Settle Up is a column that critiques cocktail bars with the same gravitas that food critics apply to restaurants, exploring Dallas cocktail concepts, menus, execution and service and steering discerning imbibers toward all the booze that’s fit to drink.
Picture yourself sitting under the thatched straw roof of a tiki bar. You’re wearing shades and a breezy Hawaiian shirt, elbows up on a bamboo-covered bar and sipping a boozy rum concoction from a silly, colorful mug. A few things that you wouldn’t dream of entering this fantasy? Mandatory valet parking, ESPN on every TV and bottle service that costs upwards of $5,000 a pop. But that’s what you get at Pilikia, Dallas’ one and only tiki bar.
Pilikia opened in January, the first dedicated tiki bar in the city since Trader Vic’s closed in 2010. But Pilikia suffers from a serious identity crisis. It doesn’t know if it’s a laid-back tiki bar or a high-rolling nightclub, so it tries to be both. And when a bar doesn’t know or can’t pinpoint its audience, it only turns people off, which was my experience after multiple visits.
The décor at Pilikia trends Polynesian pop, which is kitschy and fabulous. There are totem poles, rattan chairs and paper lanterns hanging from the rafters. But then there are odd additions like fireplaces, Victorian-era couches and the waitresses’ uniform, which is crop tops and heels. These poor women would appear to be more comfortable at a Vegas dayclub than a backyard luau. You almost feel guilty ordering tropical drinks that put the calorie and sugar counts of Unicorn Frappachinos to shame. After two cocktails, I found myself scanning the menu for low-carb options.
About that menu. One page lists tiki drinks ($9 to $13; prices are not listed) that, for the most part, look and sound promising. But they are drowned out by the rest of the menu, which is pages and pages of wine, Champagne and bottle service ($125 to $5,000). There are also four “group cocktails.” One is lit on fire and another is the $2,000 Heart of the Ocean. This presentation includes one magnum of Grey Goose vodka, two bottles of Dom Pérignon Luminous and 20 coconut shots. I cannot image that anyone has ever ordered this.
The bartenders seem knowledgeable, so it's a surprise when the drinks come out so sloppy. The piña colada, served in a plastic coconut shell, supposedly is made with coconut rum, lime juice, pineapple juice and coconut, but the coconut was nowhere to be found. It tasted like a big vat of pineapple juice straight out of the can. Honestly, it might taste great at 1 a.m., but at 6 p.m., I was ready to dump it into the potted bamboo.
A bright detour was the Sweet Bitter Sea, a negroni variation made with Campari, vermouth and pineapple rum in place of the traditional gin. It’s a simple riff that turned out quite nice; I’ll be trying to replicate that formula at home.
My friend described one drink, the Cherry Vanilla Daiquiri, as the worst thing she’s ever tasted. The drink contains rum, cherry liqueur, lime juice and vanilla and comes out looking like murky bathwater. You could smell this thing approaching from a table away. It has the strongest artificial vanilla scent and taste that I’ve experienced since I stopped drinking Vanilla Coke in high school. It was like squeezing a tube of sunblock directly into your mouth. Inexplicably, Pilikia has multiple vanilla-flavored drinks on the menu.
Pilikia is trying to be so many different things that it fails to execute its most basic promise, tiki, well. The intensely loud music, which makes a conversation difficult even at 6 p.m., when the patio is almost entirely empty, seems to reinforce the idea that Pilikia is a place to stumble into just before last call, rather than a cocktail bar where rum-lovers can sip variations on their favorite tiki cocktail. Sure, Pilikia has a nice collection of neon straws, paper umbrellas and shark-head mugs, but they’re lined up alongside copper mugs, ready to be filled with the Uptown favorite, the Moscow mule. Something that really puts the bar’s weird priorities into focus: Rum — the spirit most commonly found in tiki drinks — is not even an option for bottle service.
Pilikia, 3113 Ross Ave. Open 5 p.m. to 12 a.m. Wednesday; 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday and Friday; 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday; 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday.