Minimalist Tiki

LIVE COVERAGE & REVIEW: Don the Beachcomber grand opening in Florida is a smashing success

If there were any doubts that the inaugural “next gen” Don the Beachcomber restaurant and tropical bar would not live up to the high standards of its namesake, they were quickly put to rest during last week’s grand opening in Madeira Beach on Florida’s southwest Gulf Coast.

Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach looked immaculate before opening to the public at 11 a.m. on Feb. 23 (left). By the evening, nearly every indoor seat was filled. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)
Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach looked immaculate before opening to the public at 11 a.m. on Feb. 23 (left). By the evening, nearly every indoor seat was filled. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)

In-depth coverage below
* Menus and overview: Cocktails | Food
* Decor, music & more | Tips and guidance
Bonus cocktail recipe below: Doctor Funk
Previous: Revived Don the Beachcomber brand opens first location in southwest Florida
BREAKING NEWS: Don the Beachcomber announces new bar concept, three upcoming locations in Florida (April 2024)

The first location in a planned national rollout of escapist establishments inspired by the founding father of faux Polynesian cocktails opened to the public on Friday, Feb. 23, after three days of private parties for friends, family and VIPs. Owned and operated by Tampa- based 23 Restaurant Services, the vast 298-capacity restaurant was firing on all cylinders from the get-go.

“We are thrilled with our opening weekend, starting with a largely attended VIP party on Thursday evening,” Marc Brown, president of 23 Restaurant Services, said via email Monday. “We had over 1,200 guests join us Friday through Sunday.”

“We continue to be so excited to be a part of this community and look forward to sharing our amazing vibe and delicious food and drinks with you all,” he said, noting the huge social media reaction and “overwhelmingly positive” reviews.

Modern Caribbean Rum
The vintage booths at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, seen before the grand opening on Feb. 23, were designed by Tiki Diablo with contributions from others in the Tiki community. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The vintage booths at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, seen before the grand opening on Feb. 23, were designed by Tiki Diablo with contributions from others in the Tiki community. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

We attended Thursday’s pre-opening party as well as lunch and dinner seatings during Friday’s service, witnessing a nearly flawless launch by every measurable standard. The well-trained staff of managers, greeters, servers, food-runners, bussers, and bartenders operated like a well-oiled machine. And if there were any culinary or mixological misfires from the kitchen or bar, they were few and far between.

When we arrived late for the first official dinner service, all but one of the 20 tables and booths inside the highly immersive restaurant was full, and all of the 30 or so bar seats were taken. On the patio under a large thatched roof, at least a third of the tables were full despite a steady drizzle. Our Uber driver said he had been taking passengers there all day.

Customers were three deep at the bar for hours during the peak of service, beverage director Marie King told us later. “It was a good night.” And the crowds kept coming. The restaurant was just as packed when we left hours later, around 10 p.m.

The outdoor patio at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach has a different feel during daytime and evening hours. The huge poles were carved on-site by Tiki Diablo and his crew. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 22-23, 2024)
The outdoor patio at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach has a different feel during daytime and evening hours. The huge poles were carved on-site by Tiki Diablo and his crew. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 22-23, 2024)

Managing partner Sebastien Amoruso seemed very satisfied while surveying the scene and monitoring first-day operations. “It’s a good day,” he said during dinner service. “I’m happy. For the first day, we’re doing great.”

Amoruso estimated that 500 guests would be seated on opening day, but this might not include many who bellied up to the bar and didn’t register in the computerized point-of-sale system. I counted roughly 112 seats inside and 115 outside, plus lots of room for standing near the bar.

More seats could be added if needed, Amoruso, said. If opening weekend is any indication, that may be necessary. Saturday night was even busier than Friday, reported Donn Beach biographer Tim “Swanky” Glazner, who attended both.

The elaborately themed bar at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach is prepped and ready to go before the grand opening on Feb. 23. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)
The elaborately themed bar at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach is prepped and ready to go before the grand opening on Feb. 23. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)

But the venue never seemed crowded, with plenty of room for guests to relax and enjoy the atmosphere. Amoruso cited the expertise and experience of 23 Restaurant Services.

The restaurant group’s well-established and popular Tiki Docks locations seat around 700 or 800 on a busy night, Amoruso said. That experience with a high-volume operation served the management and staff well in designing and managing the Don the Beachcomber launch.

Despite the limitations of the space on the first floor of the Cambria Hotel, the restaurant is well thought-out, both in its design and logistics. There’s a huge back-of-house runway for the staff and a massive, strategically designed bar that abuts the kitchen. There are more than 100 team members to cover all the shifts during the restaurant’s 90 hours of operation every week.

Remember to look up. An eclectic array of lighting - including fish floats, glass balls, pufferfish and custom lamps - covers the ceilings at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach. (Photos by Jason Wescoat, Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 22-23, 2024)
Remember to look up. An eclectic array of lighting – including fish floats, glass balls, pufferfish and custom lamps – covers the ceilings at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach. (Photos by Jason Wescoat, Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 22-23, 2024)

We didn’t get a peek into the kitchen, but food seemed to be coming out quickly and efficiently. The wait staff appeared to be well-trained and enthusiastic, acknowledging guests with a friendly greeting of “Welcome to paradise!”

When we were promptly seated after the 11 a.m. Friday grand opening, our first server, Candice, offered to “guide us though our tropical journey.” Candice was a fantastic tour guide to officially start our Don the Beachcomber experience.

Just before doors officially opened, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held in the restaurant’s first-floor entrance from the hotel at 15015 Madeira Way featuring the opening staff along with local dignitaries.

The first new Don the Beachcomber restaurant officially opens in Madeira Beach on Feb. 23 with a ceremonial ribbon-cutting by Jennifer Paci of 23 Restaurant Services and managing partner Sebastien Amoruso, surrounded by opening-day employees. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The first new Don the Beachcomber restaurant officially opens in Madeira Beach on Feb. 23 with a ceremonial ribbon-cutting by Jennifer Paci of 23 Restaurant Services and managing partner Sebastien Amoruso, surrounded by opening-day employees. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Amoruso and Jennifer Paci, director of new restaurant openings for 23 Restaurant Services, cut the ceremonial ribbon to a large round of applause after an introduction by Billy Diamond, the company’s vice president of operations. Diamond singled out Paci and King for getting the staff trained and ready to open.
* Meet the 23 Restaurant Services team

Paci was instrumental in the smooth opening, King later told us by way of introduction. The restaurant industry veteran has some three decades of management experience, including the past 10 with the Tampa group. Don the Beachcomber was her 77th restaurant opening, Paci said.

Even so, this one was particularly stressful. “We didn’t want to disappoint anyone,” she said of the high expectations among fans of the brand and the legacy of founder Donn Beach. She remembered Tiki Oasis in August, when the visiting Florida restaurateurs were warned to not screw it up.

By all accounts, they didn’t. “I feel that today, when we cut that ribbon, we conquered that,” Paci said. Just to be sure, she said, she’s staying on for another two weeks to support the management team and make sure everything is running like clockwork. Around the same timeframe, King said, she’ll step back and pull fewer bar shifts as the company sets its sights on its next project.

Donn Beach's presence is felt at the new restaurant in Madeira Beach, where his likeness is immortalized in a mug and his motto adorns the back bar. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward, Jason Wescoat / Feb. 22-23, 2024)
Donn Beach’s presence is felt at the new restaurant in Madeira Beach, where his likeness is immortalized in a mug and his motto adorns the back bar. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward, Jason Wescoat / Feb. 22-23, 2024)

So what’s next for the Don the Beachcomber brand? Brown told St. Pete Rising that he hopes to open 10-15 restaurants across the Southeast over the next several years. Next up on the schedule: A new stand-alone location in the Hamlin Town Center, just north of Disney World, in 2025.

“Don the Beachcomber is the most iconic brand in Tiki history, so it’s impossible to overstate how excited we are about what lies ahead,” he said. “We look forward to leveraging our expertise in management and operational excellence to reintroduce the world to the legend that is Don the Beachcomber.”

There’s also a good chance we may soon see a more bar-centric version announced for downtown Tampa, near the 23 Restaurant Services headquarters. See our past story for more on the full scope of the development plan.

Cocktail menus & recommendations

Like at any respectable Tiki-themed restaurant, the first question people will ask is, “How are the cocktails?” We’re happy to report that nobody will be disappointed by the offerings at the first new Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach.

This should be no surprise to followers of Marie King, who holds the title of director of beverage for all of the 23 Restaurant Services properties. She has decades of experience both behind the bar and in management, creating award-winning cocktails while earning a spot as one of the most respected names in the Tiki bar world.

Beverage director Marie King serves up a Sunakora cocktail at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach on Feb. 23. Her bar staff was immediately put to the test with a big opening night crowd. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)
Beverage director Marie King serves up a Sunakora cocktail at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach on Feb. 23. Her bar staff was immediately put to the test with a big opening night crowd. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)

Before her jump to Florida, she managed and ran the cocktail program at the venerable Tonga Hut in Los Angeles and Palm Springs from 2012 until 2023. Even more applicable to her current project, she earned her Tiki rep while reviving classic Don the Beachcomber cocktails at the eponymous location in Huntington Beach, Calif., from 2009 through 2011.

King’s experience has served her well in her latest project. The Don the Beachcomber cocktail program demands someone at the helm who, first and foremost, understands and appreciates the legacy and importance of Donn Beach’s “rhum rhapsodies.” It also calls for the expertise of someone who can design a massive bar space, and train staff to operate an efficient, high-volume bar.

And it absolutely requires a thoughtful menu design and recipe selection that delivers something for everyone, not just hardcore Tikiphiles or rum fanciers. King appears to have delivered on all counts.

Before we get into the analysis of the drinks we tasted, here are images of menus you’ll receive when you visit Madeira Beach (click for larger views). You can view the official online menus here. We also need to give a shout-out to Justin Peterson, the 23 Restaurant Services creative director who not only designed all the menus, but also the official logos and artwork used in the restaurant and most of the merchandise.

Don the Beachcomber menu, Madeira Beach, Fla.

Don the Beachcomber menu, Madeira Beach, Fla.

Don the Beachcomber menu, Madeira Beach, Fla.

Don the Beachcomber menu, Madeira Beach, Fla.

Don the Beachcomber menu, Madeira Beach, Fla.

Official website: View the current menu online

Tips: The second page of the dessert menu is the same rum list seen on the cocktail menu above. It’s also important to note that only the Missionary’s Downfall is included on both, but you can order these drinks anytime. We enjoyed three “Nite Caps” with our early lunch, so be sure to ask for the dessert menu if you’re not presented with it.

Analysis: We like the rum flights as a great way for entry-level guests to sample different styles and enjoy an educational tour of different regions. The beer and wine selections are just robust enough to satisfy those who may not want to partake in spirits.

The Classics section is a nice touch, offering some well-known cocktails with premium spirits and some interesting twists. We look forward to trying the Old Fashioned, Paper Plane, and Daiquiri options.

If you enjoy multiple tropical drinks, you’ll want to mind the strength index. Of the 23 cocktails on the main pages of the menu, there are three with four skulls (strongest), 10 with three skulls (sneaky), six with two skulls (standard), and four with one skull (mild). Breaking them down by spirit, there’s one drink each featuring vodka, gin, Bourbon and mezcal, plus two tequila drinks. That leaves 16 with rum in a starring role, plus the froze with rum and rosé.

Guests enjoy cocktails during the Feb. 22 preview party at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Guests enjoy cocktails during the Feb. 22 preview party at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The dessert menu features four additional rum drinks, plus one with vodka. You can also request vodka in your Missionary’s Downfall, though we don’t understand why. If you want to go in the other direction, try the Nutty Chi Chi with rum instead of vodka. It could be a great option for Piña Colada fans.

From what we could tell, the glassware and garnish closely follow the menu imagery. The Classic Coconut Mug is currently the only mug in service. It costs $45 in the shop (or online), but you can save a buck if you buy it with the drink. We’re fans of the Mai Tai and Zombie glasses featuring custom artwork, available in the gift shop.

Featuring fresh juices and house-made syrups, the drinks follow the strict standards that Donn Beach set nearly 100 years ago. The back bar includes some great mixing rums that work well in Beach’s classics, which is where we turned our immediate attention (see below).

As noted above, King has her staff already working with the precision of veterans. During Thursday’s VIP party, six bartenders serviced a busy bar with complimentary drinks without missing a beat. The smart bar design and equipment didn’t hurt.

Don the Beachcomber bartenders use custom mixing stations in the large space designed by beverage director Marie King. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 23)
Don the Beachcomber bartenders use custom mixing stations in the large space designed by beverage director Marie King. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 23)

King later told us about the three bartender stations, each featuring two classic spindle blenders. These multi-functional, high-volume stations are sourced from Perlick’s Tobin Ellis Signature Series, then modifed slightly by Martin Cate, a member of the Don the Beachcomber advisory board. This is the same design that Cate installs in all of his bars, King said.

Our take: Donn Beach classics are put to the test

With a menu this large and enticing, it’s tempting to take a scattershot approach or just order on a whim. But we had a method behind our madness, attempting to try the 11 cocktails that King confirmed are authentic Donn Beach recipes, or as close as she can be (thanks to the books of Jeff “Beachbum” Berry).

We made it through all but one (Hot Buttered Rum), which we’ll enjoy on a future visit. While we have some clear favorites, keep in mind that this is highly subjective. All the drinks were executed very well, and we have few complaints about presentation or ingredients.

Doctor Funk, Missionary's Downfall, and Nui Nui are thee Donn Beach originals on the menu at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 22-23, 2024)
Doctor Funk, Missionary’s Downfall, and Nui Nui are thee Donn Beach originals on the menu at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 22-23, 2024)

Top tier: These six were the stand-outs that we will return to on future visits. They’re full of exotic flavors and feature great reverence for the originals.

Doctor Funk (2 skulls) – An unexpected surprise. We suspect this version hews closer to the one in the Smuggler’s Cove book by Martin Cate, rather than the less balanced recipes unearthed by Beachbum Berry (see recipe below). The dark Jamaican rum is the dominant flavor, with a perfect touch of anise. It’s a great alternative to the Zombie if you seek a similar taste but don’t want a full-throttle flavor bomb.

Kona Coffee Grog – You can find this exclusively on the dessert menu, but it’s a reverential classic that works in any situation. While it’s not flamed tableside like Donn Beach did, the flavors are right on the money, and the Hamilton 86 rum shines amid the spices.

Missionary’s Downfall (1 skull) – As expected, Marie King and her staff execute this often difficult blender drink flawlessly. The mint is not overwhelming, and the creamy mouthfeel is free from all but the most miniscule bits of tasty fresh pineapple.

Beware the Navy Grog, Rum Barrel, and Zombie. They all pack a four-skull punch. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 22-23, 2024)
Beware the Navy Grog, Rum Barrel, and Zombie. They all pack a four-skull punch. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 22-23, 2024)

Navy Grog (4 skulls) – This spot-on take on the boozy but balanced classic hits all the right notes, from the honey-allspice mix to the signature ice cone.

Rum Barrel (4 skulls) – The clear winner of best garnish, this complex but highly drinkable take on the iconic oversized cocktail does a great job balancing the sweet, sour and strong flavors. It lacks only a signature barrel mug.

Zombie (4 skulls) – The 1934 original, toned down ever so slightly but still featuring all the vintage flavors that make it perhaps Donn Beach’s crowning cocktail achievement. Hamilton Demerara 151 provides the heat, while the house-made Don’s Mix delivers the bold spice.

Second tier: Your mileage may vary on these very different cocktails. In the right situation, such as a food pairing or light option, they’re perfectly fine. They just didn’t bowl us over like those above.

The Kona Coffee Grog and Rum Cow are Donn Beach classics on the dessert menu at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 23, 2024)
The Kona Coffee Grog and Rum Cow are Donn Beach classics on the dessert menu at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 23, 2024)

Nui Nui – Not as impressive in complexity of flavor or rum selection as its more potent brethren above. We also found the cinnamon to be a bit too heavy, but that could have been bartender error.

Rum Cow – This obscure Donn Beach cocktail featured on the dessert menu is a simple but effective version that might pair well with those sweet treats. The flavors are nice, it’s just a rare occasion that we’ll opt for a cocktail featuring milk.

Sunakora – Light and refreshing with a nice presentation and fresh flavors. We’d file this under “perfect for newbies” or something you’d opt for when you’d rather avoid boozy drinks but still want exotic flavors.

Three Dots & A Dash – The rum and spices can make or break this nuanced classic. Maybe the pour was off, but we found the agricole rhum to be a too overwhelming to allow the other flavors to shine. It did pair well with the steak, however.

While we concentrated our efforts on the above classics, it was clear from the drinks we spotted around the restaurant that guests spread the love to some of King’s originals as well as others on the eclectic menu. We can’t wait to return and try more.

Food menus & overview

While cocktails and decor inspired by the godfather of Tiki culture are the key elements of the new Don the Beachcomber restaurant’s raison d’etre, the food is just as important in its overall success. It’s also the one area that veers more decidedly into more mainstream territory.

Tables and booths await diners prior to the grand opening of Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach on Feb. 23. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Tables and booths await diners prior to the grand opening of Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach on Feb. 23. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

But this may have as much to do with the palette of typical Florida diners than a conservative vision by the culinary team. The menu does push the envelope more than any other 23 Restaurant Services brand, while still cultivating mainstream appeal.

The latter is important for several reasons. Lackluster food sales would not only stunt overall profits, it would also inhibit sales of the potent cocktails if guests aren’t complementing them with robust meals. The offerings on the initial Don the Beachcomber menu are indeed robust as well as varied.

Prior to giving our thoughts on the items we sampled, here are images of the opening day menu (click for larger views). Note that the dessert menu is listed under cocktails above. You can also view the official online menus here.

Don the Beachcomber menu, Madeira Beach, Fla.

Don the Beachcomber menu, Madeira Beach, Fla.

Don the Beachcomber menu, Madeira Beach, Fla.

Don the Beachcomber menu, Madeira Beach, Fla.

The front desk also features a paper to-go menu for hotel guests and locals who want to order take-out. It features the same lineup of Starters, Handhelds, Burgers, Entrees, Greens, Sides, and Desserts you’ll find on the main menus above.

Official website: View the current menu online

Tips & details: The Pupu Platter is great for sharing, even if you have more than a party of two. Some of the same proteins featured in entrees are also offered as apps, so you can sample before committing to the larger meal.

You have lots of options to suit many different tastes at many different meals. That makes sense when you consider the kitchen serves the same menu for 12 hours a day, from early lunch through late-night bites. With the full bar always available, it also provides a great opportunity for unlimited food-beverage pairings.

As suggested on the menu, we paired the Filet Kabobs with the Three Dots & A Dash cocktail on the opening night of Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 23)
As suggested on the menu, we paired the Filet Kabobs with the Three Dots & A Dash cocktail on the opening night of Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 23)

The menu’s suggested pairings are a nice addition. Beverage director Marie King explained the logic behind them: The Filet Kabobs are skewered, as are the three cherries in the signature garnish atop the Three Dots & A Dash. “It’s a visual thing,” she said. The link between the Pupu Platter and the Scorpion is the concept of a shared experience.

The Drunken Fish-N-Chips, a British dish, pairs with the Saturn, a cocktail featuring London-style gin. “I also thought those flavors would go together,” King said. She had four or five concepts mapped out, some including flavors, but they didn’t make it onto the menu, she said.

Our take: Standout starters steal the show

Over the course of our visits, we sampled six Starters, one Entree, one Handheld, one Salad and two Sides. Hands down, our favorites were those savory apps, many available on the popular Pupu Platter.

We highly recommend the Hand-Made Crab Rangoon, Sticky Rib Skewers, Signature Low & Slow Wings, and Spice Seared Ahi Saku. The Steak Fries side dish was also outstanding. Many of these are messy finger food, but most of the servers were good about supplying wet naps.

At the new Madeira Beach restaurant, the Pupu Platter is a must-try dish while the Hollywood Wedge salad is a throwback to the golden age of Don the Beachcomber. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 23)
At the new Madeira Beach restaurant, the Pupu Platter is a must-try dish while the Hollywood Wedge salad is a throwback to the golden age of Don the Beachcomber. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 23)

We were also happy with the flavors and retro appeal of the Filet Kabobs and Hollywood Wedge salad. The plates and utensils lean more modern, but they fit the forward-leaning aspects of the restaurant and its dining room furniture.

We’d like to see more options for vegetarians, as well as a few more retro Polynesian dishes, but it’s hard to find fault with the thought process behind this menu. Keeping prices reasonable seems to have been a goal, and this menu succeeds on that count. There are just three items priced above $30.

Like most restaurants, expect some adjustments as time goes on and less popular items are jettisoned. Some seasonal items, perhaps featuring fresh Florida ingredients, would not be a bad idea. We can’t wait to see how it evolves.

Atmosphere is transportive, detailed

The first new Don the Beachcomber build-out is both ambitious in its intent and astounding it its execution. The finished product absolutely justifies the overall cost of the project, estimated to be a multimillion-dollar sum.

The custom decor envelopes the bar at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach. (Photos by Ran Mosessco)
The custom decor envelopes the bar at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach. (Photos by Ran Mosessco)

Besides beverage director Marie King, the other key member of the team that brought Don the Beachcomber to life in Madeira Beach is acclaimed Tiki bar builder Daniel “Tiki Diablo” Gallardo. The Southern California craftsman is primarily responsible for the look and feel of the interior spaces and patio seating area. But he also had a lot of help from friends.

Dave “Basement Kahuna” Wolfe (Georgia), Richard “Rum Ricky” Tokiyeda (California), plus Florida artists Tom Fowner and Patrick Vassar assisted with carving, woodwork, decor and lots more. It was nice to say hello to Vassar, who was enjoying the grand opening.

The designers also sourced materials and decor from other noted names in the modern scene, including lamp-builders Alejandro Joe Munoz (California), Matt Strickland (Michigan), and Patrick Thompson (California). Other members of the Tiki community helped make the design what it is, including author Tim “Swanky” Glazner, who connected the team with a source for the authentic Papua New Guinea masks that hang on the walls.

The five booths featuring custom lamps, vintage masks, original carvings, and jade tiles are one of the decor highlights at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 23, 2024)
The five booths featuring custom lamps, vintage masks, original carvings, and jade tiles are one of the decor highlights at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 23, 2024)

The space is marvelous in its details and adherence to classic Tiki design. All the signature elements are there: Lauhala matting, bamboo trim, tapa cloth, carved wood, tons of fish floats and other distinctive lighting. Experts were hired to install both the lighting and sound systems.

Among our favorite design elements:
* Five custom booths separated by jade tiles, each with their own distinctive lamp, masks and tapa.
* Carved totems and woodwork throughout the interior, along with the large poles on the outdoor patio.
* The design of the humongous bar, including all the carved wood, the lighting and abundance of overhead lamps.

When you walk through the space, just remember the mantra that informed not just the look and feel, but the overall design and vibe of the restaurant: “Honoring the past, stay relevant to the present, one foot in the future.” Realize that this isn’t intended to be a small Tiki bar with wall-to-wall decor, nor is it the second coming of The Mai-Kai.

Details in the decor at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach include Chinese jade tiles and custom masks. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 23, 2024)
Details in the decor at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach include Chinese jade tiles and custom masks. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 23, 2024)

It’s a highly functional yet extremely stylized restaurant that had to fit into the ground floor of an existing hotel, and also efficiently produce food and beverage to show consistent profits and ensure the future of the brand.

Do I wish there were more of those fantastic booths? Of course. But if you examine the space, you’ll see that behind the entire south wall are windows that would preclude that from happening. If possible, we’d like to see more greenery around the patio to shield guests from the outside world.

Considering the restraints, we’re happy that all the important boxes were checked when the guest experience was considered. One detail that may go unnoticed by many is the carefully curated soundtrack that you’ll hear both inside and outside the restaurant.

For that, we can thank Jonpaul Balak, Marie King’s husband and one of the most prolific musicians in the modern surf/exotica scene. You’ll find him performing and/or recording with Insect Surfers, Lords of Atlantis, Tikiyaki Orchestra (and Tikiyaki 5-0), Surfer Joe, and many others.

The sights and sounds of the interior carry through to the patio and its custom-made Tiki hut at Don the Beachcomber, attached to the Cambria Hotel in Madeira Beach. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 23, 2024)
The sights and sounds of the interior carry through to the patio and its custom-made Tiki hut at Don the Beachcomber, attached to the Cambria Hotel in Madeira Beach. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 23, 2024)

He’s also a veteran DJ with a highly recommended show – Fiberglass Jungle – streaming on Luxuria Music. We also hear he has an ambitious book on surf music history in the works. Balak enthusiastically took on the challenge of creating a great soundtrack for the new Don the Beachcomber. “I really had fun with it,” he told us Friday night while taking in the atmosphere (along with food and libations). “It’s been really enjoyable.”

You’ll hear his tunes not only in the dining areas, but the lobby, restrooms and outside the front door – serving as the siren call to unwitting passers-by. Balak said he could even hear it from a car in the street. “If I heard that, I’d pull over,” he said.

Marc Brown, the 23 Restaurant Services president, trusted him enough to give him full control in creating the soundscape, he said. “He knows enough to know that Tikiphiles expect a certain standard, and to give us carte blanche to do what we think is best,” King added.

Jonpaul Balak (second from left) and fellow VIPs Ran Mosessco (left) and Tim "Swanky" Glazner join 23 Restaurant Services creative director Justin Peterson (right) to toast Donn Beach on his birthday during a the Feb. 22 party at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Jonpaul Balak (second from left) and fellow VIPs Ran Mosessco (left) and Tim “Swanky” Glazner join 23 Restaurant Services creative director Justin Peterson (right) to toast Donn Beach on his birthday during a the Feb. 22 party at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The playlist contains an enormous amount of music, all curated by Balak and split into three different loops. “There’s probably enough for around three different days that will ultimately cycle through,” he said. A sound company made sure the speakers are hidden, so don’t look for them.

The loops are split into daytime, nighttime and after hours. As for the musical styles, there’s not as much surf as you would expect coming from him, Balak pointed out. When he did program surf music, it’s “much more chill, more relaxed and slower,” he said. “It’s not the high-energy stuff.” Added King: “It’s proper for what Tikiphiles expect.”

The core of the music is exotica, Balak said, with that being split equally between vintage and modern recordings. In the latter category, there’s a lot of Sweden’s Ìxtahuele and California’s Tikiyaki Orchestra, he said, dismissing the notion of nepotism. The band has to be in there due to its status, he said.

The background music at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach extends from the themed restrooms to the streetside seating area. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 23)
The background music at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach extends from the themed restrooms to the streetside seating area. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 23)

Among the songs we identified Friday night around 9:30 p.m. were Toes on the Nose by Eddie & The Showmen, Back Home by Los Twang! Marvels, and Strange Village by Qais Essar & Alam Khan.

The late-night loop, which plays just three days between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m., “gets a little weird” Balak warned. “I pushed it just a little bit, while still keeping it appropriate.” He said it’s “a little more rowdy, and a little more non-traditional. The vibe is there, but it’s not necessarily exotica. It’s very eclectic.”

But it also plays into the “one foot in the future” concept. “You will never go into any other Tiki bar and hear that, but you’ll realize how well it actually sets the mood,” Balak said, adding that he’s also excited to “expand and do more” as other locations come to fruition. He hinted that a future soundtrack will be “creepier” with “a really interesting twist that I think people are going to dig.”

At the grand opening of Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach on Feb. 23, Hurricane Hayward kicked off lunch with a vintage Kona Coffee Grog. He returned that evening for cocktails and dinner. (Photos by Tim Glazner)
At the grand opening of Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach on Feb. 23, Hurricane Hayward kicked off lunch with a vintage Kona Coffee Grog. He returned that evening for cocktails and dinner. (Photos by Tim Glazner)

If you go: Tips, suggestions and info

As it states on the sign outside the entrance, the “hours of escapism” are 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Sundays through Wednesdays, and 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. on Thursdays through Saturdays. The kitchen closes nightly at 11.

Reservations are not yet being accepted, but you can call (727) 870-8454 on the day of your visit if you have a large party or want to make sure you can be accommodated at a specific time. Following are some power tips for Tikiphiles.

The main entrance to Don the Beachcomber at the Cambria Hotel in Madeira Beach on opening day, Feb. 23. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)
The main entrance to Don the Beachcomber at the Cambria Hotel in Madeira Beach on opening day, Feb. 23. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)

When you arrive at 15015 Madeira Way, you’ll find two ways to access the main entrance of Don the Beachcomber. If you’re dropped off via ride-share or park in one of the many spaces on area streets, you can’t miss the facade that proclaims: “TROPICAL ESCAPISM & LIBATIONS SINCE 1932”.

There’s a modest sign with the signature Don the Beachcomber logo amid a wall of windows blocked by black and white tropical imagery, which appears to have been designed to blend in with the dark building. It’s easy to be critical of the nondescript facade, but keep in mind that hotel and city restrictions likely limited what can be done.

Tropical plants, wooden posts wrapped in rope, and a placard touting the opening flank the door as the aforementioned background music, which is actually quite loud out front, beckons you in. Once inside, you’ll immediately see the host stand ahead on your right, the gift shop on your left.

The signature peacock chair can be found just outside the Don the Beachcomber entrance via the Cambria Hotel in Madeira Beach. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 23)
The signature peacock chair can be found just outside the Don the Beachcomber entrance via the Cambria Hotel in Madeira Beach. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 23)

If you’re a Cambria guest, you’ll enter via the first-floor hotel entrance, just off the elevators. You can also come in this way via the parking garage near the valet and bell services. Under cover, this is also the best place to be dropped off during inclement weather.

Just outside this hotel entrance, you’ll find the restrooms along with the signature peacock chair photo op. Since it’s a shared hotel space, the theming is minimal but still distinctive.

Happily, the restrooms have many tropical accents, along with the same great background music that plays inside the restaurant. When you enter via this portal, the hosts and hostesses will be on your left, and the gift shop on your right.

Boaters can also dock at an adjacent marina, then follow the foot path on the east side of the hotel to Madeira Way.

The gift shop is the first thing you see when you arrive at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 23)
The gift shop is the first thing you see when you arrive at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 23)

Plan for an extended stay and arrive with time to spare on busy weekend evenings. The staff will welcome you and ask your party size. If you’re a group of two to five, we highly recommend requesting one of those amazing booths designed by Tiki Diablo. You may have to wait, but this is the perfect time to browse the gift shop.

You can pick up most, if not all, of the merchandise found in the online store at Shop.DonBeachcomber.com. We spotted a large selection, including mugs (the limited Legend Returns mug by John Mulder of Eekum Bookum is in short supply), glassware, matchbooks, apparel, and more. One of the greeters can ring you up at the host stand.

After you check in at the front desk, or before high-tailing it to the bar, be sure to look to the right for an obscure but distinctive tribute to the 1930s era Don the Beachcomber. Famously frequented by a who’s who of Hollywood stars, the original restaurant featured a display case holding chopsticks reserved for these special guests.

Just as you enter the dining area, you’ll see a small replica featuring boxes containing the utensils reserved for the 1930s Hollywood elite. Donn Beach and his wife/business partner, Sunny Sund, are at the top. Test yourself and see how many of these famous guests you actually know.

The immersive theming carries through to the check-in desk at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach. Nearby, the design team placed a display that harkens back to the original 1930s restaurant: A case containing a collection of celebrity chopsticks. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 23, 2024)
The immersive theming carries through to the check-in desk at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach. Nearby, the design team placed a display that harkens back to the original 1930s restaurant: A case containing a collection of celebrity chopsticks. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 23, 2024)

While you wait for a table or booth, feel free to to walk over to the bar and order a pre-meal cocktail. Mosey around the restaurant, both inside and the patio, and admire the craftsmanship that went into the build-out.

If the wait appears to be long and bar seating is available, chill out and grab an app or a side dish. You’ll receive a text to return to the host stand when your table or booth is ready.

You’ll be temped to try many different dishes and cocktails, which we endorse. It’s a great menu to approach tapas style if you’re a large group. Pace yourself with the drinks, however, and be aware of the strength ratings.

In subtle ways, the restaurant appears to be mindful of being environmentally friendly. Restrooms feature air hand-dryers only, and we didn’t spot any plastic utensils or straws. Cloth napkins are standard with food, while we noticed that small paper cocktail napkins were used sparingly.

The Missionary's Downfall is served at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach on opening day,  Feb. 23. Coasters and swizzle sticks make perfect souvenirs. Zombie and Mai Tai glasses are available in the gift shop. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)
The Missionary’s Downfall is served at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach on opening day, Feb. 23. Coasters and swizzle sticks make perfect souvenirs. Zombie and Mai Tai glasses are available in the gift shop. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)

Most of the time, signature cardboard coasters accompanied our drinks. This is a great touch, but be aware that they appear to be made of a biodegradable material and will start to fray if they absorb too much moisture. If you want a pristine souvenir, you might want to set it aside before it gets too wet.

Servers and bartenders will offer you Greenprint biodegradable straws, both short and long versions, for soft drinks and many of the cocktails. The Navy Grog comes with its signature ice cone pre-loaded with a metal straw, while some don’t require a straw.

Some cocktails do come with stylized plastic swizzle sticks, but these are highly decorative works of art that are unlikely to end up in the trash on a frequent basis. Most likely go home with guests. If you don’t receive a swizzle, ask which cocktails feature them.

This inaugural Don the Beachcomber is sure to be a destination for discerning Tiki enthusiasts for the foreseeable future. Unless you live in the Pinellas County area, you’ll want to book accommodations at the Cambria or one of the numerous hotels, motels, cottages, condos, and resort properties nearby.

Picturesque beaches are just a short walk from Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 23, 2024)
Picturesque beaches are just a short walk from Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 23, 2024)

The public beach is just a 5-minute walk from the Cambria Hotel. Tiny Madeira Beach, which is 5 miles north of St. Pete Beach, offers endless ways to enjoy the Gulf of Mexico waters, according to the state’s Visit Florida website. The area features distinctive activities Florida is known for, including tour boats, a cruise on a pirate ship, and attractions including the Alligator & Wildlife Discovery Center.

“Mad Beach” is also a short drive from world-class galleries and museums, including the Dalí Museum. In addition, it’s worth noting that the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area is an LGBTQ+-friendly destination.

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

Other media coverage
* Iconic tiki bar and restaurant Don the Beachcomber now open in Madeira Beach (St. Pete Rising)

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BONUS COCKTAIL RECIPE

The menus at both Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s featured cocktails called Doctor Funk, named for an eccentric German medical practitioner who moved to Samoa in the late 1800s.

The classic Doctor Funk is served at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach during a preview party on Feb. 22. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The classic Doctor Funk is served at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach during a preview party on Feb. 22. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

According to legend, he not only tended to the locals but also Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, who passed away on the South Pacific island in 1894. Dr. Funk also had a flair for mixology, creating a “medicinal tonic” featuring lime, grenadine, seltzer, and absinthe.

Those same ingredients were featured in the 1930s and ’40s versions by Donn Beach and Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron, making this perhaps the first true Polynesian cocktail. Jeff “Beachbum” Berry published two different versions in Intoxica (2002) and Remixed (2010). [Click here for the recipes]

However, we prefer the slightly adjusted version Martin Cate included in his 2016 book based on the cocktails at his award-winning San Francisco bar, Smuggler’s Cove.

Apparently, so does Marie King, director of beverage for 23 Restaurant Services and Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla. The debut menu at the first new location of the resurrected brand features a very similar tasting Doctor Funk cocktail, which the menu touts as featuring “dark Jamaican rum, pomegranate, lots of fresh lemon and lime, and a touch of anise.”

The Smuggler's Cove version of Doctor Funk, along with glassware and swizzle sticks available at the new Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Florida. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, February 2024)
The Smuggler’s Cove version of Doctor Funk, along with glassware and swizzle sticks available at the new Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Florida. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, February 2024)

DOCTOR FUNK
(By Don the Beachcomber)
From Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum and the Cult of Tiki

  • 1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
  • 1/4 ounce grenadine
  • 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
  • 1/2 ounce simple syrup
  • 2 1/4 ounces dark Jamaican rum
  • 1/4 ounce Herbsaint
  • 1 ounce seltzer

Instructions (modified): Flash blend in a spindle mixer for 5 seconds with a heaping cup of crushed ice. Pour unstrained into a pilsner glass containing 1/2 cup of crushed ice.

Cate calls for a simple garnish of a ti leaf or pineapple fronds. An old Don the Beachcomber menu shows a cherry speared to a lemon wedge. King does the same in Madeira Beach, along with a lime peel.

Recipe and ingredient notes

The Smuggler’s Cove version calls for a “black pot still unaged rum,” which means Hamilton Jamaica Black. The Don the Beachcomber menu says “dark Jamaican rum.” We split the difference and went with 1 1/4 ounces of Hamilton and 1 ounce of Coruba, which comes close to the flavor we remember.

If you’re looking to make a better approximation of the cocktail served in Madeira Beach, we’d recommend dialing back the Herbsaint (or Pernod) to a teaspoon or less to come closer to the advertised “touch of anise.” Along with that, the color and taste indicate more grenadine, so we’d recommend 1/2 ounce of a rich pomegranate syrup (homemade if possible) to mimic what Marie King’s crew makes in-house.

Okole maluna!

PLEASE DRINK RESPONSIBLY!

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BREAKING NEWS

Don the Beachcomber announces new bar concept, three upcoming locations in Florida
Don the Beachcomber announces new bar concept, three upcoming locations in Florida
Everything you need to know about the expansion of the iconic restaurant brand, including a full recap and photos from Tiki-a-Go-Go in Orlando, plus new renderings and info on the new sites.
>>> LATEST INFORMATION, PHOTOS, MORE
In-depth coverage
* Full coverage of Tiki-a-Go-Go presentation
NEW: Renderings, plans for Orlando restaurant revealed
* Gantt Reserve Collection bars introduced
NEW: Upcoming South Florida location uncovered
* The Donn of Tiki makes a splash at Florida Film Festival
* Donn Beach biography expected next spring

PAST ATOMIC GROG COVERAGE

Revived Don the Beachcomber brand opens first location in southwest Florida
Revived Don the Beachcomber brand opens first location in southwest Florida
The historic Polynesian-themed restaurant and bar concept re-launches in Madeira Beach, the first of several locations planned for Florida over the next several years.

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

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

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

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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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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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