Tiki Is Popular Again Because We All Need an Escape
Courtesy Test Pilot
In 1989, Donald Trump closed the Trader Vic's in his newly purchased Plaza Hotel in New York. He said the tiki bar was "tacky."
It seems fitting that the man so many of us seek to escape now tried to shut down an establishment created specifically to transport guests to another life, practically another planet.
Tiki was invented in Los Angeles in the 1930s by a man who went by the moniker Don the Beachcomber and his business partner, Sunny Sund. They were rivals and friends with the Oakland business owner, Victor Bergeron, who started the Trader Vic's chain of tiki palaces. Bergeron invented the mai tai; Don and his team of mostly Filipino bartenders were responsible for many of the other tiki drink classics. They both created the "Polynesian" myths and brought showmanship to drinking (to this day, a scorpion bowl is usually served with a lot of chanting and stage smoke), and Sund added the Cantonese-American food to the equation.
Tiki's popularity has waxed and waned in the 80-odd years since it first hit the scene, but it's making a huge comeback right now, especially in its birthplace of Southern California.
There's been a slow progression over the past few years building up to this renewed tiki dominance. Rather than being confined to dive bars, tiki drinks are taking over the menus at such L.A. hot spots as Here's Looking at You (the Koreatown restaurant where one of two mai tais on the cocktail menu costs $26) and Salt's Cure, where the most interesting cocktails include rum and juice. West Hollywood restaurant E.P. & L.P. sells its own tiki mugs. Sonny's Hideaway in Highland Park is the best place to celebrate #TikiTuesday, but if Instagram is any indication, that's a global weekly holiday.
A drinks list from the Tonga Lei in the 1970s
Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library
The grand opening of the Pacific Seas, on the third floor of Clifton's in Los Angeles, marked a huge moment for tiki. It's an enormous bar by any measure, and dedicating it all to tiki seems a huge leap of faith, given that tiki is often perceived as kitsch without substance. That is, of course, incorrect — tiki drinks, with their fresh ingredients and layered rums, were the original mixology.
"I use the analogy of the Tiffany lamp. The original Tiffany lamps are so beautiful and stunning and meticulously crafted and they're exquisite and best in the entire universe," says Andrew Meieran, owner of Clifton's and Pacific Seas. "Then a bunch of people knocked them off and then they became synonymous with cheap knockoffs of nasty weird lamps. I think that the same thing happened with tiki. You had these incredible hand-crafted cocktails and people thought they could just re-create them by just re0creating them. That's obviously not the case. You ended up with a bunch of things that were delicately balanced and with very quality ingredients that suddenly turned into extremely sweet, un-delicately balanced things. Suddenly that became synonymous with tiki, and the originals got swept under the rug."
Indeed, the original recipes are in many cases lost to the public consciousness. It is a common misconception that mai tais contain pineapple juice — and sadly, the reason so many people think that is because so many bars make them that way.
This tiki coctail resurgence goes hand-in-hand with a need for playfulness in this dark world, of course. "A lot of people want to play dress-up, and now they can drink, too," says Marie King, bar manager at Tonga Hut in North Hollywood and Palm Springs. "Look at the crossover of people who are into tiki and are also into Disney. It's huge." Still, there's no need to drink crappy cocktails just because the vibe is whimsical.
In fact, one of the most hard-to-get-tickets in L.A. right now is Coconut Club, founded by "unabashed tiki nut" Nathan Hazard. The supper club–style events that Coconut Club puts on — most recently they've been setting up at Pacific Seas — prioritize the fun of tiki, with variety show entertainment, karaoke and games. But the drinks they serve are thoughtful, balanced and aware of the history of cocktails.
Of course, anything retro has at least some problematic elements to it. Tiki, though it was invented in California almost entirely of whole cloth, does grapple with that fact that it appropriated some elements of Polynesian culture, largely without context. "Tiki was meant to be faux Polynesian. It was escapism, but probably if it started today we wouldn't use such culturally insensitive terms," King says.
You'll see that change reflected in the new tiki bars popping up, where the focus is less on velvet paintings of bare-chested brown people, and more on the drinks. In fact, the design of tiki spaces is morphing from something that references the South Pacific directly to a look that's evocative of travel in general. Pacific Seas incorporates a lot of maps, and the walls of Test Pilot in Santa Barbara are covered in ship steering wheels.
A lot of Americans vowed to leave the country if Trump won. That isn't actually feasible for most of us, but a night in a dark bar with a strong drink certainly is.
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