“I like to force myself to get in lanes that are stuck, and get them moving again,” says Chris Elford about his new Seattle bar, Navy Strength, that he opened with his wife and business partner, Anu, earlier this year.
In this case, that lane is tiki, the bygone bar trend of the 1950s and ’60s that brought tropical-themed food and drinks to many an establishment. Sure, there are some relics of this era, and a few newer bars bringing it back into vogue, but few are doing it well – and fewer are bringing new twists.
Navy Strength eschews the kitsch of plastic palm fronds and faux Polynesian decor usually associated with the trend and emerges with thoughtful, inventive and playful approaches to tropical flavors. That the bar is highly successful should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Elfords’ work in Seattle: The couple has operated respected cocktail bar Rob Roy for years, and recently opened No Anchor, with sophisticated food and a carefully-designed beer menu – plus beer cocktails – to critical acclaim.
The menu pays homage to “classic tiki,” with drinks like the Mai Tai and Planter’s Punch for traditionalists. The rest of the menu is divided into “Tropical” and “Travel” sections: the former, with six original cocktails, and the latter with a rotating thematic selection. One of the first stops for the travel section was India, where inspiration came in the form of a Garam Masala Whiskey Collins and a Chai Old Fashioned.
The Elfords have put Chef Jeffrey Vance in charge of food here; he’s done spectacular work at No Anchor, even earning a spot as a 2017 James Beard Award semi-finalist. Vance brings his modernist, outside-the-box approach to classic dishes like steam buns and sliders and ceviche. A tartare is made with beef heart, ikura and something called “yolk jam,” and is served on taro chips. The barbecue duck slider is layered with vandouvan barbecue and green papaya salad and served on a sweet Hawaiian roll. Mint ice cream is topped with potato chip crumbles. You can bet that in Vance’s capable hands, it all works beautifully.
The bar’s sibling coffee shop and juice bar next door uses some of the same ingredients as the cocktail bar, but its creations are sans booze. Things get crafty here, too, with choices like a cold brew “dark and stormy” and a chai latte on nitro, house-made syrup shots, and a small menu of juices, wraps, and salads.
Worth noting is that the project aims to be as welcoming as a backyard barbecue. Despite skewing high-brow, casual cocktail sippers and nerds alike will feel at home.