The bristled head of a mounted wild boar watches over the bottles at Irvington’s new tiki-leaning watering hole, Strange Bird. Its vicious bouquet of gnarled tusks gives the beast an especially menacing quality that befits an animal frozen in mid-rampage. As the story goes, this snarling porker took its last grunt in South Carolina in 1968, felled by a sportsman known only as Uncle Moe. “But he didn’t kill him with the first shot,” says Strange Bird co-owner Neal Warner, who acquired the bar’s featured taxidermy from the nephew of Uncle Moe. “The boar actually charged him and gored his leg. Uncle Moe got him on the return charge, but he ended up losing that leg.” Warner pauses to let that sink in. “This thing took somebody’s leg.”
Under the boar’s gaze, Warner carefully assembles a Missionary’s Downfall cocktail, pouring pineapple juice and peach liqueur into a metal tumbler full of ice, adding fresh mint, lime, and rum, then whizzing it all up with a bar-top spindle mixer. Finally, he pours the frothy potion into a tall glass and mounds it with more crushed ice, like a dangerous snow cone. The alcohol makes the wild boar’s origin story all the more intoxicating—maybe even a little too conveniently epic. Much like the murky, contrived history of tiki-bar culture itself (a narrative that dates back to 1933 and involves a transplanted Texan in Hollywood who had his name legally changed to Donn Beach), embellishing fact with a little fiction is simply giving the people what they want.
Turns out, Strange Bird is exactly what the people want in this quirky eastside enclave of rambling old homes and mom-and-pop commerce, where a law prohibiting three-way liquor licenses kept the hard stuff out of the neighborhood for generations. Strange Bird’s cocktail-bar predecessor, Bonna Station, broke that ban when it opened in 2018, then closed within a year, explaining that it was not able to “find the right formula.” The new owners, Neal Warner and his brother Paul Warner in partnership with Love Handle’s Chris and Ally Benedyk and Flatland Kitchen designers Eric and Rebekah Nolan, had a very specific type of establishment in mind when Strange Bird took flight in early November 2019. They wanted a neighborhood rum bar—not a tiki bar, mind you—for both casual and serious fans of fermented distilled sugarcane juice, which sometimes goes by the nickname “demon water.” Yo, ho, ho.
“Landlocked exotica” is the term they use to describe the bar’s heady blend of soft kitsch and throwback glam. If a wall isn’t swathed in woven banana bark matting with bamboo trim, it is covered in murals of fat green banana leaves (a hand-painted riff on the benchmark: Blanche Devereaux’s bedroom wallpaper on The Golden Girls). Round brass mirrors from Target adorn the brick walls, and the ceiling rafters are strung with hanging plants and shelled globe pendants that give the shotgun-style room its amber glow. The tap pulls behind the bar are made of foraged elk bones from the deserts of New Mexico, and tasteful brass bird statuettes perch on the tables. Nothing feels over the top, and that was by design. “A lot of people view the tiki movement as a counterpoint to minimalist design,” says Warner, who also owns (with his brother) Coat Check Coffee inside the Athenaeum and Tinker House’s wildly popular caffeine boutique Provider. “I wanted to have some clean lines playing off the plants and tropical materials—a little midcentury flair.”
If the decor achieves some sort of tiki Zen, the drinks spare no faux-Polynesian bell nor whistle. They are instead delightfully gaudy, from the potent Fog Cutter, a chilly mix of spirits including cognac and gin with sherry top notes, to the rye whiskey–based Chance Encounter poured into “see no evil/hear no evil/speak no evil” monkey glasses, to the ombré-toned Scorpion Reef, smoky with mezcal and aged rum. It arrives at the table on fire with their server’s instructions to blow out the flame before attempting to drink it.
Nearly everything liquid settles into a nest of crushed ice and has a flower garnish—deceptively pretty but bracing enough to make a person slump over their plate of poke fries, ribbon-cut potato chips heaped with diced salmon, soy cucumbers, and avocado. Smothered in syrupy teriyaki, the pile gets sloppy enough to require a fork, but you can’t quit it—even through the sting of jalapeño.
The same goes for a coconut-crusted fried tenderloin dressed with creamy passionfruit “special sauce,” and the serving of sticky Hawaiian BBQ green beans slicked with teriyaki and garlic. Beer-battered shiitake mushroom caps are thick and meaty, perfect as shared munchies, especially when dunked into black vinegar honey and sinus-blasting Chinese hot mustard. Strange Bird’s take on the elevated Spam sandwich is a credit to the trend. A thick slice of pork Jell-O gets sizzled on the grill before getting garnished with Havarti, macadamia butter, pineapple relish, and shredded iceberg. The result is hot and salty with an exotic sweetness—all smashed inside a soft Hawaiian roll and pierced with a maraschino cherry on a pick, as if it’s posing for the cover of a 1970s cookbook.
Two people could easily eat through the entire Polynesian bar-food menu, a quick lineup (created by the Benedyks) that provides the required salt, grease, and umami to soak up all of that alcohol. It skews more toward creative than fancy. But every bite of food is delightful. In fact, I realized something one busy Friday night as I scanned the roomful of grown men and women gleefully sipping from glasses shaped like toucans while a crowd huddled just inside the door waited patiently to do the same. The only thing I don’t love about Strange Bird is that so many other people apparently do, too.
128 S. Audubon Rd.
Hour: 5–11 p.m. Sun., Tues.–Thurs., 5 p.m.–1 a.m. Fri.–Sat.
Vibe: Tropical luxe
Tasting Notes: Pacific Rim snacks, rum flights, and traditional tiki ice cups
Must-order: Coconut-crusted tenderloin, Hawaiian BBQ green beans, and one of the best Painkillers around.
Tab: Small and large plates $5–$14; cocktails $10; $1 oyster happy hour on Sunday