Tiki was created in Southern California by a self-made man named Don who lied his way onto movie sets and made friends with famous people so that they'd come to his rum bar in the middle of Hollywood. Though that bar, Don the Beachcomber, is long gone, tiki has persevered in California, and is currently thriving here, as appreciation for tropical decor and creatively made cocktails converge once again. Here are the best bars in SoCal that are taking rum and running with it.
There's a lot of Hollywood history packed into this garage (literally, a former garage, and then a violin shop) of a tiki bar. The founder, Ray Buhen, opened Tiki Ti in 1961 after working in a number of bars around town, including Don the Beachcomber, the first tiki bar in the world. The drink menu is huge, featuring just about every concoction that has been considered a tiki drink over the years, including big blended creations from the '80s. And though it famously allowed indoor smoking, that changed recently when the Buhens hired their first non-family employee.
4427 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake. (323) 669-9382, tiki-ti.com.
This bar is a big deal. Opened by Martin Cate, the man behind the legendary Smuggler's Cove in San Francisco, False Idol is reached by a hidden door in another bar, Craft & Commerce. Unsurprisingly, crossing the threshold means entering a tiki wonderland, where clearly no expense was spared in creating this temple to tiki life. The drinks are not cheap, but order the right scorpion bowl and you'll be treated to some theatrics of the smoke and bright light variety.
675 W. Beech St., San Diego. falseidoltiki.com.
This teeny-tiny (smaller than Tiki Ti) bar is just about perfect: Every shell, every vintage postcard, has been placed just so. Located in part of the building that once housed a Don the Beachcomber, Bootlegger stays pretty close to its classical roots, with dim lighting coming from blowfish pendant lights hung from a ceiling covered in woven rattan. The staff gets experimental with the drinks, offering unusual combinations on a menu that changes fairly frequently.
1101 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. (760) 318-4154, bootleggertiki.com.
Though it's been open since 1958, Tonga Hut has not always been a tiki bar specifically. I'm so glad the owners eventually decided to go back to its tiki roots, clearly the North Hollywood dive's true purpose. The extremely dark bar (your eyes will need a minute to adjust) serves the most classic tiki cocktails in town, all made with love and thoughtfulness, as well as a bartender's menu of new creations. There's a separate 78-drink menu called the Grog Log — if you can finish the whole thing in one year, you'll be inducted into the Loyal Order of the Drooling Bastard.
12808 Victory Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 769-0708, tongahut.com.
This brand-new bar, on the third floor of Clifton's downtown, is named after a now-defunct other Clifton's location, from back when L.A. County was dotted with the whimsical cafeterias. Reached by a hidden staircase (there must be an elevator somewhere, but I haven't found it), this gorgeous space features actual, and expensive, antiques, and a boat in the middle of the bar that's mostly used as a DJ station. The sprawling room is in no way a dive, which sets it apart from other L.A. tiki bars, and which means it can take a while to get a drink. (Tiki drinks are complicated!) But you might not notice: There truly is so much to look at here.
648 S. Broadway, downtown. cliftonsla.com/pacific-seas.
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Open less than a year, Bakersfield's tiki bar of choice prides itself on classically made drinks, with all ingredients made in-house. The bar's decor isn't as entirely tiki-fied as the cocktail menu, but it's playful, which is the most important element of tiki. And it's teal! Teal neon, napkins, chairs and booths.
1919 K St., Bakersfield. (661) 493-0006, facebook.com/tikikobakersfield.
Imagine if tiki received an inheritance and signed up on Pinterest. This is a more restrained version of tiki, with bartenders in white linen shirts mixing drinks in a room with decor accents of gold and whitewashed brick. The menu features mezcal as much as rum, and there's a patio, which goes against tiki's whole hideaway ethos, but hey, this is California. Our only tradition is making up traditions and then breaking them.
211 Helena Ave., Santa Barbara. (805) 845-2518, testpilotcocktails.com.