Raising the bar: Five Orlando watering holes where form is just as important as function 

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Hang 10: Aku Aku Tiki Bar

click to enlarge ROB BARTLETT
  • Rob Bartlett

First things first: Not all tiki bars are created equal. “Tiki-philes are very particular about certain things,” says Todd Ulmer, operating partner of Aku Aku Tiki Bar. You can’t just put some bamboo and longboards in your bar and call it a tiki bar, he says – you have to do your research.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ROB BARTLETT
  • Photo by Rob Bartlett

And clearly, Ulmer and his partners have done theirs. When you walk into Aku Aku, which opened almost a year and a half ago in the space that used to be XL Gallery, it’s clear that no detail has been overlooked. From the vintage bamboo barstools, to the carved tiki god sculptures, to the vintage beach films playing on the TVs, to the tiki tchotchkes lining the shelves and walls, the entire tiny space is an homage to a 1950s or ’60s Hawaiian beach bar. Ulmer, who is also a partner in Mucho Tacos and Tequila (the design of which he says was inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s epic vampire bank robbery flick From Dusk Till Dawn) and Stardust Lounge (a dark, vintage Vegas-themed lounge located just downstairs from Aku), says that all of the artwork is authentic, “made by artists who specialize in tiki art.” He has a tiki sculpture gifted to the bar by Jeff Chouinard, limited edition tiki prints by Brad Parker and signed and numbered prints by legendary California artist Shag.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ROB BARTLETT
  • Photo by Rob Bartlett

“I had one artist fly in from Hawaii for a surf expo,” Ulmer says, “and he wanted to do a signing at Aku. Afterward, he emailed me and said, ‘I will give you the best deal I can on my artwork, but I want my art in your bar.’”

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ROB BARTLETT
  • Photo by Rob Bartlett

Ulmer says he had originally considered doing a more traditional craft cocktail bar, but there were already so many in downtown Orlando. Instead, he put a twist on the concept and went tiki-craft. “Tiki drinks are not just sugar-filled garbage cocktails,” he says. “Our drinks are balanced cocktails, which is what tiki cocktails originally were. Mass-market mixes ruined it, but now it’s really coming back.”

And so far, he says, Orlando has embraced Aku Aku and customers seem to appreciate the fact that the bar isn’t just a tiki-themed venue – it’s a real-deal tiki bar.

“We try to stay traditional,” Ulmer says. “Tiki music, the island music, and everybody seems to really enjoy the cocktails. I love that people are really getting into it and enjoying not just the interior but the whole experience.”

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ROB BARTLETT
  • Photo by Rob Bartlett

Aku Aku Tiki Bar, 431 E. Central Blvd. |

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