For over 85 years, Damon’s, a Glendale institution, has offered a distinct experience to intrepid Angelenos: “If people want a steak with a Mai Tai, it’s a pretty unusual combo, but yay, there’s a place in L.A. for exactly that,” says general manager Ivana Prince. The tiki-themed steakhouse, complete with thatched roof, saltwater aquarium, and Old Hawaii-inspired murals, has been serving up thick-cut steaks and tropical drinks since 1937. Kind of.
When Damon’s first opened, after founder and candy store impresario Loyal Adelbert Damon sold off his sweets shops, its focus was more on the filet mignon and prime rib than the tropical vibe. The Polynesian decor and tiki drinks came later, inspired by the single palm tree in the center of the original location on Central Avenue. After relocating to its current location on Brand Avenue, the restaurant went full tiki, and today seats up to 300 people in a room that can only be described as a world unto itself.
“People walk in and they’re in a good mood and they’re wearing a Hawaiian shirt,” says Prince. Compared to a typical buttoned-up steakhouse, Damon’s is playful, casual, and relatively affordable, too. Several staffers, both in the kitchen and on the floor, have worked there for over 25 years, while many of Damon’s customers have been dining there for 50-plus.
To get a feel for what the storied steakhouse is like today, we caught up with Prince and lead bartender Gilbert Osuna Jr., who has been shaking Mai Tais and Chi Chis for 11 years. They walked us through their cocktail menu, which mixes classic tiki drinks with original creations, all of which, according to Prince, “feel like being on vacation.”
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Trader Vic’s 1944 Original Mai Tai
The Mai Tai, arguably the best-known tiki drink, is unsurprisingly the top seller at Damon’s. They serve it in two versions: the Trader Vic’s 1944 Original Mai Tai, which adheres to the recipe concocted by its alleged creator, Victor Jules Bergeron Jr., founder of the Trader Vic’s chain. (Donn Beach, another founding father of tiki culture, also claims to have invented the Mai Tai.) That has a blend of Denizen dark Jamaican rum and Clément VSOP amber Martinician rum, fresh lime juice, simple syrup, and what Damon’s calls their orgeat “secret sauce.” Orgeat, a toasted almond syrup made with orange flower water, is the key ingredient in a Mai Tai, and the bar at Damon’s mixes in another undisclosed ingredient to make it their own.
Damon’s Famous Mai Tai
Damon’s Famous Mai Tai is a spin on the rum-based cocktail that’s “a little more citrusy and sweet,” according to Osuna. It involves the addition of orange pineapple juices, and features a different blend of rums (Flor de Caña’s light and dark rums). Osuna pre-makes ten-gallon batches of cocktails (sans alcohol) before service each night so that he and his team can pump out Mai Tais, Trader Vic’s, and Chi Chis as quickly as possible. On any given night, the bar room is packed with people watching sports while the dining room is filled with families and dates. “We are a tiki bar, but we’re also a speed bar, because we’re really, really busy,” says Prince.
When Prince started working at Damon’s five years ago, she took the bar program up a notch by swapping out bottled juice for fresh in all of the cocktails. “It was just the way they had done it for a long time,” she says. “Think about how long Damon’s has been open. It’s gone through wars — they couldn’t always get everything fresh.” At first, longtime customers resistant to change were up in arms, sending her strongly worded handwritten notes. But Prince, who has worked in the restaurant industry for almost 40 years (including a 27-year stint at Evan Kleiman’s now-closed Angeli Caffe), stood her ground, explaining to people that they were using better ingredients without upping the price. Eventually, even the regulars agreed that this change was a good thing.
Macadamia Nut Chi Chi
After the two Mai Tais, Chi Chis are next as far as crowd favorites go. There’s the Damon’s Famous Chi Chi, which has the same blend of rums as the Damon’s Famous Mai Tai, plus fresh pineapple juice, the orgeat “secret sauce,” and cream of coconut. The Macadamia Nut Chi Chi is the rare vodka-based cocktail on the menu (most tiki drinks are rum-based), and also includes macadamia nut liqueur and shaved coconut on top. They also offer a Mai Chi, which is a combination of Damon’s Famous Mai Tai and Damon’s Famous Chi Chi (essentially, the Mai Tai with the addition of coconut cream.) “I don’t give these a shake, we just mix them, because we want the coconut cream to sit on there really well,” explains Osuna.
All of the drinks at Damon’s utilize crushed ice, which Prince says is crucial for tiki drinks, to ensure that “the drinks infiltrate those little ice balls.”
Damon’s beverage menu has two sides: Mai Tais and Chi Chis, and then tropical drinks, which consists of the bar’s own tiki creations. One of those is a neon green number called the Emerald Elixir. It has a combination of dark and light rums from the brand The Real McCoy, vanilla-spiced Licor 43, fresh orange and lime juices, bright green Midori melon liqueur, and blue curaçao. (“You have to add the right amount of each one or else it’ll be too green or too blue,” cautions Osuna.) The Emerald Elixir comes in a highball glass and is garnished with an orchid and a maraschino cherry.
All Skrewed Up Daiquiri
A lot of customers come in wanting blended drinks, like strawberry daiquiris and piña coladas, but that’s not what Damon’s specializes in. “I think blending waters down drinks,” Prince says. She also insists that their Chi Chi is basically a piña colada, but served on crushed ice and not blended. The one exception to this rule is the All Skrewed Up Daiquiri, which features Skrewball’s creamy peanut butter whiskey as its main ingredient. Osuna loves the stuff: “Whenever I make one, I’ll have a sip,” he says. The frozen drink also contains fresh banana, banana liqueur, fresh lime and pineapple juices, and the orgeat “secret sauce.” The marriage of peanut butter and banana is an homage to known appreciator Elvis Presley.
Dole Pineapple Whip
The other frozen item on Damon’s drink menu is the Dole Whip, a soft serve pineapple treat that’s made with a dedicated mix from Dole and a machine that’s similar to a frozen yogurt dispenser. Dole Whips were popularized at Disney theme parks, and many people come in to Damon’s having had one at Disneyland. Since it doesn’t have alcohol, the Dole Whip is popular with kids, though adults can add rum or vodka.
Although many of the drinks at Damon’s have been on the menu for eons, the bar team also regularly works on new creations. Coming up soon is a drink that folds Dole Whip in with a pineapple-flavored Scotch and a mango spicy margarita, to add to the non-rum-based options. “We like to keep it fresh, so there’s something for everyone,” says Prince.
Emily Wilson is a Los Angeles-based food writer from New York. She has contributed to Bon Appétit, Eater, TASTE, The Los Angeles Times, Punch, Atlas Obscura, and more. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Resy, too.