“To me, tiki is a lifestyle,” says Pete Arnone, aka “Tiki Pete,” spirit animal/mascot/logistical supervisor of all things ‘Mahalo’ at chef Jamie Knott’s tiki-themed Cellar 335 in Jersey City. Arnone works as the director of operations for Knott’s larger restaurant group, which includes the Saddle River Inn and Saddle River Café, but his heart lives at Cellar 335. “That’s my baby,” he says. “Even my business cards say Tiki Pete.”
No surprise, then, that Arnone is leading the team at Cellar 335’s first-ever “Sleighs N’ Leis” holiday pop-up—a month-long celebration with holiday-themed drinks and decorations. If you’re wondering how a cocktail culture with fixtures like the “Zombie” cocktail fits into a season of eggnogs and mulled wine, well, so were we.
According to Arnone, even in its heyday in the 1950s, “it was very Tiki to do something super-Christmassy.” There’s a natural confluence of kitsch in tiki and the Christmas season. I liken it to Pier 1 Imports on acid, plus rum, and Arnone doesn’t disagree. “Everything is over the top and kind of crazy to look at,” he says.
In order to transform Cellar 335 from tiki to “Mele Kalikimaka,” staff came in on November 25 and spent six hours decorating, followed by some impromptu caroling around the neighborhood to advertise the pop-up. “You see a group in tiki shirts, you stop and stare,” Arnone says. “Especially when they’re singing Christmas music.”
This year was a natural year to add something new at Cellar 335, which opened in August 2016 beneath the White Eagle concert hall in fast-developing downtown Jersey City. “We thought ‘Let’s really go for it this year, go over the top, go really Christmassy.’ And it ties in with tiki so easily,” says Arnone.
The food menu doesn’t change as part of the pop-up. “That menu changes seasonally,” says Arnone. The real draw of Sleighs N’ Leis is the drinks menu—”basically Christmas cocktails with a tiki twist,” Arnone says. “It might be in a Santa mug and taste like Christmas, but it also tastes like the beach.” Popular drinks include the Frozen Hot Chocolate, with hot cocoa mix, coconut milk and cream, and Puerto Rican rums (aged and silver, says Arnone) “to give it that islandy vibe.” (Move over, Swiss Miss.)
There’s the Rum Rum Rudolph, featuring Barbados rum, Laird’s Applejack, gingerbread spices, pineapple and coconut cream. “The cream acts like icing on the gingerbread cookie,” says Arnone. “A tropical gingerbread cookie.” And you might recognize the name Yukon Cornelius—he’s the rotund axe-wielding arctic tracker from the 1964 stop-motion classic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” At Cellar 335, it’s also the name of a drink with bacon fat-washed rum, pineapple juice, crème de cacao and orgeat, a tiki staple that blends well with holiday flavors. “Orgeat really kind of settles the whole drink,” says Arnone.
The Christmas vibe is already a hit with locals, and it’s also a way for Cellar 335 to settle itself deeper in to a neighborhood in flux. “The neighborhood is changing drastically,” says Arnone. “Buildings are being knocked down. The past three years, I think 10 new buildings have gone up—that I can see from our front door.”
Cellar 335’s holiday pop-up is instant escape. “Tiki really came about at a time when people couldn’t afford to go on vacation,” says Arnone. “We want to create a world where you can lose yourself.”
And Sleighs N’ Leis might be just the beginning. “With how successful this one’s been, we’ll definitely consider doing something else.”
Cellar 335 is located at 335 Newark Avenue in Jersey City; 201-222-1422. Sleighs N’ Leis runs through the end of January. Tiki Pete maintains his enthusiasm for all things tiki all year long.