Minimalist Tiki

Revived Don the Beachcomber brand opens first location in southwest Florida

Updated Feb. 28

Nearly 100 years after its namesake founder developed and popularized the Polynesian-themed restaurant and bar concept, the Don the Beachcomber brand is re-launching this week with the first of multiple locations scheduled to roll out in Florida over the next several years.

LIVE COVERAGE & REVIEW: Don the Beachcomber grand opening in Florida is a smashing success
Bonus cocktail recipe below: Sunakora Zombie
Previous coverage: First new Don the Beachcomber location on track to open in early 2024

The indoor dining areas at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla., include booths plus table and bar seating.  (Don the Beachcomber photos)
The indoor dining areas at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla., include booths plus table and bar seating. (Don the Beachcomber photos)

The restaurant in Madeira Beach, between St. Petersburg and Clearwater, is scheduled to open to the public on Friday, Feb. 23. Private events for friends, family and VIPs were held in the days prior. Partygoers no doubt will hoist a birthday toast Thursday to the Tiki bar pioneer.
* More Don the Beachcomber history

Ernest Raymond Gantt, who later changed his name to Donn Beach and opened the first Don the Beachcomber as a speakeasy during Prohibition in 1932, was born on Feb. 22, 1907, in rural Texas. His colorful life story will be documented in an upcoming book (Searching for Don the Beachcomber) and film The Donn of Tiki).

The new restaurant occupies an indoor-outdoor space at the Cambria Hotel at 15015 Madeira Way. It will be open seven days and nights, operating from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Sundays through Wednesdays, and 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. on Thursdays through Saturdays.

“We’re fully staffed and ready to go” with more than 100 team members, said Lisa Longest, the director of marketing for Don the Beachcomber and other brands owned by Tampa-based 23 Restaurant Services. Friday’s grand opening will include a ribbon-cutting attended by city dignitaries right before the 11 a.m. opening, she said in a phone conversation Thursday.

Modern Caribbean Rum
A view of the interior and a vintage Chinese tile at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla., in January 2024. (Facebook photos)
A view of the interior and a vintage Chinese tile at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla., in January 2024. (Facebook photos)

Call (727) 870-8454 or go to DonBeachcomber.com for more information. They are currently not taking reservations, so it’s first-come, first-served.

Originally planned for late 2023, then pushed to early 2024, the restaurant finally cleared all the bureaucratic hurdles and passed its final inspection, clearing the way for the grand opening. “We had to do a full build-out,” Longest said of the large space on the ground floor of the hotel. “It took time to get all the permits.”

This is a far cry from Don the Beachcomber’s tiny original bar in Hollywood. The restaurant has a total capacity of 298 with 92 seats inside and 120 outside.

Preview the food and drinks

The restaurant’s food is inspired by the faux Polynesian flavors pioneered by Don the Beachcomber, but the menu will also feature “elevated dishes that will appeal to all,” Longest said in an email following our phone conversation. Dishes will include a pupu platter featuring hand-made crab rangoon, chicken satay and sticky rib skewers, plus signature wings. “We will also feature tempura cauliflower, a variety of fried rice options, fresh grouper, and an array of gourmet burgers,” she said.

A sneak preview of the food menu at the new Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla.
A sneak preview of the food menu at the new Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla.

We got a sneak peek at the food and drink menus, which were designed by 23 Restaurant Services creative director Justin Peterson. The offerings are sure to please every taste – from hardcore Tikiphiles, to adventurous locals, to the hotel guests who simply stumble upon this slice of paradise. In fact, the main menu’s cover is emblazoned with Donn Beach’s mantra: “If you can’t get to paradise, I’ll bring it to you.”

Inside, you’ll find a tribute to “the ‘Founding Father’ of the tiki bar” that explains the history and philosophy of the restaurant. Befitting the appeal of pairing small plates with the delicious tropical cocktails, there’s a vast selection of 12 starters, including the pupu platter or any of its items separately. There’s also a choice of eight side dishes.

The entree menu includes 11 options featuring ribs, chicken, shrimp, fish, and vegetable fried rice. In another nod to Donn Beach’s concept of combining exotic food with his “rhum rhapsodies,” the menu suggests a cocktail to pair with several dishes. We’ll definitely be ordering the Filet Kabobs paired with the classic Three Dots & A Dash.

On the lighter side, the “greens” menu features three salads (Asian, Cesar and Hollywood Wedge) that can be upgraded with blackened chicken, shrimp and grouper. But that’s not all. The restaurant is open for lunch and late-night bites, so there are four robust burgers and a selection of six “handhelds” (fish and pork tacos and sandwiches, plus BBQ chicken and a “SoCal Veggie Sandwich”).

A sneak preview of a portion of the cocktail menu at the new Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla.
A sneak preview of a portion of the cocktail menu at the new Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla.

A great deal of care went into the cocktail menu to make it worthy of the Don the Beachcomber name. “We begin with the freshest ingredients by juicing our citrus daily and making many of our syrups in-house,” Longest said in her email. Add quality spirits and a staff that knows and respects the legacy of Donn Beach’s concept of “pure escapism in a glass,” and guests are sure to have a total immersive experience, she said.

The cocktails are in good hands. The beverage director is Marie King, the acclaimed bar manager and mixologist who previously ran the beverage programs for Southern California’s two Tonga Hut locations (2012-2023), plus the last revived Don the Beachcomber location in Huntington Beach, Calif. (2009-2011). “A lot of thought was put into the bartenders,” Longest said, including extensive staff training and education.
* Interview with Marie King (Stutzstack)

The main cocktail menu includes 23 signature tropical drinks, including such Don the Beachcomber staples as the Zombie, Navy Grog, Rum Barrel, Doctor Funk, and Missionary’s Downfall. Two classics can also be upgraded to communal cocktails for four people: the Scorpion and Chief Lapu Lapu.

Cocktails at the new Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla., include the Missionary's Downfall, Painkiller, Doctor Funk, and Rum Barrel. (Don the Beachcomber photos)
Cocktails at the new Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla., include the Missionary’s Downfall, Painkiller, Doctor Funk, and Rum Barrel. (Don the Beachcomber photos)

There’s also Trader Vic’s version of the Mai Tai, plus a host of other popular rum-based standards (Planters Punch, Hurricane, Painkiller, Dark-N-Stormy).

Other spirits are represented with the classic Saturn (gin), Honi Honi (Bourbon), Fassionable Sunrise (tequila), Skrewy Nui (mezcal), and Nutty Chi Chi (vodka). These specialty drinks range from $11-$12 for “mild” offerings to $19 for the “strongest.” To aid your responsible drinking, four strength levels are designated on the menu.

Designated drivers can also choose from a menu of five “Mocktails for the Teekee-Totalers” along with a selection of seltzers. Beer and cider drinkers have 10 different choices on draft and 11 in bottles. There are also 10 sparkling, white, and red wine choices by the bottle and glass. A weekday happy hour will feature $2 off wines, wells, calls, and draft beer from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Marie King, director of beverage for 23 Restaurant Services, serves her version of the Missionary's Downfall during a Don the Beachcomber preview at the Inuhele event in Atlanta in January. (Facebook photo)
Marie King, director of beverage for 23 Restaurant Services, serves her version of the Missionary’s Downfall during a Don the Beachcomber preview at the Inuhele event in Atlanta in January. (Facebook photo)

King went above and beyond the standard Tiki bar menu with an array of additional drinks for eclectic imbibers. There’s an assortment of 10 classics (Old Fashioned, Paper Plane, Manhattan, Kingston Negroni, et al.). Daiquiri fans will find both the Hemingway version and a nod to the Sunshine State with the the FRS Daiquiri (featuring the Hamilton Florida Rum Society blend).

Of course, rum gets its own special section of the menu, carefully curated to appeal to both novices and experienced spirits enthusiasts. The list of 22 rums includes seven regions (Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Florida, etc.) with three expressions for each available by the pour (half and full), plus inclusive flights. Advanced rummies can ask for a more extensive list from their bartender or server.

The rums pair well with the tropical desserts: Mango and coconut infused Sticky Rice, Pineapple Upside Down Cake, and Coconut Rice Pudding. There are also six after-dinner cocktails, including Don the Beachcomber’s classic Kona Coffee Grog and little-known Rum Cow.

The extensive bar at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla., is prepped for the grand opening. (Don the Beachcomber photos)
The extensive bar at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla., is prepped for the grand opening. (Don the Beachcomber photos)

Design honors past, looks to future

Social media posts have teased the opening for months, offering a glimpse inside the build-out overseen by Southern California artist Daniel “Tiki Diablo” Gallardo (see photos above and below). Gallardo was assisted by fellow artists Tom Fowner, Dave “Basement Kahuna” Wolfe, and Patrick Vassar over the past year, bringing his vision to life.

The veteran Tiki bar builder and his team followed a design philosophy of “honoring the past, staying relevant to the present, with one foot in the future.” Longest explained the intention of some of the designs:
* The carved columns reflect the tropical beauty of the sea, maintaining sophistication while creating a lively atmosphere for patrons to enjoy cocktails.
* The materials and finishes used pay homage to Donn Beach’s travels in the Caribbean, and the design palette draws inspiration from the ocean along with old Don the Beachcomber locations in Chicago, Hawaii, and Hollywood, Calif.

The burgeoning 23 Restaurant Services acquired the rights to the name from its previous owners, who operated the stand-alone location in Southern California from 2009 to 2018. The hospitality group owns and operates other brands, including the Ford’s Garage concept with 19 locations in Florida, plus six others in Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Texas.

A carving and mask adorn the interior of Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla. (Facebook photos, January 2024)
A carving and mask adorn the interior of Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla. (Facebook photos, January 2024)

Plans for more locations

The company has longterm plans to bring Don the Beachcomber back to its glory days with an expansion across the country. The schedule for future locations has changed multiple times since it was announced last year. The website currently lists only the ambitious stand-alone location in Hamlin, near Disney World in the Orlando area. The latest estimate is fall 2025.

Two other Florida locations are being explored but not ready to be confirmed, Longest said, including one near the company headquarters in Tampa. King mentioned this more bar-centric version during a live interview on YouTube in October.

The Don the Beachcomber brand will co-exist with a previous concept from 23 Restaurant Services, Tiki Docks, which includes Florida locations in Riverview and St. Petersburg. A new restaurant planned for Viera on Florida’s east coast will now be a Tiki Docks instead of the previously announced Don the Beachcomber, Longest said.

Unlike the more retro-traditional approach of Don the Beachcomber, Tiki Docks is a modern Florida-style waterfront bar and grill, though King has upgraded the cocktail menu with some Don the Beachcomber classics. Madeira Beach was originally slated to be a new Tiki Docks restaurant, but Longest said that after buying the rights to the legacy brand, it made more sense for the company to make it their first Don the Beachcomber.

Interior decor details at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla., in January 2024. (DonBeachcomber.com)
Interior decor details at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla., in January 2024. (DonBeachcomber.com)

“It just fits,” Longest said of the first-floor location at the Cambria Hotel. “It’s just steps away from the beach.” It’s the restaurant group’s first foray into a hotel, but she said the experience couldn’t have been better.

“The Cambria has been a great partner,” she said. “They’re fully supportive of us.” The close proximity of a boutique hotel also makes this first Don the Beachcomber the perfect destination for out-of-town visitors. Click here for booking info.

After acquiring the brand and getting feedback, 23 Restaurant Services President Marc Brown assembled an advisory board of Tiki luminaries to help guide the artistic vision. Plans and renderings were revealed in August at Tiki Oasis in San Diego.

The board includes the designer Gallardo; Tim “Swanky” Glazner, author of the upcoming Donn Beach biography; Book of Tiki author Sven Kirsten; bar owner and cocktail/rum expert Martin Cate; Adrian Eustaquio of the Inside the Desert Oasis Room podcast and vlog; plus artist John Mulder, whose Eekum Bookum Tiki Mugs is creating a plethora of new merchandise.

Look for the mugs, glassware, apparel, and more at the Madeira Beach restaurant, plus the online store at Shop.DonBeachcomber.com.

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BONUS COCKTAIL RECIPE

Mugs that celebrate and honor Donn Beach, the godfather of the faux Polynesian restaurant and bar style, are available in the Shop.DonBeachcomber.com store
Mugs that celebrate and honor Donn Beach, the godfather of the faux Polynesian restaurant and bar style, are available in the online store. (Photos: Donn-Beach.com and Shop.DonBeachcomber.com)

Don the Beachcomber, aka Donn Beach, created dozens of classic Tiki cocktails in the 1930s and ’40s. But the Zombie is widely considered to be his crowning achievement.

According to a newly released biography of Beach’s first wife, Sunny Sund, the cocktail was created in a moment of inspiration by the inventive mixologist while courting his future bride one quiet afternoon at the original Hollywood bar. This version of the story will be confirmed by Glazner in Searching for Don the Beachcomber.

The Zombie is hands down our favorite cocktail of all time. The only problem is there are so many versions, most unearthed by Tiki cocktail historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and published in books including his seminal Sippin’ Safari.

Add to that list this slight variation of the original, published in the biography by Karen Sund, Sunny’s daughter from her second marriage, along with author Cindi Neisinger. Beach’s nickname for Sund, whose given name was Cora, was “Sunakora, Queen of the Beachcombers.” So we’re dubbing this version the Sunakora Zombie (not to be confused with the lighter and more accessible Sunakora.)

The Zombie featured in "Sunny Sund: The Woman Behind Don the Beachcomber, Inc.: A Hollywood Story." Glass from TheDonnofTiki.com; swizzle, coaster and matchbook from Shop.DonBeachcomber.com. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, February 2024)
The Zombie featured in “Sunny Sund: The Woman Behind Don the Beachcomber, Inc.: A Hollywood Story.” Glass from TheDonnofTiki.com; swizzle, coaster and matchbook from Shop.DonBeachcomber.com. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, February 2024)

SUNAKORA ZOMBIE
(By Don the Beachcomber)
From Sunny Sund: The Woman Behind Don the Beachcomber, Inc.: A Hollywood Story

  • 3/4 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
  • 3/4 ounce passion fruit syrup (or nectar)
  • 1/2 ounce falernum
  • 1 ounce Demerara (151 proof) dark rum
  • 1 ounce Jamaican dark rum
  • 1/2 teaspoon grenadine
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 4 drops Herbsaint (or Pernod/absinthe)

Flash blend in a spindle mixer for 5 seconds with a heaping cup of crushed ice. Pour unstrained into a Zombie glass containing 1/2 cup of crushed ice. Garnish liberally with mint.

A hybrid Zombie that manages to be equally sweet, spicy and strong. It features many of the hallmark ingredients of the 1934 original, plus the passion fruit of the 1950 version, not unlike the more accessible version served at The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale. But it’s still a Zombie and should be approached with caution … and great anticipation.

Karen Sund (left) meets with Marie King, the beverage director leading the cocktail program at the new Don the Beachcomber restaurants. (Facebook photo / Cindi Neisinger / December 2023)
Karen Sund (left) meets with Marie King, the beverage director leading the cocktail program at the new Don the Beachcomber restaurants. (Facebook photo / Cindi Neisinger / December 2023)

Recipe and ingredient notes

As noted in our interpretation of the Beachcomber Punch, some of the recipes in Sunny Sund require some finessing. It incorrectly refers to “Donn’s mix” as passion fruit juice, which we found to be too light in body for this heavy duty cocktail. But our homemade passion fruit syrup worked quite well. Try a sweet nectar as an alternative to a rich syrup.

The recipe also calls for “a few drops” of the last three ingredients, which we adjusted to add more dynamics and adhere closer to traditional proportions. All of the other measurements remain as published in the book.

Use your falernum and grenadine of choice, but in Don the Beachcomber recipes we always default to the rich syrups by Fee Brothers, which come close to the style Donn Beach would likely have used. Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 Formula Falernum from Orgeat Works is also recommended.

All Zombies require rums that are big and bold, so we went with Hamilton 151 from Guyana and Hamilton Pot Still Black, a funky 93-proof rum from Jamaica. Since there’s “only” 2 ounces in this version, we recommend using a Jamaican rum well above 80 proof. Worthy Park 109 would be another worthy choice.

Okole maluna!

PLEASE DRINK RESPONSIBLY!

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PAST ATOMIC GROG COVERAGE

First new Don the Beachcomber location on track to open in January 2024
First new Don the Beachcomber location on track to open in early 2024 (December 2023)
Photos and video provide a peek inside the restaurant in Madeira Beach on Florida’s southwest Gulf Coast, the first of many new Don the Beachcomber locations.
* New Don the Beachcomber locations launching in Florida (February 2023)

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MORE ON DON THE BEACHCOMBER

Don the Beachcomber official sites and social media
DonBeachcomber.com | Online store | Facebook | Instagram

Searching for Don the Beachcomber updates
Official website | Instagram | Facebook

The Donn of Tiki updates
Official website | Instagram | Facebook | Twitter

RELATED COVERAGE ON THE ATOMIC GROG

Top 10 stories of 2023: Tiki resurgence and appreciation breathes life into year marked by loss
Top 10 stories of 2023: Tiki resurgence and appreciation breathes life into year marked by loss
Take a look back at last year’s most significant news, including legends lost, honored and revived.
Top story No. 2: Anticipation for new Don the Beachcomber restaurant chain, film and book reaches fever pitch

The inaugural Tiki-a-Go-Go will be held in April at the Caribe Royale Resort in Orlando.
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Florida will quickly become a must-visit destination with the addition of Tiki-a-Go-Go, the return of The Mai-Kai, and the revival of the Don the Beachcomber brand.

The Atomic Grog's A-Z Cocktail Guide
The Atomic Grog’s A-Z Cocktail Guide
* 40+ classic recipes from Don the Beachcomber

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