Don’t let the kitschy glasses with their totem pole faces fool you. While Test Pilot is indeed tiki-inspired, this new Funk Zone hotspot is not mired in the Polynesian motif of yesteryear. “We didn’t want it to be a classics bar,” said Brandon Ristaino, who owns this establishment as well as The Good Lion on State Street with his wife, Misty. “We wanted to modernize the drinks, clean them up, dry them out. In some, we switched out the rum.”
Take the bar’s titular cocktail. It’s based on the original served by Don the Beachcomber — who opened the first tiki bar ever in Hollywood back in 1933 — but the Ristainos’ version is garnished by a lime peel husk that contains a licorice-sweet absinthe foam dusted with clove. “You can add as much or as little as you’d like to the drink,” Brandon explained. “It adds body, texture, sweetness to the drink. I like my drink dry, so I just eat the foam on its own.” And the bar’s name holds more allure, too. It’s not too obvious, said Misty; it’s a conversation piece, and it “suggests, ‘Let us be your pilot.’”
Test Pilot landed in the space occupied for more than a decade by Reds and was extensively remodeled by Carpinteria’s Brothers of Industry. Though it doesn’t feature lightning effects cued to drink orders, the design subtly evokes the sea, particularly with a chandelier of ships’ wheels. “We’re big on spatial honesty,” said Brandon. “We did this in a port city near the beach.” The couple also delights in maritime and Prohibition tales, and they relish that their building once served as a brig for drunken sailors back in the day — what’s now the liquor storage room still has cell bars on its windows, in fact.
But no one should wind up in the hoosegow after cocktails at Test Pilot given they’ve figured how to pare down the often ridiculous power of the tiki canon. That goes for both alcohol and sugar. Brandon calls the original piña colada recipe “basically a sweet-on-sweet crime, so we wanted to add balance.” Part of that happens by working in a Caribbean amaro to provide “low bass notes.”
Then there are two drinks any craft cocktail aficionado should savor: El Presidente and the slyly named Suisse Family Robinson. El Presidente is “basically a rum old fashioned with pretty swank aged rum,” said Brandon, who uses a Cuban rum only available since the easing of the embargo. The Suisse Family Robinson recalls the absinthe-laced New Orleans classic, featuring that infamous Green Fairy alongside vodka, coconut, almond, lime, and Pedro Ximénez sherry. Complex as you might imagine, it both blends and angles in fascinating ways — a drink with a finish some wines might envy.
“If you’re persistent about being a bar owner, you have a hundred ideas, but this and The Good Lion are in my top five for what I wanted,” said Brandon. “I was really dying to do this.” They are particularly excited that they can access organic ingredients, even papayas, bananas, and passion fruit, locally. And while they’re not, alas, slinging their own crab rangoons, “We will work out a deal with pop-ups out front,” Misty explained. “We hope to emulate the Fig Mountain/Lucky Penny or Good Lion/Sama Sama relationship.”
Or, as Brandon put it, “We envision people on Sunday afternoons slurping down our boozy slushies and eating Mony’s tacos … at least that’s the picture we painted for our investors.”
Test Pilot is located at 211 Helena Avenue, (805) 845-2518, testpilotcocktails.com