Posted on December 31, 2020

Reclaiming the Tiki Bar

Sammi Katz and Olivia McGiff, New York Times, December 23, 2020

It is an unquestionably difficult time for the hospitality industry. Every day, another restaurant shutters, one more bar pulls its steel gate down for good. Since its invention, one kind of watering hole has seen America through its most grueling times: the tiki bar.

Decorated with bamboo and beach-y lights, with bartenders in Aloha shirts serving up mai tais, tiki bars were a booming part of America’s hospitality industry. {snip}

But the roots of tiki are far from the Pacific Islands. A Maori word for the carved image of a god or ancestor, tiki became synonymous in the United States and elsewhere for gimmicky souvenirs and décor. Now a new generation of beverage-industry professionals are shining a light on the genre’s history of racial inequity and cultural appropriation, which has long been ignored because it clashes with the carefree aesthetic. {snip}

Ernest Gantt, better known as Donn Beach, opened Don the Beachcomber in Southern California in 1933. He became known for his “Rhum Rhapsodies,” the first tiki drinks. They were elaborate and theatrical, featuring fresh juices and housemade syrups and could have upward of 10 ingredients.

Donn had four Filipino bartenders, whom he called “the Four Boys,” making all these drinks behind the scenes.

Victor Bergeron, inspired by his visits to Don the Beachcomber, opened his own tiki restaurant in Northern California in 1937. He included a gift shop and incorporated nautical accents and shipwreck décor. He even offered guests free food and drink in exchange for decorative items, earning his moniker and the name of his bar, Trader Vic’s.

Both restaurants served Chinese food, because it was considered “exotic” yet was identifiable to American palates. Both became chains as well. There were 25 Trader Vic’s in the world by the 1960s, and 16 Don the Beachcombers.

After World War II, tiki took off and joined the trend of themed restaurants that flourished in the late 1950s and early ’60s. They created an idyllic setting that evoked “island living,” employing images of palm trees, tribal masks and topless native women in grass skirts.

Restaurants transformed religious idols into kitschy artifacts and even drinking vessels, known as tiki mugs.


Around the 2008 recession, tiki bars began sprouting up all over the country and the cocktails were restored to the caliber of their “Rhum Rhapsody” forebears. Just like their predecessors, modern tiki bars seek to evoke a sense of escape.

But tiki bars can often reinforce the idea that Oceania is just a place to vacation, which belies America’s history with the region. In 1960 when the Mai-Kai, a tiki restaurant in Florida, sold 10,000 “Mystery Drinks” presented by half-dressed “Mystery Girls,” the U.S. military was using the Pacific Islands to test nuclear bombs. Fantasy was a far cry from reality.

At its heart, tiki is about fun, creative drinks in a transportive environment. A new wave of industry professionals is reimagining these delicious contributions to cocktail culture, looking to shed the appropriation and racism that have accompanied tiki since its inception. {snip}