Like a lot of great tiki bars, Burbank’s Broken Compass is built on a sense of discovery. The five-month-old bar on Burbank Boulevard doesn’t give anything away from the street, save for a backlit nylon sign that hangs over the front of the building. There’s even an antechamber between the outside and inside doors — a kind of airlock that separates two worlds. Outside there is Burbank, the sleepy studio town at the edge of the San Fernando Valley, filled with single-family homes and quiet streets after 8:30 p.m. Inside, Broken Compass is a wonderland of rum and falernum, of ropes and thatched roofs and pupu platters. It’s the type of faux-island paradise that draws in Jimmy Buffet aficionados and rabid followers of people with names like Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber.
“I just love the look and feel of places like this,” says co-owner Erica Abell, who is also Broken Compass’s chef. “I love old Hollywood. I love Vegas. The real world is not like this.” Abell is the chef and one-third of Burbank’s newest boozy hangout, along with partner and husband Walker Roach and friend Frank Howell. All three worked for years in various capacities at Boneyard Bistro, slowly hatching plans over too many mai tais to build something of their own.
That opportunity came in the form of a nondescript mid-block drinking spot that most locals would know as the closed Buchanan Arms, dating back to 1977. The longtime landlords of the building, who doubled as the bar’s proprietors, were looking to walk away completely, land and all, so in the summer of 2019 the three longtime friends decided to give it a go. They pulled in private money, bank loans, and added plenty of personal sweat equity to turn the place into a suitable pub for a time, but they always had plans of going the full tiki route, complete with a pointed bar that looks like the bow of a boat.
“We knew what we wanted to do, what we wanted the place to look like, from the beginning,” says Roach. “We became pretty severe tiki-philes over the past 10 years or so. We’ve been to most tiki bars in California and a handful across the country. So that became the goal.”
“There’s also a little undercurrent of strange in Burbank,” adds Howell. “There are two stores dedicated to the dark arts, these other Halloween stores, and some really strange vintage shops. We kind of fit into that category.”
They quickly spruced up the old Buchanan Arms, giving it a more nautical theme and adding food under the name the Burbank Pub. Six months later the pandemic arrived to slow them down considerably — “It was just us, trying to do takeout. We did like five different ghost kitchen concepts as well,” says Abell — but it didn’t dampen the dream. With the help of some financial assistance, the pub managed to stave off closure, and the team kept plugging away on their tiki dreams with the help of Kelly Architects. Construction started in June 2022 with Broken Compass opening just before Halloween.
The transformation has been stunning. Broken Compass is a world unto itself in Burbank, a mix of lush plant life and shipwrecked ephemera all woven together with color and flair. The bar plots a course directly towards tiki staples with Navy grog, painkillers, zombies, and other rum-forward cocktails, while Abell’s food menu hits poke nachos, jalapeno poppers, and remaining pub must-haves like burgers and a club sandwich.
There are seashells with booze in them and towering piles of onion rings, all handed over by people in floral-printed shirts while purposefully kitschy music warbles from hidden speakers. The collection of wicker lanterns, old pirate hats, and parrot imagery add up to create a world away, an eclectic and evolving mix of wooden boats, pirate adventure, and tropical paradise. “To me, a tiki bar is never finished,” says Roach. “A good one should only ever be about 90 percent done.”
Howell, Roach, and Abell are also aware of the many important conversations around tiki culture and its history of colonization and appropriation. “We’re capital-P pirate, and lowercase-T tiki,” says Roach. The group’s backstory for the bar revolves not around ancient Pacific Islander communities, but around a forgotten shipwreck and a group of lost soldiers trying to turn an abandoned island into a livable paradise. “If you look around, there’s not a lot in the way of idols and things. The focus is on island architecture and nautical stuff. I don’t think you have to have a statue of Pele to be a tiki restaurant.”
Abell agrees, adding that the fake fire and tiki torches found at other overproduced spots can come off as corny. “We want to be Pirates of the Caribbean meets the Enchanted Tiki Room by way of Gilligan’s Island,” says Roach. “Everything else in the universe is four square walls, some minimalist decor, and a few expensive accent pieces. This is an opportunity to do something different.”
“It enhances the drink and food when the environment lends a hand,” says Howell, leaning on the curving wooden tip of the Burbank bar that he helped bring to life with his friends. Above him, the handpainted ceiling charts a map to points unknown. “You can’t not smile,” says Abell. “It’s like going to Disneyland minus the lines.”
Broken Compass Tiki operates Tuesday through Friday, noon to 10 p.m. (11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights) at 2013 W. Burbank Boulevard, Burbank, CA 91506.