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The coolest bartender… 400,000 Mai Tais later

By Staff | Jan 21, 2010

Dale has served drinks at Kaanapali Beach Hotel for four decades.

KAANAPALI — One fan calls him just about the coolest bartender on Maui. Thousands of visitors and locals know him only as Dale — the blue-shirted, congenial, low-key, easy-to-laugh purveyor of drinks at the Tiki Bar at the Kaanapali Beach Hotel.

Dale has a lifetime of observations on changing lifestyles and the habits of both visitors and locals that go back decades.  He’s been serving up drinks at the KBH (gulp!) for an amazing 40 years — diet cokes to Mai Tais, unique concoctions and everything in between.

Dale is so laid back he is an easy interview, talking in short phrases one morning as he mixed Bloody Marys and kibitzed with his regular customers, some of whom he has served for at least 25 years. The conversation, recorded on tape complete with sound effects, went something like this:

Columnist: Where did you grow up? What did your parents do? Where did you go to school?

Dale: Born in Oahu in 1946. Dad was in the military. Mom was a nurse at Queens (Medical Center). We came to Maui when I was three years old and lived in a little town called Pu‘ukoli‘i. I went to Kam III (King Kamehameha III School on Front Street) and graduated from Lahainaluna High School in ’64.

I joined the U.S. Army and served at Fort Ord, California.  I went to college, but I had to return because my mom (long divorced) hurt her back. Had to pay the bills (laughs). I got a job in construction. I worked on tiling at the Royal Lahaina.

Columnist: Did you set tile?

Dale: No, I was a mixer — a mudder (laughs). KBH hired me as a bellman in 1969. I worked nights. I was the low person on the totem pole (laughs). I started at Sugar Mill Lounge inside — on-the-job training. We had lounge music, and then a piano bar, and then went to local trios. The Tiki Bar opened in 1980 near the whale-shaped swimming pool. It replaced the Shipwreck Bar… Looking back, this job was a blessing. My life could have been working in electronics in California. I was very fortunate to be able to stay on Maui.

(Dale met the love of his life at work and figured it was about time he settled down. He married, had two daughters — now in college — and was widowed after 20 years.)

Columnist: So what drink is your specialty?

Dale: Anything is fine… almost anything (laughs).

Columnist: How have people’s drinking habits changed over the years?

Dale: In the 1960s, it used to be Harvey Wallbangers, Tequila Sunrises. In the 1990s, it was beer and shots and then wine by people who thought they were connoisseurs. Word has gotten out about our Mai Tais. We were known for them. We also invented drinks. Tommy Rosenthal (Dale’s longtime partner, mostly working the day shift) invented the Lava Flow (rum, pina colada, ice cream and strawberry puree). I invented the Kaanapali Cooler: rum, orange and pineapple juice, blackberry and cherry brandy.

Columnist: What about the visitors. How have they changed?

Dale: Back in the ’70s, people weren’t rushed. Now they are always planning trips to Hana, but it’s not long until they come back. People like the bar, because they have a birds’ eye view of the pool and can watch their kids while they have lunch.

Columnist: What’s the secret to making a good Mai Tai?  How many Mai Tais do you make a day?

Dale: Probably about 40.

Columnist: That’s 200 Mai Tais per work week, right?  That’s 10,000 Mai Tais a year. (About 10,000 Mai Tais a year for 40 years adds up to  an astounding 400,000 Mai Tais during a career… and still counting.)

Columnist: Have you served any famous people?

Dale: Julia Roberts. She played beach volleyball.

Columnist: Was Sarah Palin here recently?

Dale: That’s right — after Christmas. The paparazzi showed up and she left.

Columnist: Did she drink?

Dale: Not that I know of.

Columnist: Where do you live?

I have a house in Lahaina. Bought it in 1971 with my mom; three bedrooms.

Customer: I’ll have a Bud Light.

Columnist: What makes a good bartender?

Dale: Show up all the time, and early (laughs). You have to be a people person.

Columnist: Do you think you qualify?

Dale: I’m working on it. You have to be a psychiatrist, but I don’t give any opinions. It’s like Switzerland back here. I am always neutral. If a guest asks what the weather will be, I say, “Well, forecasters often don’t get it right. But my theory is it will be windy tomorrow.” That way, the bartender doesn’t get blame if the prediction is wrong.

Columnist: What do you do when someone is served too much?

Dale: I give them a warning. If they are using foul language and disturbing other guests, this is not acceptable. I don’t like to do this when someone is having a good time. But there is a time and a place. The third time I say, “This is it,” I confiscate their drink. And I give them a choice. I tell them, “I can pick up the phone, or you can leave. It’s your choice.” The good thing is, this does not happen very often.”

Columnist: What about the people?

Dale: People love this place. Many come back year after year. You develop a friendship. Sometimes someone doesn’t come back for 15 years, and you recognize him.

Columnist: Are you good at names?

Dale: Pretty much. But I remember faces. I’ve met thousands of people.

Columnist: So, are you thinking of retiring?

Dale: Not really… I’m going to continue.

Columnist: Will you walk in with a cane?

Dale: I won’t go that far.

Columnist to a customer: So, why are you here drinking at 10 a.m.?

Response heard from across the bar: “Well, it’s five o’clock somewhere.”

Customer: I’ve been coming here since 2006. Dale is the best bartender on the Pacific Rim.

Columnist: How do you know that? Have you been to the Pacific Rim? What if there is a better bartender in Tahiti?

Customer: Well, I have been all over Hawaii. I guess he is the best bartender in Hawaii.

The morning at the bar goes on in similar fashion for a while longer, but you get the idea. In late afternoon, the columnist returns to take photos and meets still more fans of Dale.

“He is the best. He is attentive. You don’t have to yell at him to get another drink. And he knows what you like,” said one. 

Susie Johnson of Seattle (everyone at the Tiki Bar last Wednesday seemed to be from the Seattle area) said she has known Dale for 26 years. She said he’s heartwarming, caring and fun.

Sharon Henderson chimes in, “Efficiency is good. He is efficient, too. A good word, too.” 

To top off the compliments, Johnson even noted that the previous night (mostly he works nights, but on Wednesdays, he works days), she and a friend even took Dale out to dinner at Kimo’s. And who does that?

Another guest had a final word. “You know, Rudy Aquino (before he retired) used to be Mr. Aloha around here. And now Dale is.”

Perhaps. But in this columnist’s view, at the KBH he has a lot of competition from General Manager Mike White on down. And that’s why you’ll be reading a few more columns about the people at “The Most Hawaiian Hotel” throughout the year.

By way of disclosure, this columnist’s view of the place is no different from dozens of people you can meet there every week. No money has changed hands, no favors granted, and there’s no reason for saying so other than it’s a fun place to meet people, listen to stories, enjoy music and sometimes even hand write a column or two at a courtyard table just before sunset.

And not to forget something, here a final “secret.” Dale  has a last name. It’s Simonsen.