Riff Raff's Isn’t Your Mother’s Tiki BarSeptember 1, 2011 By: Sean Evans
The booming bass beckons you closer as you stride down the long corridor between Riff Raff's front door and the frenzied central room. It’s not uncommon to bump into a few face-painted revelers making their way out of the main space to the bathroom; their colorful adornments, worn like a badge of honor, are enough to make you grin and wonder what you’re walking into.
Turn the corner into the room, and the “Where The Wild Things Are” bash, held every Tuesday, is in full swing. The energy is palpable and the crowd within the New York City venue — pretty small at about 1,500 sq feet — is not only embracing the outlandishness of the space and bash — they’re eating it up with a spoon.
This is just the way owner Michael Stillman likes it. “It’s an artistic vision which we’re happy to see come to fruition,” he says.
The concept of the venue is a crazy party in a Polynesian barn, essentially, which means taking the Tiki motif to a whole new level. The 15 tables are laid out in a horseshoe, and the entire room is made of wood. Covering the walls and ceilings are 120 Malaysian framed tapestries.
“We sent some designers over to Indonesia to curate the collection. It wasn’t cheap, but it makes the room look incredible,” Stillman says. “I love design, so, for me, it’s better than just painting the walls black and putting in some strobe lights.”
Yet the theme is done ironically. “It’s not authentic. It’s ridiculous. It’s even worse than it was in the '50s,” says Stillman, who explains that when Tiki was originally popular in decades past, it was a romanticized version of what Americans thought of far-off tropical places. Now, Tiki is more a comment on a particular time and mindset of American culture. “We’re taking that ironic look back at that and modernizing it. And people like it.”
Most interestingly about Riff Raff's is that the name is particularly apt. “There’s a lot of riffing here,” Stillman says.
The evolution of the parties, in particular the “Where The Wild Things Are” bash, has been an organic and natural one. “Our staff is a small family, and everyone is involved in the creation of a nightly artistic vision,” he says.
Staffers, guests and clients bring fun ideas to the lounge all the time, such as a group of neighborhood girls who came weekly with handmade headdresses.
“Their headdresses had nothing to do with the room, or the party, or the night, but we loved it. And other people reacted well too,” Stillman says.
Then a cocktail waitress brought in face paint, and the customers embraced that, too, dragging brushes of brightly colored dyes across their own faces. “We try not to take ourselves too seriously. Other places are very controlling about what they let their staff and customers do, and everything is very premeditated. Here, we just have a great ebb and flow, and let those enjoying the room do so as they see fit.”
Stillman admits he was the first to say the “Where The Wild Things Are” party would be a disaster. "But it’s become an amazing theme. What’s important is that we try not to take ourselves so seriously. We’re less polished on purpose. It’s definitely haphazard, but it’s purposefully in that manner. It’s about feeling of the moment.”