Tiki is hot. Hot enough that new tiki bars are opening everywhere from St. Louis to Regensburg, Germany. Hot enough that the cocktail menus at Hollywood's most buzzed-about bars are just as likely to have flaming zombies as variations on the Negroni. Hot enough that tiki history has become one of the most popular seminar topics at cocktail conventions.
Tell this to Mike Buhen, though, and the owner (with his sons) of L.A.'s iconic Tiki Ti seems a little surprised. “I'm glad to hear that,” he says, his trademark loud tropical shirt contrasting with his calm demeanor. You get the feeling that tiki's newfound trendiness will do nothing to change America's most beloved, if not best-known, tiki bar. Not much ever changes at the Ti.]
Opened in 1961 near the end of the last great tiki era, the tiny bar on Sunset Boulevard has survived the decline of tiki, the rise of disco, and the dark ages of cocktails, which persisted from the 1960s to the late '90s. It survived the rise of mixology, and the snobbery that came with it. It even survived California's cigarette ban – Tiki Ti is one of the last bars in the state where you can still light up indoors.
All these things can be attributed to one basic fact: Tiki Ti is a family affair. Because Buhen and his sons are the bar's only employees, the law that seeks to protect workers from secondhand smoke does not apply. And because this bar has been the passion and livelihood of three generations of Buhens, its customers are devoted. “We have people who have been coming here for over 50 years,” Buhen says.
Buhen's late father, Ray, had a hand in practically every important tiki bar in Los Angeles, beginning with the original, Don the Beachcomber, where he was a bartender at the time of its 1934 opening. “My dad was from the Philippines,” Buhen says. “He came when he was 18. He was working at the Beverly Hills Hotel and they decided to send him to bartending school. I guess that's how this all started.” Ray Buhen later worked at many of his era's best bars, including Trader Vic's and the Seven Seas. In 1950 he was an opening bartender at the Dresden.
Eleven years later, he opened Tiki Ti. “My dad could have been a contractor,” Buhen says. “He built this all himself.”
Buhen was 18 at the time – too young to enter the bar. He bided his time with a job at Hertz but joined the family business at 21, and he's been there ever since. Any night the Ti is open, you can find Buhen perched on a stool beside the door, smoking a cigar, checking IDs and bantering with the regulars. Listen closely, and you'll hear about the time Nic Cage got smashed on shots. On Wednesday nights at 9, one of the Buhen boys rings a ship's bell and Buhen toasts Ray's picture on the wall.
This year, Buhen and his wife are celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary. As for the future of the bar, Buhen shrugs. “That's up to my boys,” he says, gesturing toward sons Mike Jr., 40, and Mark, 30, behind the bar. “There have been people coming in here wanting to start a Tiki Two or Tiki Three. That's all up to them. My dad tended bar here well into his 80s. Sometimes I think I'll retire. But some people retire and then they just have nothing to do.”