In the beginning (1933 actually) was Don The Beachcomber, the legendary tiki bar in Los Angeles. Creator Donn Beach eventually parleyed the kitschy concept into a small chain. A few years later, Victor Bergeron founded the iconic Trader Vic’s, which flourished in the 1950s and 1960s—and spawned a host of competitors. Currently the San Francisco-headquartered chain operates 23 Trader Vic’s around the globe.
Typified by Polynesian decor of carved tiki idols, bamboo furniture and blazing torches, Donn, Vic and others created a unique category of fruity-yet-potent cocktails served in elaborate ceramic mugs adorned with paper umbrellas: Mai Tai, Zombie, Planter’s Punch and the Blue Hawaii.
“Tiki culture is so cool,” enthuses Bahamas-based consultant Robert A. Burr, creator of the Gifted Rums Guide educational Web site. “It’s a little kitschy, a little funky and that’s cool. There’s something about that culture that resonates. It’s never gone away entirely, now there’s a resurgence.”
Anecdotally a number of “new wave” tiki bars are underdevelopment or have opened recently in cocktail-centric cities. Notable ventures include Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, Thatch in Portland, Oregon, and Painkiller and Brooklyn Tiki Bar in New York. Clover Club owner Julie Reiner plans to turn the former Tailor bar space in Manhattan into a tropical-themed concept later this summer.
“Tiki bars are a trend that seem to be coming back,” echoes Cookie Oppedisano, owner of the Hala Kahiki Lounge in River Grove, Ill. “Young people are going to tiki bars because they remember their parents or grandparents going to them.”
Oppedisano’s own parents started the Hala Kahiki Lounge 45 years ago, amid a crowd of other tiki concepts, recalls the current owner. Except for some expansion, the concept has stayed true to its roots, with faux-Polynesian decor and an extensive menu of traditional tiki drinks.
Most popular is the Zombie, made from the Donn’s original recipe, says Oppedisano, as well as standards like the Mai Tai and Planter’s Punch. All the cocktails are concocted entirely from scratch and made with well liquor, according to Oppedisano, except for the floats on drinks like the Zombie where she employs the potent Bacardi 151. Prices range from about $4 up to $12 for a few of the drinks designed for two–the Beach Comber, Volcano and Tiki Bowl. Oppedisano stopped using ceramic mugs a few years ago because of breakage and theft, but the glassware is decorated with hula girls, palm trees and other South Sea Island themes, and coconut cocktails are served in coconut shells.
Drinks are merchandised mainly in a five-page menu filled with fanciful descriptions. Seasonal specials get a table-tent treatment.
“A lot of times customers will see a drink go by on its way to a table and ask for it,” says Oppedisano. That’s especially true of the Volcano, served in a big bowl in the center of which is a volcanic cone of flaming high-proof rum.