Drinking a nostalgic cocktail in a bar sporting quirky basement vibes while being stared down by a life-size mannequin with a lampshade for a head is as kitsch as it gets. You know exactly the type: bars that are outlandish or thematic in decor, chock-a-block with memorabilia, whose cocktail or drink lists often evoke bygone eras, even if those eras are only as far gone as the 1980s or ‘90s.
Kitsch, by definition, must include an element of “bad” taste or oversentimentality — and it must be done intentionally. Bars and restaurants that aren’t trying to be in on the joke, whose vibes are merely old-fashioned because they haven’t updated their look or menu in half a century, don’t necessarily qualify as kitsch. Kitschy bars do often have themes, though sometimes, that theme is just a miscellaneous collection of items that could be found at a local garage sale. You know it when you feel it, and when you feel it, it’s fun.
With a few exceptions, American tiki bars — with their tropical vibes and ostentatious glassware — are almost entirely kitsch, but tiki bars certainly don’t have a monopoly on the category, and VinePair is here to celebrate those that take kitsch to other weird and wonderful directions. While by no means an exhaustive list, here are nine of the best American bars that are fully embracing a sense of kitsch.
The Coffin Club, Portland, Ore.
In a city that prides itself for weirdness, it is a real accomplishment to achieve weirdest bar status in Portland. Formerly The Lovecraft Bar, The Coffin Club is a neon, horror-inspired wonderland whose macabre tiki drinks showcase a preponderance of absinthe, the unofficial spirit of the goth at heart.
Photos by Aubrie LeGault
Good Times at Davey Waynes, Los Angeles
The look is 1970s trailer, but despite its lowbrow decor, the throwback drinks at Davey Waynes get a glow up via modern interpretation. The Fuzzy Britches reimagines a Fuzzy Navel by including dry vermouth, crème de pêche and orange blossom water. For a Grasshopper variation, Davey’s takes the “grasshopper walks into a bar trope” — the punchline being that the grasshopper’s name is Maurice — and aptly entitles it Some People Call Me Maurice (a Steve Miller Band lyric) for a mezcal-infused, updated version of the minty cocktail.
Photos by Dija Dowling
At Random, Milwaukee
Its adorable, mid-century shoebox building is almost kitsch in and of itself, but as a bar that actually opened in 1964, Milwaukee’s At Random straddles the fine line between what is kitsch and what might simply be retro or old-fashioned. Since its waitstaff are rumored to occasionally sport beehive hairdos while serving the bar’s signature, boozy ice cream drinks, or a built-for-two Tiki Love Bowl, it seems fair to assume there’s a little wink-nod going on here.
Photos by At Random
Lala’s Little Nugget, Austin
It’s considered tacky to leave one’s Christmas tree up past New Year’s Day, but at Lala’s Little Nugget, a decorated tree is proudly on display all year long. If you crave a Grandma’s Boozy Eggnog or a cozy, spiked hot chocolate, Lala’s has you covered. Where "the North Pole meets Central Texas,” Lala’s not only offers Christmas in July, but Christmas in February, Christmas on Tuesdays — basically, Christmas all of the time.
Photos by Drew Anthony Smith
Unicorn Bar, Seattle
Fact: Where there is house-made bubblegum vodka, there must be kitsch. Evoking the halcyon days of the 1980s, Seattle’s Unicorn Bar leans heavily into the brightly colored childhood vibe of the era, offering up fruity, flavored vodka cocktails such as the My Little Pony and Capri Sun.
Photos by Jacquelyn Portolese
Bandits, New York City
Also fact: Where there is a disco ball and fringe, there must also be kitsch. The West Village’s Bandits keeps it on the classier side of kitsch with its 1970s disco-era vibes, but it doesn’t shy away from all-out ‘70s theme parties such as Jungle Boogie, British Invasion, and Wrestle Mania. Among its faux-retro drink offerings such as the Bandit-Beer Float and the inspired, neo-tiki Bobby Wasabi, the menu includes a “Dressed Up Beer” section, where cans of suds are served Michelada-style, with rim garnishes and hot sauces that evoke Halal Cart, Taco Cart, and Dosa Cart.
Photos by Front of House
GWARbar, Richmond, Va.
GWARbar: where thrash metal meets… tiki? Richmond’s GWAR (the band) was famous for its highly performative, destructive aesthetic, imagining band members as grotesque, interplanetary warlords. Naturally, this leant itself extremely well to a namesake bar whose cocktails are tiki in nature. Try a rum-based Bonesnapper if for no other reason than to learn what is meant by a “bloody drizzle” garnish.
Photos by Julie Ferguson
The Pink Squirrel, Chicago
Another surefire metric for measuring kitsch is whether a Pink Squirrel appears on the menu: a cocktail so-named for both its pink color and nutty nature, both accomplished by the presence of ruby-colored, almond-flavored Crème de Noyaux. So when Pink Squirrel is the actual name of the bar, you know it’s a place delivering up kitsch. Plus, the bar offers a Flying Squirrel Cocktail Wheel: a flight of sample-sized nostalgic cocktails — including a Blue Hawaiian and Brown Derby — served on a mini ferris wheel.
Photos by Siren Betty & The Pink Squirrel Marketing Team
The Spirit Room, Rochester, N.Y.
The Spirit Room promises “cocktails and readings.” Whether the presence of actual ghosts can be confirmed, spirits are in no short supply and the aesthetic certainly has supernatural appeal. While sipping on the Spicy Margarita inspired Resurrectionist, or the Southside-influenced Madame Leota, you might feel like somebody’s watching you. Is it the skeleton in the corner, a creepy doll’s head, or the garnish atop the drink in your hand?
Photos by The Spirit Room