If you’ve ever vacationed in Hawai‘i, you may have noticed the word “kapu” scrawled on a fence or gate. Often taken by visitors to mean “no trespassing,” that assumption isn’t wrong, but it isn’t totally accurate either.
While “forbidden” is perhaps the closest English equivalent to the word kapu, it doesn’t quite communicate the spirituality that informs its meaning. Historically, kapu is an ancient code of conduct that ruled the islands during Hawai‘i’s pre-contact times. While that system was put to rest over two centuries ago, the concept of kapu endures in the islands.
Often applied to ancient burial grounds, a warning of kapu communicates to others that there’s a spiritual sacredness to the land that garners it completely off limits. “It’s a sacred place with a special meaning to the person and nobody else,” explains Keoni Kealoha Alvarez, a Native Hawaiian and director of the film Kapu: Sacred Hawaiian Burials. Kapu isn’t just a warning; it represents an intimate relationship with the ‘aina, the land. Without having a connection or responsibility to its preservation, there’s no meaning to putting kapu on a sacred space.
Knowing this, when I saw a social media post about a new tiki bar called Kapu opening in Petaluma in early 2023, my interest was immediately piqued. While I live in the East Bay, my dad was born and raised in Hawai‘i — before it became a state in 1959. My Asian American identity is very much informed by the immigrant traditions of the Hawaiian Islands, even though I’ve never lived there. Tiki culture, however, has never been meaningfully connected to Hawaiian culture. While naming a tiki bar Kapu does connect it back to Native Hawaiian roots, it carries a certain responsibility by invoking a sacred cultural concept. With a new crop of culturally sensitive tiki bars making waves and the old guard trying to maintain relevancy in a more culturally inclusive world, I was curious where Kapu was going to land.
The short answer is: somewhere in the middle. The Kapu team called in tiki bar veteran Michael Richardson to head up the project. After a dozen years mixing drinks at Frankie’s Tiki Room in Las Vegas, Richardson made his way to Sonoma. With Kapu, Richardson says his goal was to play with the already-fluid boundaries of tiki culture. Ironically, the bar was ultimately dubbed Kapu, an extremely firm boundary. The team declined to say who chose the name. The only name listed on the bar’s liquor license is David Ducommun, also the founding investor of Duke’s Spirited Cocktails in Healdsburg, Sonoma Magazine reported in 2021. Neither Ducommun nor Richardson responded to questions about the bar’s ownership structure.
Kapu offers about 20 classic and original cocktails. The classic section of the menu features more than a dozen drinks, deeply researched and allegedly as true to the originals as possible. It kicks off with the original Oakland Trader Vic’s mai tai and includes about a half dozen other tiki concoctions created by Trader Vic and Texas native Donn Beach, who is widely credited with inventing tiki culture in the 1930s. But the menu isn’t strictly tiki. It travels across the world to Malaysia, Egypt, and the Caribbean, featuring drinks that stretch back to 1919.
Richardson explains the globetrotting nature of the menu is meant to highlight spice trade routes and port cities. He talks excitedly of Egyptian officer’s clubs and bartenders returning to the States from the Caribbean post-Prohibition, bringing rum and the baking-spice flavor profile back with them. Each drink includes an illustration and credits its creator, as well as where and when they were shaken into existence. The menu does an excellent job selling the beverages, along with bits of education that go down as easily as a Fog Cutter.
Like the drinks, the food speaks clearly of global influence, but in the distinct pidgin English of the Hawaiian Islands. Richardson didn’t want the teriyaki chicken and coconut shrimp typical of many tiki establishments, but a truer representation of the Hawaiian-style food he’d tasted via transplant friends in Vegas.
Richardson hired chef Mike Lutz for his expertise and perspective on Hawaiian local-style food. As a military brat, Lutz bounced around growing up. He ended up in Hawai‘i in high school, where he began his cooking career. He then spent the next 15 years in various kitchens around O‘ahu, before returning to the mainland in 2017 with an itch to couple local grinds with wine country’s famed local produce. “Most of the food you get in Hawai‘i is shipped in from the mainland,” Lutz explains. “I wanted to use the local, sustainable foods we have here to make local Hawaiian-style food.”
For Kapu, Lutz created a menu of bar snacks and shareable “‘ohana-style” plates. He replaced standard bar nuts with boiled Chinese-style peanuts. His take on pipikaula sees soy sauce-flavored and smoked short ribs, a salty, meaty stand-in for the typical meat and cheese board. Crispy gau gee, rarely seen on menus mainland side, is the crunchy, golden, deep-fried snack to accompany your second round of drinks. The menu is specific in a way that could only be done by someone close to the source. There’s been a learning curve introducing some of the new foods to Petaluma, Lutz says, but the aloha the chef puts into his food translates no matter what language you speak.
Food and drink are integral to most bars, but it’s really the interiors that set tiki bars apart from your typical neighborhood watering hole.
Tiki culture started with Don the Beachcomber’s drinks but became what it is today thanks to Eli Hedley. The Midwestern grocer-turned-decorator collaborated with Beach in the 1930s to create the shipwreck-meets-faux-Polynesian decor that would become tiki’s signature look. Hedley’s grandson, self-proclaimed third-generation tiki builder “Bamboo” Ben Bassham, collaborated on Kapu. Richardson had a specific vision for the space, which involved dividing it up into three distinct areas. “I wanted to go the traditional route, the kind of nautical, new-style route,” Richardson says. “And then kind of just do something completely off the rails.” Bassham and Richardson filled the space with imports, salvaged Art Deco pieces, work from artist friends, and reworked materials from the restaurant that filled the space prior.
The main room features the typical tiki tropes, what Richardson calls the “quiet village vibe”— booths crowned with thatched roofs, coconut brassiere-wearing hula girls, and hand-carved tikis shipped in from Bali. The Captain’s Quarters is a smaller room with a sunken-ship theme. This more intimate space was created for bespoke cocktails and “tiki talk,” Richardson says. These two reservation-only spaces harken back to the golden age of tiki culture, Richardson says, when families and 9-to-5 workers came to these bars to escape into an alternate reality.
But Kapu puts the “bar” in tiki bar with its “Big Trouble” room. Open for walk-ins, the lounge space is intended to host a louder, rowdier crowd. The original inspiration was a mashup of 1920s Hong Kong-Shanghai-pachinko parlor vibes. Bamboo Ben put his “no white walls” policy into play, painting the space red and gold, which inspired an installation of Chinese dragons, firecrackers, and pachinko and pinball machines for an “East meets West vibe,” he describes. Pinup-style images of women in qipaos and calligraphy decorate the walls. “I catch people that have been doing tiki all their life off guard with that place,” Richardson says with a laugh. “They’re like, ‘I wouldn’t take this as tiki, but this is definitely tiki.’”
The room’s decor does lean into old-school tiki culture, edging back to its roots of appropriation and Orientalism. While part of Kapu’s theme is the sharing of ideas through trade routes, the mishmash of Asian imagery is a little tough to stomach. It tainted my view of the rest of the place, serving as a stark reminder of how faux-Polynesian culture was fabricated by white men with little respect for the cultures from which tiki borrows.
There has been pushback from the community about the name. A social media response to direct criticism explains that the name plays with the idea that “forbidden fruit is always the tastiest.” Richardson sees Kapu as a way of celebrating artists and keeping tiki culture alive. Much of the art and materials were sourced from local artists, as well as from carvers from the Southeast Asian island of Bali. “A lot of this imagery, the ways these things are being made are dangerously close to going away,” he says. “I understand cultural preservation. We can preserve it by only keeping these things in cultural centers, universities, museums, and art galleries, or we can feed families by supporting the artists that are doing this and passing it on.”
Alvarez, director of Kapu, notes that bars are known to push the envelope. And while he understands using the sacred concept of kapu as marketing is not meant to be taken literally, he disagrees with its usage. “It’s the owner who has to sit with that and really kind of think about that,” he says. Built largely around both cocktails and the midcentury “Polynesian pop” aesthetic of kitschy replica tiki totems and mugs, rattan furniture, and Aloha shirts, tiki bar culture at its best is about having fun. But it has also skated around its cultural issues in part by hiding behind its ethos of escapism.
Richardson says he would love to broaden his perspective. His goal is to inspire tiki bars new to the scene to source their art ethically from Indigenous artists and establish a long-term community in Petaluma. He created Kapu to be a bar first and foremost, a place to get away from the drudgery of the everyday and encourage connection. He’s excited about providing a space to discuss the history of drinks and rum varietals for tiki culture geeks, but perfectly happy to blend up a basic pina colada for someone just looking to relax with friends and family. He leaves it up to the customer to decide which experience they’re looking for.
But the sentiment feels a little empty considering the signage over the door. Kapu, the bar, is meant to be about escaping and decompressing, but as Alvarez notes, that runs counter to the word's true meaning. “There’s no way people would go to a kapu place to relax,” he says. With the depth of knowledge poured into some aspects of the bar, including its ability to make educating its customers about some things both effortless and enjoyable, it feels unacceptable that there hasn’t been more work done around cultural appreciation.
Much of Western culture has been built by ignoring boundaries, while Native Hawaiians have been attempting to enforce theirs for centuries. “Native culture has always been suppressed like that, and it’s not a good thing,” Alvarez says. “It’s not a right thing. But sometimes when you don’t have a culture, people like to pick up cultures that they don’t have.”