.The Tropical Origins of San Pedro Square’s Dr. Funk

How a renowned tiki bar designer brought a masterwork to San Jose

A shipwreck victim washes onto a beach, awakening to the sea gently lapping as the sun reflects off the soft sand. The air is fresh. It smells like rum, citrus and fennel. The wind rustles through palm trees. The beach stretches to the horizon. Ahead, amongst the palms and mystery, is what looks like a wooden building with porthole windows. An upbeat ukulele plays somewhere within.

Welcome, traveler. Dr. Funk has been expecting you.

Who is Dr. Funk? How did he get here? And what is a castaway doing in San Pedro Square?

Take a seat, relax, have a tiki cocktail, and I’ll tell the tale of how Dr. Funk came to San Jose…

LITERARY PAST

I suppose it all began with Robert Louis Stevenson. He was a 19th-century Scotsman who gained quite a bit of fame for his writings: Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He, in all his wisdom and forethought, hired one Dr. Bernard Funk to be his personal physician on his travels to and from Samoa. Stevenson wrote, “it would never do to quarrel with the doctor, and the doctor, though he tipples a little and gabbles much, is a good man whom I respect.” In fact, Dr. Funk held the prestigious title of “personal physician to the scribe” until Robert’s mortal spirit jumped ship.

In addition to other remedies, the good doctor also used absinthe to great effect. His legendary concoction was infused with the spirit of life on the high seas. It was all going along swimmingly until Dr. Funk himself passed, and his “medicinal tonic” was all but forgotten.

Until…

A guy named Ernest Raymond Gantt showed up on the scene. Taking the name Donn Beach, he revived the lost elixir of Dr. Funk and kicked off one of the liveliest trends of the modern era: tiki culture (not bad for a kid from Limestone County, Texas).

Specifically, Beach opened up Don the Beachcomber in 1930s Hollywood. Prohibition was over and people were finally getting out and socializing; Don the Beachcomber gave them a new and exciting experience. All went well for Beach until America joined the war: He was in it the whole slog 1942-1945. Upon his return, he expanded. 

By then, the tiki fad was spreading all over. There were many imitators—and some innovators. Don was in heated competition with Victor J. Bergeron’s Trader Vic’s, and the cocktail wars were on. And thus the glorious memory of the good doctor was rekindled in a cocktail that would be a beacon of good times forevermore: the Dr. Funk.

So that’s how Dr. Funk sailed from 19th-century Samoa to 20th-century California. From there, he inspired a tiki venue in 21st-century Silicon Valley.

TIKI CULTURE

Creating a new tiki bar takes a lot more than some pineapples and bamboo siding. The Dr. Funk cocktail is great and all, but try finding the money and talent to build a space in which to serve it. It’s hard to find the right decor, craftspeople and bartenders. For this absurd undertaking to work, it has to be perfect. Few if any would try it, let alone pull it off.

Luckily, the people at the very end of the Bay are quite adept at trying and achieving the near impossible. So, as it happens, two crazies found each other and got to work on a destination that was worthy to serve a Dr. Funk.

To fulfill a grand vision you need two characters: the Visionary and the Executioner.

In the case of our Dr. Funk, the visionary was downtown bar impresario Dave Mulvehill, and the executioner was the fabrication genius behind Top Notch Customs: Ignacio “Notch” Gonzalez.

The story goes that Mulvehill was pondering what made his landmark location, O’Flaherty’s Irish Pub, work so well. He decided it was the timelessness of its theme. So he cast about for another classic concept. 

“I did some research on tiki bars and decided it would be a great addition to the bar/restaurant scene, found a location and never looked back,” Mulvehill says.

Like all effective visionaries, Mulvehill handed off responsibility to the best talent he could find—and the impossible began to happen.

Working with his creative director, Genna Carr, he settled on a name: Dr. Funk. Unlike Robert Louis Stevenson, who sailed half a world to meet his Dr. Funk, Mulvehill happened to live a few miles away from a renowned tiki bar builder. Fate worked its levers soon thereafter and Mulvehill was introduced to Ignacio “Notch” Gonzalez.

TIKI MAESTRO

Unbeknownst to Mulvehill at the time, one of the world’s most respected tiki craftsmen lives in San Jose. 

In the world of tiki fandom, people speak in reverent tones about Smuggler’s Cove, Hale Pele, False Idol, Max’s South Seas, and Inside Passage. Notch built them all. He’s in books, in magazines; the rich and famous want to be like him and he wants little to nothing to do with them. He’s a talented visual designer, a skilled machinist, a good communicator and a creator of ideas. He makes ideas. Like, have an idea? He’ll make it how you dreamt it.

It didn’t take long for Mulvehill to hand over the keys to Notch. 

“Notch was given two ideas: ‘Dr. Funk’ and ‘tiki bar,’” he says, smiling. “I said, ‘Knock yourself out.’”

Notch took that direction to heart and used the space as a master’s canvas. 

With hand-carved wood and one-of-a-kind decorations, he aimed to create a living work of art—a full-time haven for tiki lovers who frequent the weekend-only Tiki Pete and the Trader Vic’s outpost at the San Jose airport.

INSIDE THE FUNK

When one enters the porthole double doors, the place pulls visitors in like a riptide. Once the eye adjusts, the first thing it sees is a bubbling mixology display above the bar alcove. Booths made of palms line the perimeter. Tikis emerge from all corners and crevices. It starts to feel like you haven’t walked into a bar, but rather the set of Gilligan’s Island. It could almost make a visitor want to get shipwrecked.

Indoors, Dr. Funk is large but it feels intimate. There is a lot of detail to take in. If for nothing else, thirsty visitors can get inspiration for a dream home island getaway. At its heart, Dr. Funk is a destination: a vacation, an event every time you step in.

One look around shows that someone went to great lengths to make this tiki oasis possible—and not just Dave and Notch. Don the Beachcomber worked to get this here too. Heck, Robert Louis Stevenson died for it, and Dr. Funk himself spent a lifetime inspiring the spot.

Every bar has a story. Some of them inspire the building itself; others are the stories of the builders. The rest are the stories of those who run the place and those who enjoy it. Surely, no shortage of stories will find their start here.

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