Tiki hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons this summer, when a bunch of neo-Nazis and white supremicists fired up tiki torches and took to the streets in Charlottesville, prompting not only international revulsion, but also a stern rebuke from the makers of the flaming implements.
“Our products are designed to enhance backyard gatherings and to help family and friends connect with each other,” said the company.
For the uninitiated, tiki is a Polynesian-inspired American pop culture phenomenon, which swept bars and restaurants from the end of WWII through to the 1970s. It’s so far removed from authentic Polynesian culture, such a ludicrous, kitsch invention, that it has largely – although not entirely – avoided accusations of cultural appropriation.
And when you visit them in their spiritaual homeland, California, you can see why. For a variety of reasons (proximity to Hawaii, the surfer lifestyle, weather, burgeoning post-war economy and population) tiki flourished in the Golden State.
And while considered a 20th century relic by many, new bars have been opening in recent years, a testament to what some have dubbed the Third Wave of Tiki (there was a brief rekindling of the torch in the late 90s). My pilgrimage down the coast bore out this revival, beginning at the oldest tiki bar in the US and ending with one that had launched only two days before my visit.
Appropriately – for the drive and for the bars – my journey commenced in San Francisco. Driving the Pacific Coast Highway from north to south kept the car on the side of road next to the sea, for unobstructed views and easy access to the shoulder. Starting a tiki bar road trip in San Francisco meant a chance to begin at America’s oldest tiki bar: the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar at The Fairmont San Francisco hotel.
Completed just before the 1906 earthquake and opened in 1907 following structural repairs, The Fairmont is a city icon. When Tony Bennett first crooned about where he had left his heart, he did so in 1961 at this cherished Beaux-Arts landmark atop the slopes of Nob Hill.
Sixteen years before that, the hotel was the talk of the town for transforming its downstairs spa into the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar. The Tonga Room is not only the oldest tiki bar in the US, but probably the nation’s most over-the-top as well. The nightly automated rainstorm starts with a thunderclap over an Olympic-sized, indoor lagoon (once The Fairmont’s swimming pool) and ushers in a live band performing top 40 covers on an island floating in the middle.
A thatched roof above the band protected them and their gear from the manufactured weather. Looming ponderously over the lagoon and the dance floor was the SS Forester, a largely intact lumber schooner that once sailed between San Francisco and the South Pacific.
Of course what’s most important about any restaurant or bar is the food and drink. The Tonga Room’s menu offers a range of Hawaiian inspired Californian fare (spicy ahi poke with toasted macadamia nuts in a coconut shell) and old school Chinatown crowd pleasers (such as Mongolian beef).
The Tonga Room’s 1944 Mai Tai is a smart choice of drink, as it adheres to the original recipe created by Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron, who first served it at the now defunct Trader Vic’s restaurant in Oakland.
Downhill from The Fairmont and near City Hall is Smuggler’s Cove. Since its 2009 launch, founder and owner Martin Cate has been stockpiling awards, accolades, and rum for his patrons. Spread over three storeys and adorned with tiki bric-a-brac, Polynesian décor and rum-related memorabilia, Smuggler’s Cove boasts the largest rum selection in America and a drinks menu incorporating it all into an intriguing cocktail list that draws inspiration from more than three centuries of rum history.
One drink to consider for your visit is The Expedition, a rich and potent mix of coffee liqueur, dark rum, and Bourbon with honey, vanilla and cinnamon (it comes in a take-home signature mug too).
After a few days in San Francisco, it was time to drive south. This first leg of my journey was the least tiki but most scenic. Hugging the curved and craggy road from Monterrey Bay to Big Sur yielded a particularly wondrous eyeful of coastline. I stopped at the town of Solvang, whose claim to fame is being the location for hit film Sideways, before ploughing through the final 125 miles to Los Angeles.
First stop: the Hollywood bar Tiki-Ti. Hardly bigger than the actual bar from which its cocktails are served, teeny Tiki-Ti on Sunset Boulevard has made an immeasurable impact on cocktail culture across the globe. Open since 1961, and still in the hands of the son and grandson of the original owner, Tiki-Ti ranks as top contender for the ultimate California tiki bar.
The tropical décor is chock-a-block, the atmosphere is welcoming and chatty. And the drinks are out of this world. A must-try is Ray’s Mistake (named for the original owner Ray Buhen with the bar’s own “super secret flavor”, including botanic liqueurs, passion fruit and dark Corub rum”). And if you want to see the place go wild, order the tequila-based Blood and Sand.
Tiki is not only about bars. One of California’s seminal shrines to the phenomenon is the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland in Anaheim. Originally built in 1963, the Enchanted Tiki Room is a zany and kid-friendly musical attraction featuring animatronic parrots and tiki statues interacting and performing for small audiences.
The rickety, claptrap sounds of the robotic birds and statues gives the Tiki Room an antiquated, retro vibe. Undoubtedly, Disneyland has snazzier and more thrilling rides, but this old theatre holds its own in terms of charm.
For the grownups, there’s Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar. Opened in 2011, this bar is on the grounds of the Disneyland Hotel outside the park entrance. Drinks are as amazing as the bar is visually stunning. Consider the Hippopoto Mai-Tai, for a playful version of the classic cocktail. After my Disney day, a 20-mile drive towards the ocean led me to Huntington Beach for a few restful surfside nights at Kimpton Shorebreak Hotel.
The reason I was at Huntington Beach was to see Don the Beachcomber. A cavernous venue bedecked with tropical trappings of mostly mid-century origin, this bar and restaurant is named in honour of barman and entrepreneur Donn Beach and his now defunct Don the Beachcomber chain of restaurants. Launched in the 1930s, he set the template for every tiki bar that followed.
This same venue was once known as Sam’s Seafood, which for decades served as a Polynesian Pop destination for folks throughout Southern California. The current owner has done a fine job maintaining the original look while adding a bit of Donn Beach memorabilia. There’s tasty food on the menu too (I can recommend the ribs, tuna tacos and calamari) and live music most nights of the week.
At the end of the road was San Diego, where tiki old and tiki new combined for one last hurrah. In San Diego, I stayed at Humphrey’s Half Moon Inn, a low-rise boutique resort with a relaxed tropical feel, a jutting A-frame entrance, dozens of tiki carvings placed throughout the grounds and resident parrots to bid you welcome along hibiscus lined pathways.
The resort is located on Shelter Island. Not an actual island but a sandbank connected to the mainland with a collection of hotels, restaurants, marinas and parkland. When Shelter Island was developed in the 1950s, local buildings had to adhere to a Polynesian theme as per special city zoning laws.
Hardly a saunter away from the Half Moon is the Bali Hai restaurant. Opened in 1954, this bayside “tiki temple” is a San Diego treasure, with floor-to-ceiling carvings, artefacts (real and recreated) and South Seas accoutrements befitting their surroundings.
Admired by locals as much for its seafood as for its looks, the Bali Hai is a fine place for dinner and drinks with views of downtown across San Diego Bay – especially at its top floor open-air bar just after dark, when the skyline across the bay starts to twinkle.
Across the bay on the southern edge of Little Italy is False Idol. The brainchild of Martin Cate, the same guy behind Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, False Idol was only two days into its launch when I visited but already the talk of the California tiki community. The place was foretold at every tiki establishment I visited en route, from the first day of my trip to the last.
False Idol is hidden in the back of another bar, Craft & Commerce. A buzzing venue in its own right, you’d never suspect that there might be something tiki lurking in its shadows. To access False Idol, you pass through Craft & Commerce’s freezer door to emerge inside a torch-lit cave with an evocatively illuminated bar. As with most of the tiki bars visited on our tour, this one was decked out to the max with tiki-tat. But the torches and its speakeasy mystique upped the tiki ante to hitherto unseen levels.
Proper tiki bars are like entering a different dimension, one where snobbery and cynicism must be checked at the door, but where there are huge amounts of fun to be had. There really does feel like a community; people know that their taste in bars (“obsession” isn’t too strong a word for some of them) is a little outre, but here, we’re all in the same boat. Often a literal boat. Tiki culture really is the opposite of those white supremacists; come and have a mai tai – everybody’s welcome!