Escape to the Tropics: An Interview with Hidden Harbor
Back in 2014, lawyers Peter and Matthew Kurzweg threw caution to the wind and opened up their own bar: the Independent Brewing Company in Squirrel Hill. Here, guests can choose from a wide selection of Burgh-based craft brews, along with an extensive list of cocktails and ethnic-inspired cuisines created in-house.
This month, they’re taking their service industry skills one step further with a new endeavor–the opening of their own craft tiki bar, Hidden Harbor.
Spearheading the cocktail program at the new island-inspired getaway is the Kurzwegs’ partner, Adam Henry. A long time friend of Pete’s, Henry was taken on to help grow the drink program at Independent Brewing Company and will now lend his talents to Hidden Harbor.
Pete: “For a beer bar, we’ve always had a very ambitious cocktail program, and the guy who put that together was Adam. When the opportunity to expand came about, we felt it was an obvious next step to give cocktails a bigger forum. The leap from cocktail to Tiki, I think, was based on several factors. Adam’s wheelhouse has always been rum, he’s a Tiki aficionado … so the idea [began] to evolve from there. Ultimately, we made this leap of faith based on the fact that Tiki really is the ability to put fun back into cocktails without sacrificing quality. I think people are ready to have fun with drinking [cocktails] again … and Tiki is the ultimate expression of that.”
Adam: “For about a year now, we’ve also held an in-house Tiki night here, once a week on Thursdays … I think we all enjoy making drinks of that type, and the customers have received it well.”
The Tiki craze got started in the 1930s with establishments like “Don the Beachcomber” in Hollywood, as well as “Trader Vic” in Oakland, California. A thriving concept, tiki bars began popping up all over the country and remained a popular theme until the late 60s.
Pete: “Tiki’s always kind of been about escapism … [Back then] no one was really emulating authentic Polynesian culture, it was the American take on that–what we’ve wanted it to look like, what we thought it would look like. And it’s always had this tropical element to it … through the 40s-60s, the introduction of actual Tikis and faux-Polynesian artifacts into bars became more of a focus. But in the 70s, you [saw] people dying on tropical beaches in Polynesia and Vietnam. And I think there was a drawback, or a seriousness, that made it harder to escape that way. So it kind of got some bad associations…”
Soon enough, though, there was a resurgence. Now, a handful of bars in Pittsburgh still host weekly Tiki nights or keep at least one Tiki-influenced drink on their menu. According to the staff, several successful establishments have also popped up throughout the Rust Belt cities and beyond.
Adam: “There’s a school of thought that says Tiki does best in cold climates where this sense of ‘escapism’ is particularly pronounced. It thrives because, when it’s 10 or 20 degrees out and snowing, the sense of escape is that much more palpable … to come into a closed environment that creates a warm feeling and atmosphere.”
With the resurgence in mind, Pete, Adam, head bartender Max Stein, and bartender Wes Shonk plan to change the game in Pittsburgh and influence a new perspective on all things “Tiki”–from quality ingredients; to creative concepts and precision; to making their customers feel less intimidated by complex drinks, and more adventurous with their taste buds.
Wes: “Tiki drinks have sort of a reputation for being this sweet, sugary fruit juice. But if [they’re] made really well and measured just right, they’re perfectly balanced. [With] the booze, the citrus, the sugar, the fruit … everything sort of counterbalances each other. But along with good drinks and this escapist atmosphere, the thing we want to cultivate more than anywhere else here in Pittsburgh is that we want to make this the most hospitable bar.”
The cocktail program for the new establishment will include classic Tiki drinks, like the “Ishmael,” made up of Maggie’s Farm rum and clove-infused Jamaican rum with lemon, fig, guava and mint; or the “Scorpion Bowl,” a great beverage to share with friends, made with Virgin Island rum, cognac, lemon, orange and orgeat syrup.
Wes: “We’re very ambitious in being able to exceed expectations, especially in the cocktails. Adam and [bartender] Max have designed cocktails with dry ice, where it’ll be bubbling out of your mug, and there’s a cocktail we’re going to try to make with liquid nitrogen. There’s also going to be frozen cocktails … It’s going to be elaborate and detail-oriented, without being snooty. We want people to enjoy trying new drinks and welcome them to just have fun with it.”
Derived from Asian, Middle Eastern and Caribbean influences, the shareable plates will focus on themes reminiscent of the tropics, including flavor elements that’ll mix well with tropical drinks and exotic spices.
Monique: “When you look at the menu, you’ll notice there’s Middle Eastern influence in many of the dishes… it’s in my background and in my nature to fuse [the] spices in a creative way. You’ll get a feel of tropical and Asian themes mixed in with those Middle Eastern spices. So we’ll start with those concepts, and keep on building from there … We want to be mindful and make sure there is something for everyone.”
Regarding the fusion of spices and ethnic cuisine, the Tuna Tacos (Monique’s favorite menu item) will aim to do just that. The cumin crusted tuna dish is complimented by crunchy falafel croutons and pomegranate-molasses–Monique’s take on introducing falafel to the Asian world.
Next, the décor will feature a 15-seat bar and two separate rooms to distinguish between modern and traditional styles of Tiki. The first room sticks to the classic feel, while the back room will be complete with a customized totem pole, and a darker, more intimate Polynesian-esque lounge.
Pete: “The lounge area is more organic, it’s more a sense of: “This is the island … this is the jungle … this is where you come across an exotic beach” … And the other room is more nautical–you’re still on the boat, you can see the island, but you haven’t smelled the flowers yet. The name “Hidden Harbor” came about from this idea … that we want to create this experience as if you’ve just traveled somewhere. The way the room is laid out gave us that possibility.”
Wes: “One aspect that’ll be really cool is the mini bar window on the island side … It’s like a chef’s table for two customers with this private little window, a 4-foot-wide bar, and two stools … you’ll [be] sitting on the darker side, while peering into the light side.”
Adam: “We were intrigued by the idea of doing Tiki in a cleaner, more contemporary setting, but we also have the lure of doing that traditional, jungle-y, primitive thing … The idea with two rooms allows us to indulge both of these things. It makes the concept coherent with the ship landing in the harbor, and you’re crossing the beach into the jungle. So there’s this natural change in feeling, and through color and decoration, you can enhance that.”
Set to open its doors within the coming weeks, Hidden Harbor will be located next to Independent Brewing Co. on Shady Avenue.
After introducing the bar and concept to the Squirrel Hill community, owners will also build upon plans they’ve got in the works for future off-premise events, like spring/summer luaus in local parks.
Stay tuned for details on the opening date… Then come by, relax in the warm atmosphere, and enjoy your own private slice of paradise.