Tapping into Tiki Culture
CAS alum Ryan Lotz celebrates all things Tiki at Boston’s Shore Leave cocktail bar
Ryan Lotz sits at a green leather banquette, surrounded by tropical wallpaper, bamboo trim, and wicker lamps. He is in his happy place. Lotz helms the beverage programs at two prominent restaurants in the South End, but this dimly lit basement space, the Tiki bar Shore Leave, is special.
“I fell in love with the beverage industry for its ability to tell stories and to connect people to other places,” says Lotz (CAS’09), who opened Shore Leave with three partners a year ago. “Tiki is this through line everywhere I’ve worked now, to a point where it really became a natural fit to be doing Tiki when we were looking for a bar concept.”
Shore Leave is a modern ode to Tiki culture—no thatched roofing, fisherman’s netting, or totem statues in sight. The bar’s wooden roof frames, neatly arranged bamboo, and laser-cut fish-scale siding evokes a tropical atmosphere without going over the top.
“Tiki is many different things to many different people,” Lotz says, “but what we’re trying to show people at Shore Leave is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be kitschy or comical or like you’re at an amusement park ride. It can feel like a natural, easygoing, relaxed environment that makes you feel like you escaped for that moment.”
Too often people have a misconception about what Tiki is because they think it’s just this simple, sugar-laden, tropical-tasting, brightly colored cocktail, but that’s not what it is.
Lotz takes the same approach to Tiki drinks. He aims to inject contemporary touches to the careful and creative combinations of spirits and flavors found in classic Tiki recipes from the 1930s, long before the average restaurant Mai Tai devolved into a combination of cheap rum, canned juice, and sugar. “Too often people have a misconception about what Tiki is because they think it’s just this simple, sugar-laden, tropical-tasting, brightly colored cocktail,” he says, “but that’s not what it is.”
Lotz’s education in all things Tiki began in 2011, when he joined the opening team at the craft cocktail bar Hawthorne in Kenmore Square. There he met veteran bartender Scott Marshall, whose passion for Tiki was infectious. “That’s where I first caught the butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling about Tiki,” Lotz says. “From that moment, I had this love for the culture of Tiki. It takes itself very seriously, but its goal is to make people feel like having that one cocktail is a way to get away—a way to feel like you’re on a little vacation.”
He has managed to bring his love of Tiki culture to every job he’s had. In 2012, he joined the bar team and later became bar manager at the acclaimed No. 9 Park in Beacon Hill. Eventually, the cocktail menu had an entire section dedicated to Tiki drinks. Lotz taught classes on Tiki and rum at No. 9 Park that almost always sold out immediately. “I was never able to fit all the things I wanted to talk about into a two-hour class on a Saturday afternoon,” he says.
Lotz met his current partners at No. 9 Park: husband-and-wife team Colin Lynch, the executive chef (no relation to the restaurant’s owner, famed chef and restaurateur Barbara Lynch), and Heather Kennaway Lynch, the general manager, and business partner Jefferson Macklin. When the Lynches and Macklin decided to strike out on their own as the Traveler Street Hospitality Group, they brought Lotz in as beverage director.
The group’s first restaurant, Bar Mezzana, opened in 2016 in the revitalized Ink Block section of Boston’s South End, just outside Chinatown. The bar menu lists the kinds of drinks you would expect from a restaurant that offers coastal Italian fare. But alongside the Aperol spritzes and Negronis are lavishly garnished Tiki drinks. Lotz has dubbed this playful mash-up “Itali-Tiki.”
Soon the group was plotting their next venture—in this case, something that would suit Lotz’s predilection for Tiki. The owners of the high-rise condominium development across the street from Bar Mezzana invited them to look at a basement space that had been earmarked for storage.
What I love about enjoying a Tiki cocktail is that you can taste everything going on, but there’s always something a little mysterious. It’s always a combination of things you’ve never seen coming. I’ve always loved being able to enjoy new drinks that provoke thought.
They knew at once that the windowless concrete shell would make the perfect Tiki getaway. After all, many legendary Tiki establishments, including Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago, and Trader Vic’s in Oakland, Calif., blacked out any portals to daylight, the better to transport patrons to exotic locales.
Shore Leave opened in November 2018. Its snacks, salads, small plates, and sandwiches reflect a range of Asian influences—Filipino BBQ ribs, pork belly bao, and salmon poke tostadas—and its cocktail menu offers a broad spectrum of flavor profiles and spirits. The Third Wave Swizzle pairs a bright French gin with dark notes of coffee, all with a kick of ginger at the finish. The namesake Shore Leave cocktail combines local and Jamaican rum, passion fruit, and molasses. For every drink on the menu, Lotz says, he aims to present a surprising combination with each sip.
“What I love about enjoying a Tiki cocktail is that you can taste everything going on, but there’s always something a little mysterious,” he says. “It’s always a combination of things you’ve never seen coming. I’ve always loved being able to enjoy new drinks that provoke thought.”