Some things come standard with a McMenamins dining experience — craft brews, tater tots, exposed wood beams — but Dan McMenamin, a second generation co-owner of the business, says individualism is key to the success of his family’s empire.
“We try to let each location have its own story, its own identity,” McMenamin says. The 50-plus restaurants themselves, he says, “can lead you down the path to what they want to be.”
Evidently, what McMenamins North Bank wants to be is something exotic and a bit tongue-in-cheek: a tiki bar.
As of last month, McMenamins has retrofitted the North Bank’s bar into the Kapu Hut, a cheerful, tropical-themed watering hole harkening back to the 1950s and ’60s, which McMenamin says he hopes will provide “serious relief from gloom” in western Oregon weather.
A bamboo canopy has been installed, carved tiki gods glare from the corners and wooden masks hailing from Africa, Japan and Papua New Guinea adorn the rattan-lined walls.
McMenamin says he feels it’s a natural progression. He cites the Indonesian wood panels lining the walls since his company adopted the restaurant in 2000, coupled with views of the Willamette River gracefully snaking past, as clues that helped him discover North Bank’s spirit of aloha.
That concept of discovery is central to the new grass-skirted look. “Kapu” is a Hawaiian word meaning “forbidden.”
“I like the idea of unexplored parts of the world, things people hadn’t seen or heard of,” McMenamin notes. “What’s the first thing you want to do when someone says, ‘Don’t go in there?’ The first thought on your mind is, ‘I wonder what’s in there!’”
Such a romantic ideal for a restaurant’s ambience represents a welcome variation on Eugene’s sea of sports bars. No other local pub caters to the “Polynesian pop” crowd, a subculture particularly popular in other West Coast cities. McMenamin clearly knows the zeitgeist, name-checking Portland tiki establishments The Alibi, Hale Pele and Trader Vic’s.
The varied cocktail menu promisingly identifies the pedigree of each drink, crafted from the bar’s more than 60 rums. Standouts include the refreshing, tart Jungle Bird, and a Pisco Sour topped with creamy egg-white foam, a blank canvas for an Angostura bitters stencil of the bar’s charming tiki mask logo.
Winners on the fare menu include zesty arancini black rice balls and an inventive pork belly lollipop. Less even are a well-intentioned but listless pulled pork slider and a curiously watery version of that tiki cocktail staple, the Mai Tai.
The Kapu Hut is well on its way toward genuine sultry splendor, but hard-core tiki fanatics may not find an immersive nostalgia experience — not yet, at least. Jerry Garcia posters still peek back at those masks, and some exotica on the sound system might help set the mood for a tropical libation exploration.
For now, McMenamin seems comfortable allowing the bar to grow organically.
“It has a latitudinal type of direction,” he explains. “We’ll try to hone it more as it goes.”
Appropriate words for a voyage of discovery. Hopefully, it’s a voyage thirsty Eugeneans will embark upon, as well.