Top Tiki Tour
I love Tiki culture! The kitschiness, the retro feel, the cinematic nature of it, the sense of danger… A good tiki bar exudes a sense of adventure and is a treat for the eyes, and for the taste buds if you’re into ludicrously sweet and at times dangerously strong cocktails. A trip to a tiki bar feels like a trip to a far-away place, or to a movie set from the 40’s. They harken back to a retro Americana that is vanishing with the opening of each new strip mall and franchise. In a good Tiki bar, everything is calculated for the ambience, and for a form of authenticity to an invented place. You won’t find quiz machines and a horrible top 40 juke box at a good tiki bar. They will be playing Hawaiian or Polynesian music, or occasionally surf… sometimes “rockabilly,” which for some reason has appropriated Tiki culture. There may be lighting effects to mimic a tropical storm, and a faux volcano or two have been known to erupt at certain places. Tiki culture is a wonderful piece of Americana where an imaginary world is created that is a mélange of fantasy, escapism, humor, cultural appropriation, hospitality, and role play. Most tiki bars pride themselves in their cocktail creations, and create their own mugs to serve them in. The mugs are extraordinary. Tiki paraphernalia is, for me, among the best keepsakes, as it is something so uniquely American and kitschy, you couldn’t find it anywhere else…
My favorite tiki bar of all is Tiki-Ti in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles. It’s a classic, tiny bar whose every surface is plastered with tiki paraphernalia. It’s been around since 1961, and they’ve used every year since then to clutter the place with unusual décor. It is run by the family and their menu is packed full of their own creations. If you order the Uga Booga cocktail, everyone chants Ooga Booga as the bartender slides it across the bar to you; there’s no keeping a low profile in this place- it’s warm and jovial, and a lot of fun. The founder of Tiki-Ti, Ray Buhen, was one of the original bartenders at Dan The Beachcomber, which was the first and foremost Tiki Bar founded in 1933 in Los Angeles. Tiki-Ti traces its lineage directly to the source.
Tiki Ti in Los Feliz, Los Angeles
Another of my favorites is Franks Tiki Room in Las Vegas. While not as elaborate, cluttered, and historic as Tiki-Ti, Frankies is a nice getaway from the Las Vegas strip and harkens back to the historic Las Vegas of the 40’s and 50’s, such as you can still catch glimpses of in Old Las Vegas. According to their website, “the interior of Frankie’s was built by , the world’s foremost tiki bar designer and grandson of Eli Hedley, famous for creating the décor at such fabulous destinations as the original Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland and the Las Vegas classic Aku Aku at the Stardust.” The place is open 24 hours a day, which is insane, but that’s Las Vegas for you.
My friend Niko in front of Frankies Tiki Room: The mixture of fonts and neon is brilliant
Frankies Tiki Room Interior (from their website: https://frankiestikiroom.com/)
In the Bay Area we are blessed with some great Tiki Bars. My favorite is Forbidden Island in Alameda. It’s not nearly as old as many of the historic tiki bars in the area, being founded in 2006 by Martin Cate, who would later found in SF, and False Idol in San Diego…among others. However, their décor ambiance and the friendliness of the place is on par with the best of them. They made a name for themselves in the cocktail world by being very focused on quality, from the juices they blend, to the rums they pour. They also have an outdoor patio, complete with an enormous wooded Tiki sculpture. As with many Tiki Bars, each drink comes served in its own specially designed mug. For an extra charge you can keep the mug, and you definitely should, because they are amazing. I started my tiki collection with a mug I got there:
Tiki Mug from Forbidden Island in Alameda
Photo from https://www.forbiddenislandalameda.com/photos/
Another great destination is the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, which is inside the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill in San Francisco. It was built in 1945, and the lounge was designed by Mel Melvin, an MGM set designer who transformed the hotel’s pool into a tropical lagoon. They’ve got a floating stage on the lagoon that features their “Island Groove Band” that plays sets throughout the night. There are also periodic “tropical storms” with thunder and lightning. Aside from their bar, they also feature a themed restaurant. While most Tiki Bars feel very down to earth, even “divey”, this one feels grand. They spent over one million dollars and hired Gensler to renovate it. That must have been a very fun project for them. Though I have never eaten there, the menu is a wonderful fusion of tropical flavors that are very much in theme. The Tonga Room is great fun, but I’ve been foiled from going many times because the lines to get in were too long.
The history of Tiki culture is rich and full of fantastical stories of grandiose displays, larger than life bar owners, and the spirit of making each new place more wild and spectacular than those that came before them. It’s a culture so rich, that today there are even Tiki-historians: http://svenkirsten.com/, http://www.martincate.com/, ...etc Since we’re all pent up inside, we offer this week’s Tiki theme as a way to transport us all to a faraway place- to let our imagination go on a holiday full of mystery and adventure! It’s also a paean to the faux-thenticity of the Americana of an earlier age, and to the style of a story-telling America, a roadside America that beckons you in to indulge in a quick and elaborate yarn, all for the price of a cocktail. So, though we have to settle for pouring cheap rum into a Hawaiian Punch in order to conjure up the feeling of being marooned on a deserted atoll, or sitting at our favorite tiki bar, we hope you’ll enjoy our “tiki theme”. Until next time, be sure not to anger the Tiki gods, as 2020 is still in full swing!