First Tiki Drinks, Now a Fern Bar Revival?


Bahama Mama. [Flickr: talkoftomatoes]

Given all the hubbub surrounding the current exotic-drink renaissance known in some quarters as "Tiki 2.0," it was perhaps inevitable that someone would eventually ask: "Is it time for a fern bar revival?"

This is exactly the question Jason Wilson poses in this week's Washington Post. As Wilson writes for those of us too young to recall the 1970s and '80s heyday of the type of meet-market watering hole evoked in sitcom-land by the Regal Beagle on Three's Company:

Some trace [the fern bar's] origins to Henry Africa's in San Francisco, which opened in 1970. 'Henry Africa' was actually a guy named Norman Hobday, who favored safari-style garb and who decided that a bar should be more like your grandmother's living room: more brightly lighted than the dark, woody, clubby bars that existed at that time, and filled with overstuffed chairs, fake Tiffany lamps and, yes, hanging plants.

Fern bars such as Henry Africa's and Perry's, also in San Francisco, became synonymous with the "what's your sign?" nightlife of the sexual revolution, and they led to the popularity of the style—if that's the right word for it—in chain establishments such as TGI Friday's and Houlihan's.

Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the drinks that were popularly served in fern bars haven't held up well, especially as drinkers have turned toward more complex flavors and epicurean mixtures. Drinks high in the fern-bar rotation included: the Pina Colada, a frothy, pineapple-and-coconut concoction immortalized in that made-for-karaoke Rupert Holmes song; white-wine spritzers; the Bahama Mama; and the Harvey Wallbanger, a mixture of vodka, orange juice and the anise-and-vanilla-flavored Galliano liqueur that I included on Imbibe's list of the "25 Most Influential Drinks of the Past Century," mainly because it's so evocative of this style of bar that was once such a big part of American drinking culture (that it was among the first and most popular drinks in the vodka/juice/liqueur clan only reinforced the Wallbanger's standing on the list).

But before you start ordering Freddie Fudpuckers at bars around town, a word of warning: Wilson quotes Martin Cate, owner of Smuggler's Cove in San Francisco and one of the ringleaders of the tiki renaissance, who's also an authority on the history of fern bars (which is possibly more of a burden than a blessing) and will be presenting a session on the history of the fern bar at this summer's Tales of the Cocktail: "The fern bar's day is not coming back. People keep asking me, 'Oh God, now you're going to start a fern bar revival, aren't you?' No."

Fern bars may best be left in the past, but there's gotta be some sentimental feelings for them somewhere. How about you? Any wine spritzer-blurred memories of this once popular style of bar? And does anyone have a special place in their heart for the now déclassé world of the fern bar?