Here's to the Sly Mongoose of Lahaina

Here's to the Sly Mongoose of Lahaina

What’s your definition of paradise? To some people, it’s a blazing hot sun reflecting off a rippling ocean with a breeze shaking the leaves of a palm tree. But to others, like me for instance, paradise is dark and musty, with a cool wisp of air from a battered old air conditioner, and a cheap shot of Jager resting on a well-seasoned bar.

That’s what you’d find in the Sly Mongoose, once the greatest dive bar on Maui, but now…well, we’ll get to that.

Understand that things are expensive on this little island in the middle of the Pacific, just like they are on all the Hawaiian Islands. The restaurants and shops, lounges and attractions, they are all built for tourists – for fat mainlanders like me who flock to Maui this time of year, desperate to get away from the snow and slush of deep winter. 

But the Sly Mongoose was none of this. It was cheap and spartan. Putting function over form, it sat in a relatively modest, almost industrial setting, its door facing away from the ocean or any view of the blue horizon, almost as if in defiance.

Inside it was dark, lacking windows or other portals to the tropical setting outside. Sitting at the bar, it was easy to forget where you were. Cincinnati? Pittsburgh? Albuquerque? Maybe. But ultimately, it didn’t matter, this place had all you needed for a good time.

There was a jukebox, a few small tables, and a bar as wide as the narrow interior. Beer – American macro brew (of course) – was served in bottles and cans. You could count the bourbon options on one hand, and then use the remaining fingers to add the Scotch. Tequila, rum, vodka – they had all of them, but only one or two of each and always the most basic brands. If you wanted something top shelf, you were in the wrong place.

To some, it may sound terrible, but understand, in a setting like Lahaina, all of this was refreshing. If it was a well-stocked whiskey selection you were searching for, there was a place just down the street that had bottles from all over the world. Go there, and for $25 you could easily get a pour of something rare, some whiskey that was aged many years and finished in molasses barrels or something. And if you wanted to drink somewhere with palm trees and a view of the rolling ocean, a quick drive to any of the island resorts would easily do the trick.

But the Goose (as its loyal fans affectionately called it) was an escape from all that (and trust me, after a few days in the circus of cruise ships and overpriced junk, an escape was what you wanted). There wasn’t a pretense to it, it didn’t try to be some tropical escape with drinks served in coconuts with bamboo backscratchers as swizzle sticks. And for a 5-spot you could get a decent pour of the same whiskey your dad drank, and his dad before him.

Welcoming and friendly, there was a comfort to this place not found elsewhere on the island. Surrounded by locals and a few savvy visitors, it was easy to waste the day away, blissfully unaware of what was going on outside.

But then, sadly, everything changed in August of 2023 when a wind-whipped wildfire razed the old port city to the ground. Little was spared, and that includes the Goose. Like most other places in Lahaina, it was destroyed. The metal structure that housed it was left twisted and charred, collapsed and in ruins.

Now, obviously, the fate of a small dive bar matters little when compared to the tragic loss of life and the destruction of the other historic buildings that stood for a hundred years or more. But places like the Sly Mongoose are also special and important to communities, and every time one is lost, the community loses a little bit of its identity, a little bit of who it is. 

We need more places like the Goose, not less. More places where we can sit, talk, and just commune with each other as fellow humans.

This isn’t a new concept. In 1775 the British sacked Charlestown, MA, burning it to the ground and leveling what once was a bustling, thriving waterfront town. After the tide of the war turned and colonists moved back into the area, the first building they built was not a church or a school, but a tavern. That’s how important these places are. 

Hopefully, the Sly Mongoose will rebuild, and when it does, I hope to be there with a shot of Four Walls, toasting its new form.