Pulling open the massive, hand-carved redwood doors and stepping inside Swaylo’s Tiki Restaurant and Bar feels like escaping into another world. A giant, gray pirate ship surrounds the bar; lights inside taxidermied blowfish and chandeliers made from rainbow stained-glass parrots dangle from the ceiling; and servers carry around trays of drinks—some of them on fire—in elaborate cups shaped like flamingos and totem heads. It’s a far cry from the suburban feel of this Longmont neighborhood (also home to a Kohl’s and a Holiday Inn Express)—and that’s the whole point.
When they opened Swaylo’s inside a building that previously housed an Outback Steakhouse last month, Sean and Rebecca Gafner wanted to take diners far, far away from the cold, drab Front Range and transport them somewhere much more colorful and temperate, like Polynesia. “We wanted to create a tropical vacation experience without leaving southwest Longmont,” Sean says.
The Gafners own three other restaurants in Longmont—the Roost, Jefes Tacos & Tequila, and Smokin’ Bowls—all of which are located on the city’s historic, walkable Main Street. For their first foray away from downtown, the Gafners chose a shopping center right next to their own neighborhood in southwest Longmont, which they lovingly call “Swaylo.” They’ve lived in this part of town since first moving from California to Longmont to open the Roost seven years ago, and they wanted to help set the area apart. “All of our best friends, who are like family to us, live in this neighborhood—we spend every holiday together,” Sean says, “We’re trying to brand this really great part of Longmont down here. Like Denver has RiNo and LoDo, we believe Longmont could use a district other than just the creative district downtown, too.”
Opening a tiki-inspired restaurant has long been on the Gafners’ bucket list. Three years ago, they were in talks with a building owner at another location, but that deal fell through. Then, the pandemic upended the hospitality industry and the Gafners turned their attention toward keeping their businesses running. They initially offered takeout at all three restaurants, but quickly realized that wasn’t a profitable venture. Instead, they closed the Roost and Smokin’ Bowls; shifted some of their staff to Jefes (where tacos and margs made for great take-home fare); gave away $60,000 worth of food; and helped the rest of their employees file for unemployment. They reopened the two restaurants for the summer of 2020, but closed them again when the temperatures started to drop.
In March 2021, they reopened the Roost and Smokin’ Bowls for good. And last summer they experimented with the tiki concept by building a 24-foot-long bar on the sidewalk in front of the Roost (like many Colorado cities, Longmont allowed downtown eateries to temporarily expand their outdoor seating). “It was awesome,” Sean says. “It was super fun. And we wrote all of our tiki cocktail recipes.”
Those cocktail recipes are the brainchild of Matt Grimes, who serves as beverage director for all four of the Gafners’ restaurants. Though Grimes loves sipping big scotches and smoky mezcals, tropical cocktails are his “bartender soul-food,” he says. So far, he’s helped source 110 rums from a dozen different countries for the bar at Swaylo’s, including several made right here in Colorado by purveyors like Longmont’s Dry Land Distillers. (Swaylo’s is also partnering with Dry Land to age an agricole-style rum in a whiskey barrel for the next year.) “Rum styles vary so much,” Grimes says. “It’s so much more than the typical Bacardi and Captain Morgan; it goes so much deeper than that.”
Swaylo’s cocktails run the gamut from elaborate—like the Swaylo’s Volcano, a cocktail meant to be shared by four to six people made with two rums, maraschino liqueur, passion fruit, lime, pineapple, and Demerara sugar—to classic, like the Mai Tai. But whether diners are familiar with the cocktails or they’re trying something for the first time, they can count on drinks crafted with fresh juices and scratch-made ingredients, like house-made orgeat syrup, Grimes says. Some are served in traditional drinkware, but many arrive in ornamental vessels—the Zombie, for instance, made with two types of rum, cinnamon syrup, grapefruit, pomegranate, lime, absinthe, and angostura bitters, is served in a cup shaped like a skeleton. “That’s tiki summed up: It’s over the top, it’s extravagant, it’s fun,” says Grimes. “We don’t ever want to put down a drink in front of somebody and not see joy before they even take a sip. Seeing that presented is just as important as the flavor.”
The food menu, meanwhile, is all crafted by Gafner, who spent much of his career preparing Pacific seafood in California restaurants. Appetizers include the classic Hawaiian snack of Spam musubi (made with grilled Spam, rice, nori, teriyaki, and pickled ginger), and poisson cru, a Tahitian raw fish dish featuring marinated swordfish, lemon, coconut milk, cucumber, cilantro, and chiles. Swaylo’s also offers a selection of customizable bowls—such as a poke rice bowl or red curry rice noodles, with the option to add a variety of proteins—as well as hearty dinner entrées. To make the popular Huli Huli Lamb dish, for instance, Gafner braises a lamb shank from Longmont’s Buckner Family Farm in a tangy, teriyaki soy broth, then plates it with sweet potato purée and baby bok choy. Fish plays a starring role on the menu, too, in creative preparations like crispy-skinned barramundi, coconut oolong tea bass, ahi nori, and mahi-mahi tacos.
Like all of the Gafners restaurants, Swaylo’s will give away around 30 percent of its profits for community causes, employee bonuses, and charities (they’re still ironing out the details, but expect to contribute to efforts to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Gafner says). And, just like the other restaurants the couple owns around town, they’re planning for Swaylo’s to be here for the long haul: While they don’t own the building, the Gafners signed a long-term lease.
“People in Longmont just want someone who does honest work and who does the best they can with what they’re doing—people appreciate that,” Sean says. “We try to have real relationships with the people we work with—our farmers and distillers and brewers and cheesemakers. It’s super fun and we get to do some cool collaborations. It feels like the community that Longmont is. We didn’t want to come to Longmont and take anything, we wanted to add to what’s already here, which is collaborating and doing high-quality things.”
Open daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; 1315 Dry Creek Rd., Longmont, 303-651-0527