While several bars have specialized in rum drinks or offered weekly "Tiki Tuesday" specials, Archipelago is on a different level of tiki kitsch: It's the only place in town where you can sit on a stool carved to resemble a tiki god and sip a Mai Tai while listening to jittery '60s surf instrumentals and checking out a shrine of Tom Selleck memorabilia.
Archipelago is the brainchild of longtime local bartender Owen Thomson, who was most recently found at Bar Pilar and Rose's Luxury, and colleagues Joseph Ambrose, Noah Broaddus and Ben Wiley. While working the floor Thursday night, Wiley was enthusiastic about the concept: creating place where every night was an escape from the dreariness of the weather or your 9-to-5 life.
Here's a quick guide to Archipelago.
Get ready to say aloha.
The team took over the Islander last fall, and they've spent months turning it into a two-room tropical paradise. Some of the decor, including some of the lights and the framed Elvis and Don Ho records, came from a friend who had to liquidate his basement tiki bar when he sold his house. Other pieces, such as a "Robin – 1" license plate and old "Magnum, P.I." photos displayed in the Selleck shrine, were scavenged by the owners.
The collection began, Wiley said, as a tribute to a famous photo of Selleck drinking from a coconut. Archipelago also serves rum drinks in whole, hollowed-out pineapples, making Selleck the perfect patron saint for the bar. But while Archipelago sports thatch on the walls, hula girl lamps over the bar and puffer fish hanging in the windows, the decor isn't as over-the-top as it could have been. Perhaps that will change in time.
The drinks are the draw.
Tiki cocktails are an essential part of the escapism, and the selection at Archipelago is as good as you'd expect, given the collective resume of the bartenders. They handle the classics with aplomb – the Mai Tai, delivered in a ceramic shrunken head, was one of the most solid versions I've had in D.C. But it's when the bartenders use their own ingredients that things get interesting, and I'm not just talking about the glassware and elaborate garnishes.
The Lonely Mermaid, a boozy mix of overproof and aged rums made savory with buttered pineapple syrup, comes in a tall blue glass with a three-dimensional mermaid sculpted on it, topped with a pair of colorful bendy straws, an orchid and a plastic pin-up girl. The Oil Can Boyd, which takes its name from olive oil-infused blackstrap rum that adds a complementary tang to the rum and spicy falernum, has a black plastic oil bottle floating upside down. (There's no oil in the bottle – it's just meant to be fun.) Most drinks are $12, a few cost $14, and the rum-filled Pineapple of Hospitality, which is designed to serve two people, is $25.
Speaking of the glassware, since D.C. can be a town of light-fingered diners, the bartenders and staff will be watching carefully to make sure the mugs don't go missing. (After a few potent cocktails, it might seem like a good idea.) All mugs will be offered for sale for $12 each.
It might be hard to get in at first.
Until staff gets its sea legs, co-owner Wiley says, they'll limit capacity to around 100 people, which should allow the crowd to relax and enjoy a bit of island time. "Tiki isn't four people deep at the bar shouting for drinks." There's a mezzanine level, formerly accounting offices, which has been turned into an overflow area for private events and, eventually, dining. Even more capacity will be offered in a few months when the patio opens – Wiley pictures palm trees and plenty of plants for a tropical vibe.
Given U Street's reputation as a nightlife destination, Wiley expects there to be lines on Friday and Saturday nights, and says it'll be easier to get in for a drink on Sunday or earlier in the week. Archipelago is closed on Mondays, and opens at 5 p.m. every other day.
The menu is short, but interesting.
The menu isn't the usual pupu platters: The "Shrimp toast" is four pieces of toast liberally covered with bacon, shrimp and hoisin mayo; the sliders are hot ham-and-cheese sandwiches on miniature King Hawaiian sweet rolls, drizzled with melted butter and poppy seeds. The menu is only seven items long at the moment, including a trio of sandwiches. Expect it to expand eventually.