Summer New York Adventure: Painkiller

Summer New York Adventure: Painkiller

“My understanding of Tiki is that in order to do it right, one must have balls.”
—Giuseppe Gonzalez

While I’ve been to bars that can do a few good Tiki drinks, and I’ve been to at least one place with a great, Tiki-inspired menu, I have never been to a genuine, all-dressed-up-and-ready-to-dance Tiki bar. Thus I was intent on a visit to Manhattans’ new entry in the Tiki bar resurgence, Painkiller, during my recent trip to NYC. Behind the graffiti-style warehouse door you see above (it looks dingier in person), guarded by an enormous doorman (very impressive in person), is a stairway down into a narrow enclave of play Polynesian paganism.

Maggi and I arrived just in time to grab the last two seats at the bar, right on the end. This left me with a great view of the whole operation, only slightly obstructed by the twin towers of a pair of Blendtec blenders. Painkiller is not a big joint, so get there early or be prepared to wait.
The bar, walls, and ceiling are all covered or trimmed in bamboo and rattan. There are several tiki-themed murals, as well as lots of Tikis and Tiki doodads, but the decor is actually a little bit understated for what you might expect of such a den. Every inch of shelf space behind the bar that is not occupied by bottles of occasionally mysterious ingredients is crammed full of Tiki vessels, flowers, or accouterments.

We went on an evening that ended up affording me an even greater appreciation of the skills of co-owner Giuseppe Gonzalez than I’d have gotten otherwise. His second bartender was off sick, so Gonzalez was manning the bar all by himself! In a normal bar with this many patrons, that sounds like a recipe for being “in the weeds”. In an authentic tiki bar, that’s more like being in the heart of the jungles of Borneo.
Vic or Donn would have had a squad of Philippinos (most future Tiki gods in their own rights) backing them up, but Gonzalez stood tall with but a single bar back, who seemed pressed merely to keep the man supplied with the 5 kinds of ice they use at Painkiller. For all that, the service was smooth, the drinks were great, and the Man never looked rushed. If I sound impressed, I was. I wrote to him after we got home, and I’ll integrate his answers into this review and into a future post.

Painkiller is a pure bar, with no food to offer. They have some plans to offer hot dogs sometime this Fall. (I think that to get them, you should have to go through a secret door in a phone booth in back, but that’s just me….)
The cocktail menu is essentially a place mat, with pictures of the drinks recommended, but little detail. It goes wildly counter to the trend with high-end cocktail menus I’ve seen elsewhere, with their detailed information and leather-bound luxury. Instead, here you have evocative illustrations suggesting whole classes of drinks, from the questionably Tiki Daiquiris, through the variously suffering Bastards, to the deadly Zombies. There is only one Mai Tai, of course. (Sorry Donn-o-philes.) Really, the menu is the sole decision in Painkiller’s design that I question. For those who know their Tiki, as I sort of do, the mat is a cool, retro-looking kick start to the imagination. But were someone whose prior Tiki knowledge comes only from Chinese restaurant menus to enter Painkiller, I think this menu would be confusing and intimidating, and above all uninformative. I wonder how many first-timers come in, see this menu, and decide to… bluff. New Yorkers love to bluff, as do I, but I wish there was enough here to run a good one. If you don’t know a damn thing about Tiki, don’t let that stop you from going—just be prepared to swallow your pride and ask questions. You will have a happy educational experience.

The menu aside, the drinks absolutely rocked. We had six or seven different drinks between us. The only one I confess I didn’t particularly like was the Painkiller, though that was a matter of taste, rather than execution. I contend that if anyone likes all the drinks on a menu, the menu isn’t varied enough. And you can go beyond the menu, of course. Maggi wanted a Demerara Cocktail, and Giuseppe and I went back and forth about how it should be made. Eventually, he Burger Kinged up and let us have it my way, only to have my wife declare his result was better than my usual efforts… Perfidious woman!

If all cocktails are more art than science, Tiki is even more so. Gonzalez and his partner Richard Boccato are attempting to practice the full-on (faux) dark arts of tropical intoxication. There is every bit the precision in making the drinks here as at Pegu Club, but the impression you get as you watch is of jazzy improvisation. Giuseppe notes that Painkiller is still, by design, a work in progress. The decor will change as time goes by, with new tchotchkes jostling for space with old. More importantly, they recognize that there is no best model for the tools and mis en place of Tiki drinks, only better ones… models they intend to find.

I found Painkiller to be an exhilarating place to drink. It is clearly a labor of love, and a thoroughly professional joint as well. I’m not sure I could make it a regular hangout if I lived in New York (as I could with, say, Clover Club). I’d more likely come here in waves, as tiki-philia comes and goes in my heart. Any New York cocktailian who hasn’t gotten around to Painkiller needs to… now. And if you are like me, generally a tourist in New York, put Painkiller on your list of evening entertainment—it’s not to be missed.

{As of this writing, Painkiller’s website is down. If it still is when you read this, bookmark it for later perusal.}

The Summer New York Adventure is the first truly kid-free vacation Maggi and I have taken since, well, we’ve had kids. By day, we’ll be exploring Manhattan’s Garment District, buying fabric for Maggi’s coture workings, and by night we shall explore the SoHo dining and drinking offerings, which should give me some of the best material to blog about in a good long while! Cheers!


  1. Thanks for the review! I should go check this place out!

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  2. Doug

    10 August

    Yes. Yes you should. Let me know how you like it!

      (Quote)  (Reply)

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