How to Party with Garrett Mukai
The proprietor of Shaka Shaka Tiki in Brooklyn talks about THE NEIGHBORHOOD BAR, ROWDY REGULARS and RUNNING THE BEST TINDER DATE SPOT IN TOWN.
Photo by Adlan Jackson for Critical Party Studies
In New York, the neighborhood bar has become a fetish object. If you don’t live here, all the press about socialist fuckboys on dating apps, Chapo Traphouse and anarcho-co-op publishing houses might have you thinking that we’re living in a global epicenter of Marxism over here, but on the macro scale, capitalism is kicking socialism’s ass in New York. A better world may be possible, but it’s hard to miss that real estate has already run Downtown’s desanguinated corpse through a Juice Generation press a few times, and likely won’t let up until on the island of Manhattan, every bar is run by a company calling itself a “group”, every beer costs 12 dollars, every playlist has a Khruangbin song selected by a mid-level employee at a company calling itself an “agency,” and every ass on a barstool has paid tuition to learn Python or how to prepare a deck. We’re so far through the looking-glass that enacting the practice of “hanging out at a regular bar” has developed into a tortured, self-soothing performance for the over-educated neoliberal subject. Writers like myself cling to Sharlene’s, a new spot called Fiona’s just popped up in my neighborhood, and Ray’s, an inscrutable and craven project with its own in-house designer, is so eager to provide a venue for such wretched self-consciousness that it brought a “pop-up” experience of itself to Austin for South by Southwest.
But if you can, for a moment, extricate yourself from this human centipede of images, memories and performances, you can still actually just get drunk, talk to people and become their friends. I’ve managed to do that sometimes at Shaka Shaka Tiki in Brooklyn, which is tucked just under the Barclays Center, across from the police precinct where they film the establishing shots for Brooklyn 99. When you go inside you get wrapped in a blanket of fluorescent green, and owner-and-often-bartender Garrett Mukai plays songs that sound like they snuck out of your dreams. I don’t really live in that neighborhood, but my friend Kevin introduced me to it, along with half of the Princeton graduating classes 2015 to 2019, and it’s a short bus ride away from me. Before the pandemic, I joined a choir in Park Slope, and after practice when it was cold out, I liked to get a couple of their apple Old Fashioneds made with mezcal and look at my phone, then take a dollar van back home. In the summer, my friends and I–well, really Kevin’s friends–would sprawl out on the mismatched furniture and argue about where to go dance. “At The Hotel” by Eunice Collins would be playing, or another one of those songs that sounds sadder than it is. I love it there.
On Monday, night I went to Shaka Shaka Tiki to talk to Garrett, who was born and raised in Hawaii but moved to Seattle for college, and opened Shaka Shaka Tiki in 2018.
Adlan: Why did you want to have a bar?
Mukai: I worked in food service for a long time and I always loved it. I graduated from college with a fine art photography degree, and I worked as a photographer for a little bit, but I fell out of it and was looking for work and a friend of mine who managed a cafe, I saw a posting on Craigslist for her café. I called her and was like, “do you wanna hire me?” and she was just like, “sure.” I did that for a long time and I thought well, maybe I should eventually own my own place, whenever that would have been.
And to me a bar, compared to a restaurant, is a little less stressful, if you want it to be. I’ve also worked for people who’ve created these communities for their neighborhoods in Seattle and New York, and treated their employees well, these places where employees can wear whatever they want, play whatever music they want as long as it’s good. And I was like, “I wanna open up a place like that, where I treat my employees well, they can be themselves.” I tell that to my employees now, is that the vibe is like be respectful, but be authentic. So don’t be fake nice. I guess if you’re having a shitty day you have to fake it a little bit, but we’re all faking it a little bit all the time, right?
I went to this infamous Tiki Bar in LA called Tiki-Ti on Sunset Boulevard. A friend took me there, and as soon as I walked in I was like, this is a version of heaven.
Adlan: What was it about it being a tiki bar?
Customer: Hey can I get a Paloma?
Mukai: Yeah, sure!
Amnesty’s “Liberty” starts playing.
People go to a tiki bar to have a fun time. It’s already setting up this expectation that we’re going to have a fun night. But more than that, I wanted to just be a neighborhood bar. My favorite bars were always dive-y neighborhood bars that weren’t overcharging, played good music, good regulars, good bartender. That’s the formula for me. That’s where I want to be.
Adlan: Did you always find that the discipline required to run a bar came naturally to you?
Mukai: I am a people pleaser. A food service job with that personality [comes easy]. There are so many food service workers who hate their job, or don’t let go of a bad moment, which happens all the time in food service. There’s rude people all the time. So I would hate when my co-workers or people from the industry would complain about shitty customers. Why do you wanna focus on that? That’s just a part of the job. Like, why are you telling me? I was there. [Laughs.]
Everyone is taught the being a food service worker is an in-between kind of job, and I’ve always been like, I love this shit. But I always loved it in the context of like, there’s owners and managers that want to take care of the employees as much as the customers.
Adlan: Are there moments where you get drained? There must be.
Mukai: Yeah. Those moments happen mostly away from the bar. Like when I’m here, I’m. loving it. Almost the moment I get here.
Oh, this is yours. Presenting the Paloma.
Customer: Thank you.
Mukai: It’s like with a lot of people where you don’t look forward to going to work, I experience that, too. But once I’m here it’s just like, there’s amazing regulars. And even if it’s not the regulars, there’ll be some really wonderful people that come in here, and it’s just like, oh! This is great. Even if it’s slow, or I’m having a bad day or hungover or tired, it’s just so nice. A lot of people love the space, which I feel so grateful for.
I’m trying to keep things affordable, so it’s not this like destination place, which is difficult these days because the price of everything is going up. But I still wanna have some good, affordable beers, well drinks with decent alcohol that’s still like a good price. I don’t want to price out my neighborhood. A lot of them can afford prices going up, but I want to make sure everyone can at least get something cheap here.
The biggest struggle for me is the ownership part. Managing, dealing with the different state and city fees and regulations and licenses and inspections. But there’s nothing I can do about that.
Adlan: Can you talk a little bit about how the bar has become embedded into the neighborhood?
Mukai: For the first year and a half I was working here every day, seven days a week, and so I, as the only person working here got to know a lot of people. And I loved introducing people from the neighborhood that I had met that didn’t know each other. So there’s a little bit of that.
And then when COVID happened, and we got outdoor seating, we were like oh, we should put speakers outside, and that attracts people just walking by, walking their dogs everyday. There’ve been some moments where people are like “I walk by here and you always have good music.”
Adlan: Yes! The playlist! We demand the playlist.
Mukai: But there are some regulars who love this place, and so they act as ambassadors, and they bring people in.
Kevin Cheng’s tattoo of the Shaka Shaka Tiki logo
Mukai: I love it because I get to be a little more hands-off.
Adlan: It advertises itself. The bar advertises itself.
Mukai: But a lot of the regulars here have befriended each other, and I’ve befriended them, and it feels like a family where people get along, and some of them don’t like each other, and there’s drama, and then I’m this like point person. So I’ve learned to like mitigate that and just be like, “y’all don’t have to love each other, but just be respectful of each other when you’re here. This space is for all of you.”
Adlan: I was gonna ask, you’ve probably seen so many people’s Tinder dates and are privy to so many people’s romantic lives because they bring all their Tinder dates here.
Mukai: I usually try not to eavesdrop. Usually when it’s a first date, they don’t want to sit at the bar they want to sit at a table so they don’t have an audience.
Adlan: I think it’s cool, I come here and I’m like, it’s cool that Garrett knows me and that makes me look cool.
Mukai: And then there’s some people for whom this is their first date spot.
Mukai: And they bring all their first dates here. And after their dates they come by and they’re like “so what did you think of my date?” They’re like “Garrett! I need your opinion!”
Adlan: I want you to pay attention to who I bring in.
Mukai: I’m always just like, “they seemed really nice!” Nice is good.
Adlan: What about your social life? How do you work around working at a nightlife spot. I bet it’s different now then when you were working all seven days. We, as the Shaka Shaka community, want to see Garrett have fun. So how does Garrett have fun?
Mukai: When I get off of work, or before work, I value my solo time. But even in some of my solo time, I’m like “I’m gonna go to a restaurant alone.” But I go and sit at the bar.
Adlan: Yeah, I do that too. I mean, I’m doing that right now.
I just love both of those social lives equally. On a night off, I wanna go dancing, and I probably wanna go with a friend or a date, or both, like friends and a date. And then also be open to like, meeting people when I’m out.
Customer: Could I get two Companion Negronis, please?
Customer: There’s something addictive about the coffee in there.
Mukai: Kai, who does the coffee in the morning, grinds cardamom with the coffee.
Adlan: Oh, I should ask you about the Hawaiian shirt collection.
Mukai: So, I grew up in Hawaii and I hated Hawaiian shirts. But in Hawaii, it’s kind of required attire for some events. Most weddings, men wear Hawaiian shirts. So I would go to Salvation Army and pick out the best looking Hawaiian shirt for $5 so I could dress up.
And then, fast forward to when I was twenty-four, and my sister had a wedding, and as a joke to myself I was like, I’m gonna buy a Hawaiian shirt for every day that I’m here. I went to the first thrift store in Honolulu, and was like, I’m excited about these shirts that I’m buying. And I think I left that trip with like 20 Hawaiian shirts. And I didn’t even wear them because I was in Seattle. And now it’s up to… I haven’t done a count, but I think I have like 70 at this point.
“Take Me To The Bridge” by Vera plays. Garrett sings along.
Adlan: How do you draw the line when friends are customers and customers are friends?
Mukai: I guess that line is so blurred, there are just so many regulars that have become friends. So for the most part there’s just mutual respect. There’s this x-factor of how much you’ve had to drink and how drunk people are. So sometimes you have to give someone a look. But for the most part, I feel like I can let people make their own decisions. It’s been rare that people make me make a decision for them. But there have been sometimes that I’ve had to and that’s always difficult. But, you know, I don’t want you to hurt yourself, or feel like shit, or disrupt someone else’s night, so I’m just gonna be like, I’m not gonna give you anything else. And usually, with friends, they’ll just be like “okay.” Or I’ll be like, I’ll give you half a shot. Or, well, can I split a beer with you? And they’ll be like “yeah! Let’s split a beer.” And then you’ll know, you know, that I want you to cool it.
Adlan: How does that judgment develop?
Mukai: I think it’s like, you choose inaction so many times, and have seen it go horribly, where you’re like eh, I’m just gonna not take that road. Especially with regulars, you know who they are sober, you know who they are when they’ve been drinking and when you see them go past that point, you can tell that oh, you don’t even really want to have another drink, you just want to keep hanging out.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can visit Shaka Shaka Tiki at 64 6th Ave in Brooklyn, New York, and follow them on Instagram at @ShakaShakaTiki.