"I had a lychee tree in my front yard and a mango tree in my back yard; those are the flavors that I often work with."
In 2003, Julie Reiner opened the Flatiron Lounge, which was a frontrunner in the New York cocktail scene. Its focus on the use of fresh juices, house-made syrups, and high-quality ingredients was unique at that time—but the fact that a woman ran the show made it even more groundbreaking. Since that time, Julie has taken her passion and creative libations across the river to Clover Club in Carroll Gardens, and has now returned to Manhattan with Lani Kai, a breezy modern tropical space with flavors to match. Opening a new venture (her largest yet) while running her other venues keeps Julie quite busy and on the go, so we chatted with her on the phone recently to learn more about Lani Kai, and what it's like to be a successful woman in what is still very often viewed as a "boys club."
Name: Julie Reiner
Occupation: Owner, Lani Kai, Clover Club, Flatiron Lounge
What was the first memorable cocktail you ever had and how did it become the focus of your career? When I was working in San Francisco, I frequented a lounge called The Red Room. The place was staffed with all female bartenders who were putting out high quality cocktails; I was truly inspired by the cocktail program, which was how I ended up becoming a bartender. Michelle ConnolIy, the opening manager of The Red Room, would later become my business partner at Flatiron Lounge.
You've often reiterated that Lani Kai is not a tiki bar, rather more tropical or modern Hawaiian. I have always said that Lani Kai is 'modern tropical,' but the press has said that it's Hawaiian because I grew up there. Growing up in Hawaii was definitely an inspiration—but I really just wanted to create a space that felt tropical and modern, in the same way that some of the hotels are designed on Oahu. If you look at tiki books it's very heavy, with dark wood and very cluttered, as opposed to more of a minimalist, modern tropical look. Lani Kai has crisp lines with fresh flowers and a tropical feel and not that kitschy feel that most tiki bars have.
What changes have you made to the space, which some may remember as Tailor in its prior life? We've really made the space more feminine. Tailor was very dark and masculine; we've brightened it up with light woods, some really colorful wallpaper. My brother created a beautiful capiz shell chandelier for us that has sixteen thousand capiz shells above the stairwell that leads to the lower lounge. It is a beautiful work of art!
Who is heading up your bar and your kitchen? Our chef is Craig Rivard, the executive chef at both Clover Club and Lani Kai. We wanted the food menu at Lani Kai to be Asian-influenced and to bring in some Hawaiian elements like the Pu-Pu Platter.
My head bartender is Joseph Swifka. He was working over at Flatiron Lounge, for the last year. I'd go over to Flatiron and he always had really interesting tropical cocktails. My original style of drinks was very tropical without being tiki, where I was taking these flavors that I had grown up with like lemongrass and lychee and utilizing them with a gin drink; he was doing similar things.
What ingredients are you using in your cocktails to evoke the feel of the beach in Hawaii that inspired you? I had a lychee tree in my front yard and a mango tree in my back yard; those are the flavors that I often work with. On the menu you'll find macadamia nut orgeat, a house almond orgeat, mango, passionfruit, lemongrass, coconut milk, kalamansi, ginger, and fresh squeezed pineapple juice (which is so much better than the canned stuff).
This is the fourth spot you've opened in the city. Does it get easier or more difficult with each new opening? Really, each one is different. With each one I learn something new, and think, "I've so got this now"—but then we open the next one, and there's always a different curve ball, whether it's the Department of Buildings or the State Liquor Authority, the contractors—each spot we've done there's been a different hurdle to jump over. You get better at it; I'm definitely better at openings and having our openings be a well-oiled machine, but no matter how you slice it, openings are hard. This is the biggest space I've done yet, which is challenging.
What advice would you give to female bartenders and mixologists who may still feel that the cocktail industry is still very much a male-dominated world? Stick with it, hold your own, and don't take any shit. The most successful women who work in my bars focus on learning as much as they can about cocktails, and aren't intimidated by the boys' club that is the cocktail world currently.
Where (and what!) do you drink when you're not at work? I'm a creature of habit. I drink Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, Martinez, gin Martinis. If I'm going to have a juice cocktail, Margaritas and Mai Tais. One of my favorite newer spots is Mayahuel. I love what Phil [Ward] is doing with tequila over there. And I love Prime Meats in Brooklyn. It's more of a restaurant, but they have a great bar team—they're not as geeky about it, but you can get a great cocktail there.
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