Modern Caribbean Rum

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

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.

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.

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Minimalist Tiki

Lost Cocktails of The Mai-Kai: The late Dr. Fong has a funky and famous history

Updated March 2024
See below: Ancestor recipes UPDATED | Tribute recipe | Dr. Fong review
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide | More “lost cocktails” | Tropical drink family tree

The concept of a “Polynesian” cocktail is somewhat of a misnomer. While most tropical drinks have names and imagery that recall Polynesia, most are actually Caribbean rum concoctions reinvented by American restaurateurs. One notable exception is the distinctive Doctor Funk, also sometimes known as Dr. Fong.

Bernhard Funk
The real Doctor Funk (from The Cyclopedia of Samoa, via TikiCentral.com)

Doctor Funk was an actual person as well as a real Polynesian drink. Born in 1844 in Germany, Dr. Bernhard Funk migrated to Samoa around 1881 and was reputedly the first medical practitioner in the capital city. He became friends with Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson (author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and was the bedside doctor when Stevenson died in 1894 in Samoa.

Dr. Funk was not only a skilled doctor but also a mixologist of some note. The Doctor Funk was a notorious drink that became known throughout the region. It was mentioned by travel writer Frederick O’Brien (1869-1932) in his books White Shadows in the South Seas (1919) and Mystic Isles of the South Seas (1921). The latter calls the drink “a portion of absinthe, a dash of grenadine – a syrup of the pomegranate fruit, the juice of two limes, and half a pint of siphon water.” It was apparently served by the doctor as a “medicinal tonic.”

Doctor Funk
From a Don the Beachcomber menu.

Dr. Funk thrived in Samoa, marrying the daughter of a chief, but health problems caused him to return to Germany, where he died in 1911. After his death, a granite stone was placed in his honor on the shore of the mysterious Lake Lanoto’o in Samoa, where Funk had built a health resort. The secluded lake still contains goldfish, illegally introduced to Samoa by Dr. Funk. For a lot more on the life and times of Bernhard Funk, check out this great research on Tiki Central by Sven Kirsten (bigbrotiki), Tom Duncan (TikiTomD), and many others.

A drink this legendary and rooted in the South Pacific was perfect fodder for Tiki bar pioneers Donn Beach (Don the Beachcomber) and Victor Bergeron (Trader Vic’s). Both created Doctor Funk cocktails in the 1930s and ’40s with pretty much the same flavor profile. But over the years there became so many different versions by Beach, Bergeron and many others, it became impossible to pinpoint a definitive “original” version.

The Dr. Fong cocktail returned to The Mai-Kai in September 2016 during a special event celebrating the release of the book ‘Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant.’ (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The Dr. Fong cocktail returned to The Mai-Kai in September 2016 during a special event celebrating the release of the book ‘Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant.’ (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Doctor Funk also inspired variations with names such as Dr. Fong and Dr. Wong. Many of these became synonymous with the (now somewhat politically incorrect) Fu Manchu-style Tiki mug that was widely produced in the mid-century. Restaurants across the country simply invented their own drinks called Doctor Funk or Dr. Fong to go into the mug (see “bilge” at the very bottom of this review).

When The Mai-Kai opened in 1956, the menu included a Dr. Fong cocktail based on one of the Don the Beachcomber versions of Doctor Funk. This is where bartender Mariano Licudine worked for nearly 20 years, mixing the drinks that became the template for most of the original 1956-57 Mai-Kai menu.

Luckily for us, Tiki historian and author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry has over the past 15 years decade published two of Beach’s Doctor Funk recipes, which I’ve included below. In 2016, thanks to another author, guests at The Mai-Kai were finally able to taste the authentic Dr. Fong after an absence of more than 40 years.

Dr. Fong was featured on a special lost cocktails menu in September 2016 during the book release party for Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant by Tim “Swanky” Glazner.

The special event also featured several other long-lost cocktails (Hanalei Bay and the Demerara Float) plus two days of gatherings of Mai-Kai enthusiasts from across the country.

Dr. Fong, August 2017

The book chronicles the history of the iconic restaurant, named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2014. [Pick up a copy on Amazon]

Dr. Fong returned again in August 2017 as part of The Mai-Kai’s monthly Flashback Friday promotion, including a special new recipe. See more below under the Tribute recipe notes.

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