Kon-Tiki has been part and parcel of Niederdorf since the 1950s. But Zurich’s nightlife is changing, and a few years ago it was very nearly sayonara to this venerable tiki bar. But the traditional bar has been rescued by fresh ideas, daylight – and a little CBD. It also has a new team, which includes Tassia Batista and Manuel Schaltegger.
Kontiki is one of those words that you’ve probably heard but can’t really explain. Is it something to do with pirates? Or an island? Something exotic? Then again, perhaps it’s just that people have been walking past the bar of the same name for the last 60 years. Here, in the heart of Niederdorf, the word ‘Kon-Tiki’ is spelt out next to a rather scary mask. When the weather’s fine, you can sit outside on a window seat. When you peer inside you see a well-stocked bar and perhaps an advert for CBD. What is this, a Dutch-style coffee shop? A bar? A café? Or just a bit of a dive?
In Europe, the Kon-Tiki was the first bar of its kind.
The Kon-Tiki in Niederdorf has been around forever: ‘Sometimes people come in who are about seventy and tell us how they used to frequent the place when they were young,’ says bar manager Manuel Schaltegger. Former patrons of the Kon-Tiki will still recognise it, as little has changed over the years. Ever since it opened, the Kon-Tiki has been a tiki bar. This style of bar culture became popular after World War II. Themed bars and restaurants were all the rage, and in the USA bars opened with a Hawaiian theme, featuring Maori prints, pictures of bikini-clad women, and cocktails like Mai Tai served in cups shaped like masks. In Europe, the Kon-Tiki was the first bar of its kind – a kind of pioneer with a Pina Colada flavour.
The bar opened in 1955, but today’s manager is still in his twenties. Bar manager Manuel Schaltegger and Tassia Batista, another member of the management team, are also a long way off their 60th birthdays. They both like the bar’s retro charm. ‘I love the atmosphere of the place. And the guests are very laid-back,’ says Manuel. Tassia agrees: ‘The people who come to Kon-Tiki are very chilled-out. That’s why I like being here.’ She wishes all the city’s residents were equally relaxed – and would tolerate all the comings and goings in the city’s popular nightlife areas. She also wishes that it was easier for smaller, more alternative places to survive in Zurich.
It was taken over by new owners who also remembered the good old days of the Kon-Tiki.
Because Kon-Tiki was threatened with closure. Along with the adjacent Züri Bar, the city’s oldest bar still in existence, Kon-Tiki was on the verge of shutting down. The team tell us that some of the big coffee chains were sniffing around. The local paper reported: ‘Niederdorf is losing two legendary bars.’ Older Zurich residents were up in arms because they had grown up with the tiki bar.
Now the Kon-Tiki is more than just a bar.
But then came a glimmer of hope. It was taken over by new owners who also remembered the good old days of the Kon-Tiki. But they also knew they had to make some changes. They started putting on more live music and decided to offer CBD, a legal component of cannabis. They also decided that the Kon-Tiki would not only be open in the evenings but would also serve juices and snacks during the day.
That was back in 2016, before Manuel and Tassia joined the team. They were brought in because young people with fresh ideas were needed to preserve the old, legendary bar. Now the Kon-Tiki is more than just a bar. It’s a coffee shop where CBD can be consumed in the form of teas and brownies. It’s a café that is open during the day, and it’s a venue for up to 80 people that regularly hosts jam sessions, comedy nights, lesbian parties and concerts. Because, like in the 1950s, the Kon-Tiki is a bar for everyone. It stirs up old memories – and creates new ones.