The hallmark of a tiki bar is its exotic specialty drinks, and Wauwatiki Bar and Grill is no exception.
Owned by Peter Panagos, James Findlay and Jason Growel, Wauwatiki serves rum-based craft cocktails made from scratch and Caribbean-style meals, most of which are gluten-free and vegan-friendly.
With its island-themed look and feel, Wauwatiki is far from a Cheers-type venue, but Panagos said, since opening in April, it already has regulars. “James and I bar-tend every Wednesday to get to know the clientele,” he said.
Panagos said the impetus for the tiki bar and grill was a desire to work with rum, which at Wauwitiki is made with 100 percent sugarcane or molasses. “I’ve never worked with rum before,” said Panagos, who also owns the Hotch Spot while Growel owns the Eastsider, both Milwaukee east side bars. “For three years, I’ve been working on the tiki concept.”
Island-styled tiki bars, including Trader Vic’s, began to spring up after World War II, he said, and drink recipes were carefully guarded in safes.
Wauwatiki’s owners worked with a mixologist to come up with its lengthy drink menu, which includes familiar tropical drinks like mai-tais, daiquiris and pina coladas.
But it also includes drinks to share, like the Scorpion Bowl made with dark rum, organic gin, brand, orgeat (a sweet syrup), lemon, orange and mint. “We have a lot of shared cocktails,” said Panagos. “Everyone drinks some of this, everyone drinks some of that.”
Wauwatiki has a long list of signature drinks, as well, like Blackbeard’s blackstrap of Bermuda black rum, lime, ginger beer and blackstrap bitters.
Panagos’ favorite is the “booziest” shared drink, Jamaican Me Crazy, made with Jamaican rum, dark rum, St. Croix overproof rum, lime, orange, pineapple, honey and grenadine.
The bar had been the restaurant’s main draw when it opened. However, the kitchen, which will soon offer brunch, is becoming a major focus.
“We’re becoming as much of a restaurant as a bar,” he said.
The cocktails pair well with the menu’s offerings, which include small plates like pork dumplings; the Island Salad of greens, peanut praline, feta cheese and fresh pineapple, strawberries, blueberries and oranges; the Hawaiian pulled pork sandwich with tropical coleslaw and fries; and a jerk chicken, served with jasmine rice and sautéed vegetables with a sauce of your choosing.
Panagos said, so far, the Pupu Platter, an assortment of beefs, dumplings and cilantro lime shrimp appears to be a favorite.
Wauwatiki can seat 99, and it has a wraparound patio that can serve 50. Besides the tiki-hut style bar, there’s what Panagos calls the cabana room – booth seating with lots of bamboo accents and Caribbean blue plaster walls that bear the faces of Polynesian gods.
The atmosphere is casual by design, Panagos said, inviting guests to “slow down, relax and drink rum.”
“We’re not a bar where we’re ripping shots,” he said. “It is good clean fun.”
JUST THE FACTS
ADDRESS: 6502 W. North Ave.
RESERVATIONS: Not needed
FARE: Extensive and elaborate specialty rum-based drinks and varied small plates, salads, sandwiches and skillet meals
PRICE RANGE: Drinks range from $8 for the Pedro Serrano, a serrano-infused white rum with lime, passion fruit, min and soda, to $225 for the Shiver Me Timbers, which serves eight to 12 people and contains St. Croix spiced rum, Jamaican rum, amaretto, curacao, lemon, lime, orange, pineapple, grenadine and a bottle of champagne. Meals range in price from $3 for chips and pineapple salsa to the Pupu Platter, a mixture of teriyaki beef, ribs, wings, dumplings and cilantro lime shrimp, for $29. Most entrees are in the $7 to $12 range.
HOURS: Open daily from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.
HANDICAPPED ACCESSIBLE: Yes