The rules state you have a calendar year to complete the task. Amos Clarke is nine months in, “but I've only been making serious inroads over the last couple of months,” he says. Tonight, he's at the Tonga Hut on Victory Boulevard in North Hollywood — and down to the last five drinks on his “Grog Log.” The log, which looks something like a treasure map, features 78 cocktails, and once Clarke crosses the last one off the list, he'll be inducted as a member of the prestigious Loyal Order of the Drooling Bastard.
Clarke, who just turned 50, is a Brit who came to L.A. in 2004 “to follow in the footsteps of Charlie Chaplin, work in the glorious local conditions as a television director of photography, and seek fame, fortune and love.” He has worked on a number of reality TV shows (Ice Road Truckers, Wicked Tuna, Storage Wars), but tonight he's with his “beautiful young bride, Julissa.” Dressed in a red-flowered Polynesian dress with a flower in her hair, she's his supportive witness — and ride home — after his moment of “infamy.”
Decorating the small, low-lit bar are all the staples of tiki culture: wood carvings, fountains, a 1950s molded red fireplace, paintings of nubile women, and a standing army of men in garish Hawaiian shirts — including Clarke, who got his at a thrift store. Customers can sit on rattan furniture, or in one of two huts with palm tree roofs and leather booths.
But the ultimate symbol is by the front door: Grim-faced and mysterious, it's a 10-foot-tall statue — a mini version of the huge, humanoid structures found in the South Pacific. The Maori call those monoliths “tiki” and see them as representations of the first man. The one here is nicknamed “Big Mo” and shows no reaction to the xylophone-heavy music being played.
The oldest surviving tiki bar in L.A., the Tonga Hut opened in 1958. But when tiki bar aficionado Jeff “Beachbum” Berry visited it in the early 1990s, he found that “everybody in the place was drinking Budweiser, and the jukebox was blasting Black Oak Arkansas,” despite it being “a perfectly preserved 1950s tiki bar with a running waterfall and lots of bamboo.”
Berry asked for a Mai Tai, and had to tell the bartender what was in it. “I told her the final ingredient — the juice of one lime — and before I could stop her, she threw a whole lime, intact, uncut, rind and all, into the blender. Not wanting to appear ungrateful, I drank the whole thing. That's the moment when I decided to write the grog log.” Berry's guide to tropical tipples, Beachbum Berry's Grog Log, was released in 1998 and has spawned many sequels and variations.
The tiki craze, of course, began years before Berry codified it — and it, too, began in California. Fresh from traveling the South Pacific, Ernest Gantt opened what would become the first Don the Beachcomber bar in Hollywood in 1934, wowing customers and inspiring imitators. (Victor Bergeron's Trader Vic's opened in Oakland a few years later.) Tales of exotic overseas postings during World War II fanned the flames, and once “exotica” music went pop, tiki became cool.
The Tonga Hut was given its current makeover a year or so ago, about the time Clarke first visited. Its devoted regulars, many of whom are in the entertainment industry, took an active role; they're responsible for the live music events, the logo on the fezzes now being planned as an honorarium for all Bastards, and the beautifully crafted wheel with the log's drinks on it, perfect for a spin when you just can't decide what to have next.
A rockabilly fan back in his native United Kingdom, Clarke liked that the tiki scene here has a similar vibe. Like everyone at the Tonga Hut, he's taken a tiki name — “Tiki TV,” which will be immortalized on the bar's wall of colorful wooden plaques once he reaches Bastard status.
The wall features other names: Bora Bora Dog, Morticia Baddams, Swifty and Dr. G. There's even a posthumously awarded one for Dottie, a fixture at the Tonga Hut six days a week for 49 years. Her stool is marked “reserved” during Happy Hour. Dottie stuck rigidly to her order of Brandy Alexander for more than 20 years, and then switched to her husband's tipple — scotch and soda with a lemon twist and water back after he passed away. Only once was Dottie persuaded to steer off the path; she took one sip and went back to the spirits, her negative reaction lost to history.
Tonight, after Clarke finishes his first four drinks, bartender Lisa-Marie Burnside rings the bell behind the bar, and the crowd quiets. Tonight's DJ, who happens to be the very first Bastard, Tom “Tonga Tom” Kline, plays “Sufferin' Bastard” by the Ding Dong Devils as Clarke gets his final drink, takes a sip, and receives the wood-effect pennant given to all Bastards. On it is written “Buckoff” — he'll get $1 off any drink from now on. There's applause as cameras flash, and Clarke shows off his cheery red surfboard plaque, complete with a tiki TV logo.
A wizard with the shaker, Burnside calls this place a “tiki Cheers.” The drinks on the log, she says, are “good and bad, but none of them look ugly.” The Painkiller (a strong drink with orange juice, coconut, cinnamon and nutmeg) is the customers' favorite. There's one drink that everybody hates: the Beachcomber's Gold (French and Italian vermouth, bitters, Pernod and light rum).
“The smell of it makes my stomach curl,” Burnside admits. “I've only met five people who have liked it. Everyone else just plugs their nose and drinks it as quickly as possible. At least you only have to drink it once.”
Clarke almost shudders when he recalls it: “I managed to order it twice by mistake. One of the hazards of a dimly lit bar and failing drunken eyesight.”
The Order itself was only established in 2009, yet nearly 50 people are already in its ranks. That's a lot of people being openly hailed as a Bastard, and a lot of cocktails being drunk: almost $800 worth per Bastard — including tips, of course.
So how does it feel to become an official Bastard? Clarke thinks for a moment and then summarizes succinctly: “Drunk. And happy.”