At Forbidden Island across the Bay, tiki culture is a way of life 

click to enlarge Forbidden Island
  • Brendan P. Bartholomew/Special to the S.f. Examiner
  • Becca Morris plays with fire at Forbidden Island, a Tiki bar in Alameda. The mixmaster is currently studying for a degree in chemistry.
Don’t be alarmed if there’s a sweet, burning smell in the air when you visit the Alameda hideaway Forbidden Island. That’s just what happens when the cocktail servers use cinnamon to make flaming, communal drink bowls such as the Virgin Sacrifice erupt like Kilauea.

Owner Michael Thanos says he was bitten by the Tiki bug about 15 years ago, and it was his dream to open a bar that was not only faithful to the decor of midcentury Tiki lounges, but also featured authentic, period-correct drinks. Although he credits the Tiki pioneers with using ingredients that were unheard of in cocktails — maple and orgeat syrups, for example — Thanos says a proper Tiki drink should be balanced and not sweet or syrupy.

In addition to various classics, the menu contains original drinks that pay tribute to local culture. One example is the bright-blue Neptune’s Garden, named for an Alameda amusement park that closed in 1939. Another is the Vic Valentine, named for the central character in Alameda author Will Viharo’s series of noir detective novels.

Ohio native Becca Morris, who moved to the East Bay when her husband was transferred to the Coast Guard’s Alameda base, tends bar at Forbidden Island. She recently spoke with The San Francisco Examiner.

What made you want to work at Forbidden Island? I was working a 9-to-5 desk job and felt totally isolated. Sitting all day wasn’t for me. So I took a bartending class in San Francisco and said, “I’m going to go for a job at the biggest, best cocktail lounge in the East Bay!”

In addition to glowing pufferfish lamps, you’ve got hundreds of dollar bills hanging from your ceiling. What’s that about? Those bills are in various denominations, from all over the world. It was a World War II sailor thing to put your name on a dollar bill and leave it. You were essentially saying, “I will be back.” And when you came back, your first drink was paid for.

When we stopped by, there was a customer in a Hawaiian shirt holding forth on various topics related to Tiki lounge culture. Does that happen fairly often? Yes, we have a lot of big events. And one of our DJs, Otto von Stroheim, organizes the Tiki Oasis convention in San Diego every year. A lot of Tiki Oasis people come to the bar.

What do you do with yourself when you’re not bartending? I’m in school going for a chemistry degree. The chemistry behind alcohol and cocktails really interests me. I just figured if this is something I’m passionate about, I need to learn the business inside out, and it begins with chemistry. I used to hate math and science, but now my hobby and job, when it comes down to it, is entirely math and science.

Is that why you use a jigger to precisely measure each pour even when your boss isn’t around? Yes. With our cocktails, you really want consistency. For example, a customer who orders a Navy Grog expects it to be a certain way. If you come in one night, order a drink from one of the other bartenders and fall in love with it, you’re going to expect that drink to be the same when you order it from me.

Forbidden Island

Location: 1304 Lincoln Ave., Alameda

Contact: (510) 749-0332,

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