Cape Fear Foodie: Tiki Adventure at The Sorrow Drowner

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Starting in the 1930s and running up through the 70s, bars around the world celebrated “tiki.” From giant glass fishing floats hanging from the ceiling to carved idols from the south Pacific, establishments aimed to offer customers the experience of an island escape with eclectic décor and delicately crafted cocktails. But over the following decades, drinks like the classic Mai Tai (Created by the Trader Vic in 1944) turned into a concoction of fruit juices that looked more like Hawaiian Punch than an adult beverage...and as the drinks changed, so too did the attitude towards tiki.

Lucky for us, the modern tiki movement is growing every year, with exotic cocktail bars popping up around the country with fun, flair and a heavy nod toward the origins of the style. Now Wilmington can join in the fun as well, with an immaculate tiki experience that teeters on amusement park adventure restaurant with a collection of tasty (and strong) drinks.

Enter The Sorrow Drowner, the dream bar of North Carolina-native Alfred Wheatley. While the experience of turning the bar into reality seemed more like a nightmare at times (with plans falling through from California to Raleigh), The Sorrow Drowner is quickly becoming the talk of the town (and thousands of tiki lovers across the country).

Located in the old TheatreNOW building, simply stepping inside is a transformative experience. A welcome room of sorts boasts a collection of artifacts and conversation pieces from around the globe, including an item from the Titanic, but that’s just a precursor to the bar itself. With design help from Trader Brandon (a former Disney Imagineer who’s real name is Brandon Kleyla) the old theatre space seems like a portal to a secret explorers club (it essentially is, more on that in a minute).

From the colorful lighting, to the thousands of rare and interesting artifacts adorning the walls, the entire space is a feast for the eyes. Wheatley spent years, and plenty of money, collecting and navigating this sea of treasures. Some items he says are museum quality pieces, others are more contemporary (like a very well hidden picture of Dr. Indiana Jones).

Yet it’s not so much what is on the walls that makes this place special, as its attention to detail and a unique approach to entertaining guests. Every Friday and Saturday night (by reservation only), The Sorrow Drowner hosts a vaudeville show, with musicians, comedians and even boudoir acts. But that’s only part of the fun, Wheatley used his background as a writer to create an intricate storyline that envelopes the building itself.

The wait staff help act out the story of the mysterious “Lemurian Institute,” who’s founder Edward Bartholomew Wheatley III and his band of renowned explorers have left on a globetrotting mission of adventure and artifact collecting. Those left behind (the staff) eventually grew tired of cataloging loads of goods and decided to turn the Institute into a bar, hence The Sorrow Drowner.

There’s nothing secretive about the drinks on offer though, with a menu full of classic cocktails and historic tiki drinks that will surely catch your eye. From the Pearl Diver and Navy Grog to a Zombie and Scorpion, the list is impressive with creations for all tastes. I’ve heard some concerns about the price of the cocktails, but the drinks are massive and typically contain at least 3 to 4 oz. of rum (that’s a lot) with hand-squeezed juices and hard-to-find ingredients.

Plus there are several signature cocktails that include the option to take home a collectible of your own and buy a tiki mug made exclusively for The Sorrow Drowner. Of course you will want something to eat during the show or just to temper the powerful spirits, and the menu features classic pupu platters complete with skewers, coconut shrimp, steamed buns and other treats (vegetarian options available as well).

And don’t forget to make one more culinary stop on your voyage for the Dole Whip. A favorite at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, it’s house-made and tastes like a soft serve pineapple or lime sorbet. It can even come with alcohol for adults but is a must try simply because it’s so rare to find outside Disney.

Put it all together, from the setting, to the drinks, and the food, and The Sorrow Drowner nails what was always the central driving point of tiki...the sense of escape and adventure without ever leaving your hometown. It’s a recipe that is attracting tiki enthusiasts far and wide, and should absolutely be on your shortlist of locations to’s simply too cool not to.


The Sorrow Drowner is located at the corner of 19 S 10th St, Wilmington, NC 28401 (in the big yellow building).

Do you recommend a restaurant? Or know of a best kept secret that you want the rest of the Cape Fear to know about? Shoot me an email at and I would love to feature your selection. Cheers!

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