonder if I’ve somehow teleported to the Atomic Age.
The Monkey’s Paw has an environment that pays homage to the Atomic Age’s obsession with tiki bars, but takes the drinks from that period seriously. The bar is a part of a growing interest in tiki bars throughout the U.S., which have gone from popular to tacky and back to cool again.
The tiki culture phenomenon began in the 1930s after Prohibition, says Daniel Wojcik, University of Oregon professor of English and Folklore Studies. Inspired by faux Polynesian-themed restaurants like Donn Beach’s Don the Beachcomber chain and the Trader Vic’s chain in California, he says via email, similar restaurants popped up throughout the U.S. By the ’50s tiki became a mainstay in popular culture.
“With their elaborate tropical drinks, carved sculptures and colorful decor, these places evoked images of the South Pacific (mostly imagined or based on Hollywood films), and offered a kitschy escape to exotica,” Wojcik says. “By the end of the 1970s, the fascination with tiki culture had largely faded away, as the majority of tiki restaurants and bars closed, and tiki style was dismissed as tacky and associated with ‘squares’ and old folks.”
But in the ’90s, the style had a revival by former punks, some “urban archeologists” and fanatics, he adds. Tiki culture was so uncool, he says, it became cool again and appropriated for its over-the-top aesthetic, including the cocktails that were created at the time.
Monkey’s Paw co-owner Teren Baker says he and another co-owner, Jameson Cowman, discovered how tiki bars could be cool while attending a punk rock music festival in Las Vegas. They visited Frankie’s Tiki Room in Vegas, and Baker says it challenged his assumptions about tiki bars. “In my mind, I’m thinking a Margaritaville,” he says.
That’s when Baker, Cowman and another co-owner decided to open a tiki bar in Lane County. They looked at spots in Eugene but were afraid that they would blend in with the city’s many drinking holes. However, a building was open on Springfield’s Main Street, an area where he says they would stand out more.
Baker says he and the staff studied the drinks created by Don the Beachcomber. “The drinks were so over-the-top but not so sweet,” Baker says. “There was a big depth of flavor to them, well balanced and interesting ingredients with a big focus on big drinks.”
The bar’s menu goes back to the original mai tai, a drink that Baker says has changed over the years. “It really got bastardized from its original form,” Baker says. “It became this big, juicy, overly sweet monster, where the actual mai tai is a simple drink.”
The Monkey’s Paw offers two versions of the drink. The Mai Tai 1944 is a mix of two rums, lime juice, house-made orgeat juice and orange curaçao. “It’s more on the lime-y side,” he adds. The bar also has the “bastardized” version, called the Mai Tai Hawaiian. “Some people really want that,” he says.
In the past, I’ve pounded glasses of the Blue Hawaiian, which contains vodka, pineapple, blue curaçao and coconut cream. It turns out I’m not the only one who can easily drink multiple rounds in a short sitting. Baker says he often tells people to make sure they drink some water first to avoid drinking the high alcohol content drinks too quickly.
These days, I’m off alcohol, but the bar still offers a number of nonalcoholic drinks, and Baker says they’re planning on adding more as going alcohol free is becoming more popular. The bar’s drink recipes shine just as well without the booze, he says.
He’s right. I ordered the Designated Diver, and the sweetness of it balances well with the citrus from the orange juice and citrus. And the Nada Colada tastes like a higher quality Slurpee.
Of course, this is still a bar, so alcohol takes center stage. In addition to cocktails, Baker says he wants The Monkey’s Paw to be the place to open people’s eyes about rum. It’s a spirit that many people have negative connotations about, he says, but there’s a lot of craft that goes into its making. He says he wants to create a rum education program and have a book for customers to learn about the varieties of rum.
The heart of the bar is its lounge environment. There aren’t any clocks inside the building, and the windows are blacked out. Baker says the bar isn’t looking to have raucous live shows at the bar, but rather more intimate events, such as the December 2021 Elvis impersonator David Lomond, and the upcoming surf rock band El Borko show.
The lounge environment is what makes leaving The Monkey’s Paw so difficult, similar to leaving somewhere like Disneyland. And if you’ve been day-drinking, there’s nothing as blinding as the puncture of daylight hitting your eyes after spending hours at The Monkey’s Paw. It’s a reminder that you’re now back in the real world.
The Monkey’s Paw Tiki Bar is at 420 Main Street in Springfield. Hours are 2 pm to midnight Tuesday through Sunday, closed Monday. Find on Facebook.
El Borko Surf performs 9 to 11 pm Saturday, March 12; no cover.