The Wide, Wild World of Tiki.

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Tiki does not exist in a vacuum. It was born out of the need for escape, and it both feeds and is fed by that need.

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I can trace the roots of Tiki culture back at least to the 1890s, when Paul Gaugin left France for Polynesia, looking to escape the constraints of Impressionist painting in search of a more primitive lifestyle to feed his art. The Hawai’ian music craze of the 1920s in America further fueled our desire for a world of faraway ocean breezes and swaying palm trees. The 1930s saw the invention of the Tiki drink and the nautical flotsam and jetsam-themed bars of Don The Beachcomber. In the 1940s Trader Vic’s upped the ante with full-blown Polynesian restaurants and the creation of the greatest Tiki drink of all: the Mai-Tai. The 1950s brought the return of American GIs from the Pacific Theatre of WWII and the rise of backyard luaus and basement Tiki bars. Tiki culture peaked with the admission of Hawai’i as the 50th state in 1959.

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In the Mid-1960s, it all started falling apart. The Summer of Love ushered in the drug and hippie culture. America had a new means of escape, as the children of the Tiki culture banished their parents’ artificial paradise in favor of a more natural (albeit drug-fueled) release. This back-to-nature movement continued through the 1970s.

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Another culture sprung up in the late 1970s to add insult to Tiki’s injury. Jimmy Buffet introduced Margaritaville, moving the tropical escape to the Caribbean and creating a more-accessible and dumbed-down version of Tiki to the world. Well-crafted cocktails were replaced with alcoholic slushies. Hawai’ian and Exotica music faded to catchy tunes about boat drinks and cheeseburgers in paradise. Carved Tikis and authentic nautical decor gave way to parrots and brightly-colored party decorations. It was enough to make Donn Beach roll over in his grave!

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The 1990s saw the beginning of the resurgence of Tiki culture. Like-minded enthusiasts, brought together by the rise of the Internet, resurrected the lost civilization from Mid-Century America in all of its artificial glory. Today, Tiki bars are opening with well-crafted cocktails made from rescued recipes. Basements are once again adorned with authentic nautical decor, lowbrow artwork, and real Tikis painstakingly carved by modern-day savages. New Exotica bands have brought back the music that was the soundtrack to the original Tiki craze.

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It is here that I should introduce the concept of the Tiki purist. Many of the folks who helped bring Tiki back are very protective of their work, and with good reason. We don’t want to see this wonderful escape relegated to the ash heap of history again. As Tiki gains in popularity, it runs the risk of jumping the shark and being watered down, like Margaritaville. This is why the tight-knit Tiki ohana tends to be wary of newcomers to the scene, until they can be vetted for their “Tiki cred.”


I am not a Tiki purist. Although I’ve been descending slowly down this rabbit hole for over 10 years now, I still value the eclectic nature of my journey. A. Panda’s Tiki Lounge has many of the purist Tiki elements I value most, like carved Tikis, bac-bac matting, bamboo, and cool artwork. I also mix up some pretty authentic Tiki drinks using many different rums and fresh ingredients. However, I’m not above mixing in atypical items to my Tiki space, like pink flamingos, a few tacky decorations, and of course the ubiquitous pandas! If my mother-in-law cross-stitches a sign for me that says “It’s 5 O’clock Somewhere”on it, then I display it proudly at the bar.


I belong to several Facebook groups devoted to Tiki ephemera like SHAG’s art, cocktails, exotica music, and home Tiki bar builds. Some of these groups are led by pretty hardcore purists, and that’s okay. I still enjoy being a part of these groups, but I’ve learned through a few intense but civil interactions that folks take their Tiki pretty seriously. It’s all good, as I can appreciate wanting to preserve the traditional elements that made Tiki great the first time around. I just hope that the newfound popularity of Tiki doesn’t lead to its second downfall. That would be ironic, don’tcha think?

Tiki has always been, and continues to be, an escape. It’s not the only game in town. But to Tiki enthusiasts, both purists and serious newcomers, I believe it’s the best. For an artificial creation to become such an all-encompassing passion, through music, art, drink, and decor, it could only happen in America. Happy Independence Day, mahalo and okole maluna!

Tiki Ohana – Cocktails

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The Tiki craze of the 1950s was preceded by the Tiki cocktail movement started in the 1930s by Don The BeachcomberErnest Raymond Beaumont Gantt grew up in New Orleans, traveled the Caribbean where he collected rum-based drink recipes, settled in Los Angeles, dressed up his drinks with flowers and umbrellas and fancy tropical names, and changed his name to Don The Beachcomber (and eventually just Donn Beach). He opened his first restaurant and bar in Hollywood in 1933 and was a huge success, thanks in large part to his celebrity clientele.

The success of Don The Beachcomber led to a string of Tiki-themed restaurants. While Donn Beach opened new locations, imitators like Victor Bergeron with his Trader Vic’s and Stephen Crane with his Kon Tiki chain helped popularize the Tiki bar/restaurant across the country. This popularity peaked in the 1950s and 1960s, and like the rest of the Tiki movement, started to decline in the 1970s and 1980s. Most of these Tiki establishments are gone today, and their wonderful drink recipes might have been lost forever, were it not for the efforts of…

 

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Jeff Beachbum Berry. This guy, along with Sven Kirsten, is the most important figure in the current Tiki revival. Bum has been researching Tiki drink recipes for over 30 years, and his Potions of The Caribbean is the Bible for Tiki drink recipes and their history (get it here: beachbumberry.com/bum-books/). Like Donn Beach before him, Bum now calls New Orleans home, and he just opened his first Tiki bar there last fall, Latitude 29. It is a must-do Tiki temple! I was fortunate to visit Latitude 29 earlier this year, and Beachbum Berry himself welcomed me and even gave me an interview while I was there. You can hear it on my podcast: apandatikipod.podbean.com/e/pandas-tasty-jambalaya. Mahalo, Bum!

 

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Martin Cate. Few people, if anybody, have had a bigger influence on elevating the profile of rum than Martin Cate. He opened his Smuggler’s Cove bar in San Francisco in 2009 to much acclaim, both locally and nationally. Smuggler’s Cove is the physical embodiment of Beachbum Berry’s Potions of The Caribbean, focusing on “Traditional drinks of the Caribbean islands, classic libations of Prohibition-era Havana, and exotic cocktails from legendary Tiki bars.” All of this is served up in a bar with the most authentic Tiki decor you’ll find anywhere. You can find more about the story of Smuggler’s Cove here: smugglerscovesf.com/about/. Okole maluna, Martin!

 

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Suzanne Long. Across the bay in Oakland, Suzanne Long opened her new Tiki bar, Longitude, in 2014. Along with a mix of traditional and modern rum-based cocktails, Longitude features a stunning interior that evokes a spirit of adventure. Ms. Long didn’t limit herself to a strictly Polynesian theme, instead incorporating a whole world of tropical decor including artwork from east Africa. You can read a great review of Longitude here: insidescoopsf.sfgate.com. Full disclosure: I haven’t been to any of the Bay Area Tiki bars, but when I do visit, I’ll make sure to start with Smuggler’s Cove and Longitude. Aloha Suzanne, I hope to see you soon!

 

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Paul McGee. Another Tiki bar I have been fortunate enough to visit is Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago, created by Paul McGee in 2013. I wrote about my first visit here in my blog post Aloha Spirit: Chicago (Jan 2014). Creating a Tiki mecca in the Midwest isn’t without precedent (think The Kahiki in Columbus OH), but Mr. McGee managed to create a Polynesian paradise in a speakeasy-like atmosphere, right in The Loop in downtown Chicago. Not to rest on his laurels, Paul left his baby earlier this year to open a new Tiki bar, Lost Lake, in the western Chicagoland neighborhood of Logan Square. You can read about how McGee partnered with Martin Cate on Lost Lake here: www.chicagotribune.com. Well done, Tiki titans!