Food Feature: Tiki Tour
Combing California for Polynesian pop culture fixes
Escapism. That one word pretty much sums up tiki culture. Relaxing music, vibrant colors, delicious drinks and tropical settings entice the mind to wander if only for a few hours. Polynesian pop culture peaked several times during its long and winding existence, but actually began here in the States in the '30s.
When prohibition ended, Americans were ready to hop back on the booze train full speed ahead, seeking escape from the Depression era by way of heavy-hitting cocktails, tall tales of exotic lands and Hawaiian music. Entrepreneurs such as Ernest Beaumont-Gantt and Victor Bergeron answered the call for hedonism by establishing the first tiki-themed restaurants: Gantt's Don the Beachcomber opened in Hollywood in 1934 and Bergeron's Trader Vic's came shortly after, opening in Oakland in 1936.
Today the tiki fad is being rediscovered by twenty- and thirtysomethings. Hardcore "tikiphiles" and "Polynesiacs" hunt thrift stores in search of original souvenir mugs, study the recipes of exotic concoctions and even turn their homes into tiny paradises with tropical birds, bamboo shades, grass mats and hula figurines. While not harboring the full-fledged tiki obsession, I do enjoy the exotic tiki aesthetic (and the drinks, of course), so I set sail for its birthplace on the sunny shores of California.
I formulated a route to different tiki bars in and between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The first stop on the mini tiki tour: Harbor Hut in Morro Bay. Pulling up in front of the hut, we were greeted by a large, 30-foot carving of an animated Polynesian god (the relic that gives tiki its name). This, however, turned out to be one of the only factors contributing to the bar's tikidom.
The drinks were the usual bar fare: scotch and soda, screwdrivers and so on. We were hoping for a Scorpion in a punch bowl adorned with hula girls, maybe a Zombie in a ceramic mug bearing a likeness to Dr. Fu Manchu, but, alas, no. The interior decor resembled that of a fancy Red Lobster and the local crowd seemed to be enjoying themselves, hobnobbing to the tunes of the latest Peter Cetera release. This was not only aesthetically unpleasing, but flat-out baffling. Lesson learned: Just because there's a tiki outside doesn't mean you'll experience tiki inside.
In San Francisco, we wasted no time getting to the Tonga Room, located in the basement of the Fairmont hotel. Straw huts, large tiki carvings, abundant plant life and the other elaborate tropical touches instantly made this a favorite. What was once a swimming pool is now a small lagoon where a Vegas-style band floats on a platform, performing songs like "Girl From Ipanema" and "Going Out of My Head." Every half-hour, a loud crack belted out from the sound system, strobe lights began flashing and simulated rain started falling from the ceiling into the lagoon, creating our own personal lightning storm and rain shower.
Although expensive, the drinks were just what we needed: heavy on the alcohol and delicious. We ordered a tiki classic, the Scorpion for two (Puerto Rican Rum, orgeat syrup, brandy, orange juice and lemon juice) in a large bowl with a central flaming reservoir (aka volcano style) and two large straws. As the lulling effect of the alcohol began to take hold, the surroundings oddly became more realistic; I half expected a parrot to land on my shoulder and ask us where we were from. Perfect.
Several Mai Tais later, after viewing the bill, I was unfortunately slapped back into reality. Fancy libations aren't cheap, but luckily there's enough fuel in one drink to take you far and beyond the sobriety border. Still, the Tonga Room was exactly what we sought out and was well worth the decimation of my wallet.
Next stop: L.A. There's a lot of history behind our final destination, the Tiki Ti. Owner Ray Buhen started his bartending career mixing alcoholic masterpieces for Don the Beachcomber and brought those skills over to his own establishment in the early '60s. Recently celebrating its 40th year in business, Tiki Ti remains a tireless purveyor of tiki culture and a little piece of history preserved. Located on East Sunset Boulevard, the place is literally a shack, with about 30 people filling it to capacity.
I tested the waters here again with my favorite drink, the Scorpion. Our bartender (Ray's grandson) poured a flood of rum in a large glass, then mixed in liquid from a line of unmarked plastic bottles, leaving me with the idea that the Buhen family, like most tiki bar owners, aims to keep its cocktail recipes a secret. Served in smaller, fishbowl-type glasses, the drinks were bursting with tropical flavor: pineapple, orange and kiwi slices all topped with umbrellas — pure artistry.
The ceiling was lined with hanging blowfish lamps, bamboo and real bark paintings depicting native Polynesian scenes such as dancing and rowing. Behind the bar was a small waterfall with bewilderingly green glowing water and an endless amount of island-inspired clutter.
For the life of me, though, I couldn't figure out why they chose to play Limp Bizkit. A tiki bar needs lounge music, exotica or even Muzak. A selection of Martin Denny CDs never hurt ambience. Still, with the exception of the musical selection and the size of the place (we had to wait outside until two people decided to leave), this place was great in the mental transportation department.
Overall, two out of three successful tiki trips isn't bad. With Polynesian-style bars and restaurants being revived all across America, it was worth it to get a taste of tiki in its original state. Until next time, I'll be sipping Scorpions at Atlanta's very own Trader Vic's. Aloha.