On a blustery night that otherwise called for gloves and a lined parka, a breezy taste of the tropics beckoned from 15th and H streets.
Rum Rok opened Dec. 9, establishing itself as the first full-fledged tiki bar Sacramento has seen in many years. The bulk of the cocktail menu is rum-based, the drinks served in Polynesian-styled mugs decorated with paper umbrellas and wedges of pineapple – just like a trip to Trader Vic’s or TV’s “Fantasy Island.”
Rum Rok is a new project from Bob Simpson, a veteran Sacramento nightlife impresario, and partners Jesse Barnes and John Russell, who co-own Republic Bar & Grill with Simpson. A full plate of major projects are in store for Simpson during 2016, including a trio of businesses that will serve food and drink at Seventh and K streets near Golden 1 Center. But right now, the focus remains on getting Rum Rok rolling into the new year.
Simpson sees Rum Rok as another key component of a downtown theater district that caters to patrons of the Wells Fargo Pavilion, Sacramento Memorial Auditorium and Sacramento Community Theater. Those venues sit near 15th Street between G and J streets, an area that is home to several other watering holes and restaurants. Republic Bar & Grill is just about a block away from Rum Rok.
“Our whole goal was to extend that corridor,” Simpson said. “The theater district has Goldfield, Torch Club, then Vanguard and de Vere’s. (Rum Rok) felt like a good continuation.”
Sacramento has traditionally had a thirst for tiki bars. The trend itself, with its exotic rum drinks surrounded by an almost cartoonish approach to tropical decor, was first established in the 1930s and became an especially prominent fixture of cocktail culture from the 1940s through the 1960s. During that time, a number of tiki bars and Polynesian-themed restaurants sprung up around Sacramento, including the Zombie Hut, The Tropics and Coral Reef. All closed as the original tiki trend waned.
The craftiness of many tiki-styled drinks, which often use quality aged rums and house-made mixers, has resonated with a new school of cocktailiers. Some local bars have tinkered with tiki drinks in recent years, including Monday Rhumday at The Red Rabbit Kitchen & Bar and Tiki Tuesday at Tank House BBQ and Bar. Simpson felt the time was right for Sacramento to go full tiki once again.
“I’d been spending a lot of time in the Bay Area checking out places like Smuggler’s Cove (in San Francisco),” Simpson said. “Alameda had Forbidden Island. I’ve been in Sacramento for a lot of years and nobody had really delved into this. I thought it would be a real good fit.”
True to tiki form, Rum Rok is a dimly lit spot with plenty of bamboo fixtures, bartenders sporting Hawaiian shirts and leis, and many bottles of rum. Rum Rok’s drink program was developed by Elliott Ames, who works as a cocktail and marketing consultant for Simpson. It includes such tiki standards as the mai tai and zombie, and time-honored drinks beyond the tiki realm such as sazeracs and Moscow mules.
“We want to be a neighborhood bar that focuses on tiki, but we’ll serve whatever you like,” said Ames, on a recent evening as Bob Marley played on Rum Rok’s sound system.
The bar’s neighbors include Gov. Jerry Brown, who moved into the historic Governor’s Mansion at 1526 H St. about a week after Rum Rok’s grand opening. That means the bar will have to keep its outside partying down – no drinking will be allowed on Rum Rok’s patio after 10 p.m. Sundays through Wednesdays, and the festivities have to move indoors once the clock hits midnight Thursdays through Saturdays.
Before transforming into Rum Rok, the building housed a string of nightclubs including Avalon, Splash and Nex. Rum Rok occupies about one-third of the building’s total 8,750 square feet. Plans for the remaining vacant space have not been finalized, Simpson said.
But for now, another round of mai tais.
“It’s a small room, a neighborhood bar with a tropical twist,” Simpson said. “We’d been seeing all those folks enjoying those (tiki) nights at Red Rabbit and Tank House and are expanding on that. We felt nobody had committed fully to the tiki concept.”