The Limbo, a Louisville oasis

Olivia Griffin has a genuine aesthetic. It’s true that one could spot her from a mile away, as she’s frequently adorned in faux fur, sequins, a colorful kimono or a billowing head-piece draped atop whichever dazzling neon hair color she may be flaunting at the moment. In fact, she could be sporting all these items at once and yet somehow, they work seamlessly, channeling her true essence — a glorious collision of vintage meets neon meets fashion-forward funk. With such a clear and well-curated style, it’s no surprise that when Griffin decided to open Louisville’s only tiki bar, The Limbo (411 W. Chestnut St.), every detail would ooze perfect, retro panache — from the mermaid wallpaper to the “Titty Tiki Tuesdays” burlesque shows, and to the delectable, shaved coconut rim on the classic Painkiller cocktail. The Limbo is a welcome, warm departure from Louisville’s icy winter and a collection of bars that some might consider more of the same. It fills an aqua-colored void, if you will, and I’m ready for the sea vibes and humidity.

Griffin, whose career trajectory began with bartending (and actually attending bartending school) while in costume design school in San Francisco, first developed a love affair with the classic tiki bar in her 20s, befriending a crowd of vintage and rockabilly-loving folk at her favorite watering hole and Bay-area tropical lounge, Smuggler’s Cove. Retro-style and classic cocktails intertwining have long fascinated Griffin, and before she became the proprietress of The Limbo, she hosted events that featured both. Griffin seems to deeply value that the art of the cocktail remains a practice that blends history with innovation in the simple slurp of a Mai Tai (The Limbo’s is served with a brulee’d orange garnish, by the way, and it’s fucking divine). “The best [bars] for me are the ones where you can’t see [what it is] from the outside, and you walk in and feel completely transported,” said Griffin.

And transported we were upon transcending The Limbo’s threshold, located just behind Craft Gallery on South Fourth Street. The entrance can be found only by reading a chalkboard on Chestnut Street’s sidewalk (Griffin hopes to have neon signage and even a tropical mural in the future). Through the dim, ambient light and candle flames, vibrant tones of aqua and magenta on the walls encircle vintage bamboo and wicker furniture that is upholstered with cushions covered in tropical leaves. Swathes of fisherman’s netting are suspended from the ceiling, which will house an array of glittery sea creatures very soon: “450 starfish will be arriving any day now,” Griffin said excitedly, as she explained that there will likely be new memorabilia each time we visit The Limbo.

Griffin has owned the The Mysterious Rack hat shop on South Fourth Street since 2014, so she knows the “SoFo” area well. “A tiki bar was obvious for me,” she said. “Louisville feels like Hawaii in the summer, and when it’s not summer, we’re going to be that oasis when you need it.” The Limbo will be open seven days a week, even Christmas and New Year’s Day, and the aim is to have some sort of programming each night, ranging from burlesque to DJs to live music and swing dancing.

The Limbo’s cocktail menu is moderately priced (one can get a “Tiki punch of the day” served in a coconut for just $5) and boasts a selection of house, signature cocktails in a myriad of whimsical glasses that can be made with either rum or bourbon (an ode to tiki meets bourbon country). I had the 3 Dots and a Dash (Bank’s 5 Star Rum, allspice, falernum, honey, orange and lime), which is an homage to the famous Chicago tiki bar of the same name. I found it balanced, layered with flavor and spice, with notes of almond and citrus. My friend, Maureen, had the Blue Hawaiian, and then we both had the Mai Tai. While the Blue Hawaiian felt a bit sugar-forward, the Mai Tai was “a terrific balance of strength and flavor,” said Maureen, “and the brulee orange slice was to die for.” Griffin seems to have curated her bar with a nice selection of well-priced rums and other tiki staples, including Orgeat, Falernum and house-made juices. I’m looking forward to trying her rum flight tastings, which will take place on Sundays in the near future.

While chatting with Griffin, I mentioned that The Limbo seemed to have a low-key female empowerment vibe happening.

“Oh, it’s not low-key at all,” she said with a laugh. “I’m very vocal about what I’ve experienced being a woman in business, I’ve mostly hired women and I want this to be a safe place for women.”

She added that, while The Limbo is a bar for anyone and everyone, it will be a place for women to relax or let loose and even if they have a little too much to drink, “we will take care of you.”

A safe oasis, if you will.