Even if it's reborn as part of the newly-imagined Clifton's, many still mourned when aquarium-filled Bahooka tiki bar in Rosemead closed its doors recently. But in NoHo, the Tonga Hut will be celebrating its 55th birthday this year — and appropriately for such an exotic craze, the phenomenon began right here in California.
Ernest Gantt was just back from his travels in the South Pacific and couldn't get the memory of palm trees, nubile women and exotic carvings out of his head — so he opened a bar called Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood in 1934. Trader Vic's opened in Oakland a few years later and many imitators followed across the country, as World War Two brought military tales of faraway islands back to these shores.
Times have changed, but there are still plenty of places you can throw on a Hawaiian shirt and feel right at home. Turn the page for our five favorite tiki bars here in Los Angeles.
5. Tonga Hut:
You pass “Big Mo” on the way in to the oldest tiki bar in town, and then you can start your challenge: drinking the 78 drinks of the “Grog Log” over the next 12 months. The prize — despite being around $800 poorer — is joining the Loyal Order of the Drooling Bastard. And who doesn't want that? Worst drink? The nose-challenging Beachcomber's Gold (vermouth, bitters, Pernod and light rum). 12808 Victory Blvd., North Hollywood; 818-769-0708.
Tiny and eclectic — there are just 12 stools and a few tables — this three-person show has the upside (or downside) of being one of the few bars in L.A. where smoking is legal. Opened by Ray Buren in 1961 and now run by his son and grandson, Buren's accidental cocktail Ray's Mistake is still No. 1 at Tiki-Ti (it includes a “secret” flavor, of course). Remember that they're serious here: They don't serve wine or beer. It can be standing room only at weekends, and the place is cash-only. (Note: Tiki Ti will be closed for remodeling — uh oh — from March 31-April 16, reopening April 17.) 4427 Sunset Blvd. Los Angeles; 323-669-9381, @tiki_ti.
This huge restaurant is a tribute to that original tiki bar, and is home to many music and art events (many tiki fans work in music, TV or movies, so they tend to be a creative bunch). Ease yourself in with a Rum Barrel — which comes in your own mini-rum barrel — or one of the reintroduced Rhum Rhapsodies (though the 1934 Zombies are limited to two per person). Mai Tais are classic, too. 16278 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach; 562-592-1321.
2. Trader Sam's:
The newest and quirkiest tiki bar is poolside at the Disneyland Hotel and is inspired by the theme park's Jungle Cruise and the drinks “Trader Sam” bought home with him. There are lots of fun gimmicks — the barstools can be secretly lowered by the bartenders — and they sell a great selection of that favorite collectible, a tiki mug. 1150 Magic Way, Anaheim; 714-778-6600.
A friendly neighborhood dive in El Segundo, the Purple Orchid is a bit of a hidden treat — and more subtly decorated than you might expect. It's not a million miles from LAX, and could be the ideal pre-flight time-killer or post-friend pick-up stop. You often can find live music here. And best of all, the tiki drinks are cheap! Order up a volcano bowl for a treat — yes, that's real flame! 221 Richmond St., El Segundo; 310-322-5829.
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