As I sat at a window table in the bar at Trader Vic’s in Emeryville, watching the sun set on the Bay, sipping a mai tai made from the original 1944 recipe developed by the restaurant’s founder, Vic “The Trader” Bergeron, I felt like I finally understood what I had been told: Tiki is about more than the drinks.
Absent essential decorative elements — including special mugs and bowls, wood carvings, bamboo, tapa cloth, nautical elements like puffer fish and glass buoys and, of course, tiki carvings — a tiki bar would be just, well, a bar.
“To those that are into tiki and have been for a while, drinks are a sideshow,” says Humuhumu Trott, tiki historian and owner of tiki bar database Critiki.com. “It’s fantastic fun, and the drinks are a hoot, but the drinks are not the point — the environment is the point.”
Tiki, or Polynesian Pop as it’s sometimes known, has come roaring back in popularity in recent years. New tiki bars have sprung up all over California, inspired in large part by Tiki Oasis, a long-running yearly event in Southern California focused on everything tiki. Not surprisingly, many of the new bar owners were regulars at Tiki Oasis.
As is the way with many nostalgic pieces of popular culture, the over-the-top style of tiki has been revived as escapist fun. As with most other bars, escape can be found in alcohol. But walking into one of the new tiki bars — or a classic tiki restaurant like Trader Vic’s, which ignited the Bay Area tiki craze in 1934, or the Tonga Room, which originally opened in 1945 with a cruise ship theme, the ambiance is the escape.
Tiki bars are designed to transport the visitor to some platonic ideal of paradise — complete with little paper drink umbrellas, of course. It’s not just about throwing tropical bric-a-brac onto the wall — tiki decor is serious business. Trader Vic’s mimics the layout of a ship, and if you look up near the hostess stand, you’ll see where the cargo bay should be. At the Tonga Room, redecorated in the 1960s as an artifact-heavy version of Polynesian Pop, entertainment comes from a full band that plays on a boat floating on an indoor pond, along with man-made thunderstorms — complete with rain.
The newer versions carry on this theme. At Pagan Idol in San Francisco, which opened in 2016, the decor mimics the interior of a ship, with aquarium fish visible from the wooden vessel’s porthole windows. Jungle Bird in Sacramento, which opened last year, summons a tropical forest, lush and verdant. Even the more modest Bootlegger Tiki in Palm Springs, which opened in 2014, gets an added atmosphere of cool simply by occupying a former location of tiki legend Don the Beachcomber, with tell-tale gas torches on the building’s facade.
New age tiki joints differ from the classics in one important characteristic: The tiki establishments that started in the mid-20th century were primarily places to eat. In tiki’s heyday, the lost old-school places such as Don the Beachcomber and Luau, both formerly in Los Angeles, were fine-dining restaurants, where both the food and decor were considered sophisticated and luxurious. The modern tiki places are opening mostly as bars.
We’re drinking better than our parents ever did. Fresh juices, rare spirits and a serious culture at the bar, where cocktails get rigorous scrutiny, are mostly standard. One key factor in the tiki revival has been the recreation of some landmark drinks. Serious detective and cryptography work by a Tiki Oasis regular named Jeff “Beachbum” Berry unearthed some of the old recipes, bolstered by interviews with old bartenders. Berry published his recipes in a series of books beginning in the late 1990s.
Even with Berry’s books and recipes, 10-ingredient drinks with many custom elements were considered impractical and mostly impossible to build a business around. That is, until another Tiki Oasis enthusiast named Martin Cate opened Forbidden Island in Alameda in 2006.
“The first person to demonstrate that you could have success with an entire bar program that was doing these drinks — and that the way to do it successfully was to really do it, not cut corners, but to use the right ingredients — was when Martin came to open Forbidden Island,” Trott says. “The success of that place [was] that people loved it, that it was financially successful, that it got so much attention, that it was good, that it was a full experience, and there were no corners cut. That was the big game changer.”
Cate’s book, “Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki,” won a James Beard Award in 2017, and new tiki bars continue to open, underscoring a new era of Polynesian Pop and tiki bars offering refuge from reality.
After all, we all need a little escape from reality these days, and if it comes with a tasty beverage decked out with a paper umbrella, all the better.
Trader Vic’s Classic 1944 Mai Tai
1944 Mai Tai
½ oz Lemon Juice
½ oz Lime Juice
¼ oz Rock Candy or rich simple syrup*
½ oz Orgeat
¾ oz Orange Curaçao
2 oz Dark Rum
Mint sprig to garnish
Combine all ingredients except mint in a cocktail shaker. Add crushed or cracked ice, shake hard 8–10 seconds, and pour everything into a double old-fashioned glass. Garnish with the mint sprig.
* Rich simple syrup
Combine two parts sugar and one part water in a small saucepan. Cook over medium heat and stir until dissolved. Allow to cool, then refrigerate. Will keep for about 6 months.
Three Other Cocktail Trends
Freezing Ice in Glasses: Large ice cubes are critical in spirit-driven drinks, but nothing has less surface area than a single plane of ice frozen directly in a glass — which means it doesn’t melt as quickly. Freeze it at an angle like they do at the Interval at Long Now in San Francisco for an added visual effect.
Brandy: The recent demand for whiskeys has finally put the spotlight on California brandies, like those made in Santa Cruz at Osocalis, a tiny two-man operation making grape and apple brandies in the French traditions of Cognac and Calvados.
Sparkling Cocktails: From spritzes to highballs, bubbles make cocktails even more fun. At Duke’s Spirited Cocktails in Healdsburg, the Ms. Bojangles with bourbon and fernet, mixed and carbonated with house-made root beer, comes ready and fizzy from the tap.
Lou Bustamante is the author of “The Complete Cocktail Manua.l” Aside from being a prolific cocktail drinker, he has also worked at a distillery and behind the bar.
IF YOU GO
CLASSIC TIKI JOINTS
9 Anchor Dr., Emeryville 94608
The Tonga Room at the Fairmount Hotel
950 Mason St., San Francisco, Calif. 94108
TIKI BARS: THE NEW GENERATION
650 Gough St,, San Francisco 94102
375 Bush St., San Francisco 94104
Clifton’s Republic, 648 South Broadway, Los Angeles 90014
4427 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles 90027
1101 N Palm Canyon Dr., Palm Springs 92262
12808 Victory Blvd., North Hollywood 91606
254 N Palm Canyon Dr., Palm Springs 92262
675 W Beech St., San Diego 92101
The Grass Skirt
910 Grand Ave., San Diego 92109
The Jungle Bird
2516 J St., Sacramento 95816