Dancers and musicians at Mai-Kai, circa 1950s. (Photo:1950 Unlimited/CC BY 2.0.)
As Hollywood grewin the early 1930s, moviegoers wanted to see more of the world, and the movie industry had a way to show them that. Films set in exotic locations became popular for this reason and stories inspired by the South Seas became a particular attraction.
Decades agosouth pacifichit of the Broadway stage, the films of the era featured white men, male adventurers and local girls battling magical islands, shipwrecks, pirates, romance and the like. It was a success and Polynesia became the de facto image of paradise in the American collective imagination.
Enter the tiki bar. At these tropical facilities, guests could enjoy the atmosphere and excitement of the South Pacific without even leaving their suburbs. Of course, much of the atmosphere they absorbed was not an accurate representation of life on Pacificisland.
Postcard advertising the Menehune Banquet Hall at the Waldorf in Vancouver, c. 1950s (Photo:Rob/Flickr)
The palm trees were plastic, the food was Americanized Chinese, the decor was a brilliant mix of imitation Polynesian, Caribbean, and African native art, and the hula dancers were usually brunette Midwesterners with spray tans. Mid-century Tiki culture fetishized island life, of course, and largely disappeared when its faux-primitivism came to be seen as objectionable.
But American tiki isn't over yet. The kitsch revival of the 1990s gave way to a number of new tiki bars that you can visit today, and there are still some authentic vintage bars.
It all started withDon the Beachcomber.
Don the Beachcomber
HUNTINGTON BEACH, CALIFORNIA
Ernest Beaumont Gantt, a.k.a. Donn Beach, at the Beachcomber Cafe. (Photo:Hawaiian Beachcomber)
Ernest Beaumont Gantt made it through the Great Depression as a bootlegger, but when Prohibition ended he was out of a job. He worked a number of odd jobs, but after traveling in the Caribbean and the Pacific, he proved successful as a technical consultant on the many South Seas films Hollywood was making.
In 1934, he opened a bar in Los Angeles where he made rum drinks (it was the cheapest drink he could get) and decorated it with a Polynesian flair he collected, along with buoys and nets he picked up from the shore. He called it the Beachcomber Café and went out of his way to make patrons feel like they were in a little thatched hut somewhere far out in the Pacific.
Gantt declared himself master of ceremonies and legally changed his name to Donn Beach. Celebrities and civilians flocked to the Beachcomber, and Donn knew how to keep them there: Knowing that customers were more likely to stay for one more drink if the weather was bad, he created his own tropical storm using a garden hose on the roof. Soft ukulele and "exoticismMusic was a constant presence, both live and performed. Eventually, a myna bird trained to say, "Give me a beer, dumbass," would appear.
Bob Hope learns to hula from Don Beachcomber in Waikiki. (Photo:Hawaiian Beachcomber)
Despite being handpicked, World War II turned out to be the best thing to happen to Donn Beach and the tiki craze. First, thousands of American youth were transported to the Pacific, where many of them saw palm trees and beaches for the first time. The soldiers took coconut shells and grass skirts back to their new homes in the suburbs. News of this paradise arrived from abroad, and the idea of a tropical vacation began to grow in American pop culture.
Second, while Donn was overseas, his wife Sunny managed Don Beachcomber (the bar, not the man). She turned out to be twice as smart as him and expanded the bar into a popular chain.
Various imitators followed, including very successful onesVic's representative.
Illustration from Trader Vic's menu cover. (Photo:California Historical Society)
Noticing the growing popularity of all things tropical, Victor Bergeron opened a bar across the street from his parents' store in Oakland, California in 1934, around the same time Donn opened the Beachcomber.
If "Trader Vic's" sounds familiar, that's because the grocery store chain Trader Joe's borrowed its name from Vic's, along with its post office vibe. Since then, they've largely moved their branding away from its tiki-inspired origins, though their employees still wear Hawaiian shirts.
To be fair, the jury is out on who stole from whom. Both Donn Beach and Victor Bergeron (Trader's Vic) claimed the invention of the Mai Tai (meaning "good" in Tahitian) cocktail and dressed their restaurants in a style that would become iconic for tiki bars.
One of Trader Vic's first restaurants. (Photo:Trader Vic’s Atlanta)
They remained in friendly competition throughout their careers, but while Don sought fame and spectacle, Vic sought quantity in his work. Part of what drew people to the tiki craze was the sense of escape from reality. If you couldn't make it to the Pacific, it didn't matter—temporary vacations were available at Trader Vic's. To capitalize on the desire for cheap, easy leisure, Vic opened dozens of his restaurants in domestic and international hotels.
While Donn and Vic expanded their chains around the world, clubs likeSoba Tongain San Francisco focused on exclusivity.
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA
The band plays above the Tonga Room's main pool. (Photo:The Tonga Room i Hurricane Bar)
The Tonga Room was one of the first "high style" tiki bars. Rather than a log cabin dive bar, the club restaurant was sleek and glamorous. It represented a new style coming into vogue.
As tiki fever took hold, its aesthetic was wrapped in high culture. Rather than being considered low-class, 'primitive' bamboo carvings and furniture were modern and elegant. The architects built A-frame houses in imitation of native Pacific longhouses. Women began to wear hibiscus patterned linen dresses. Exotic musicians such as Les Baxter and Martin Denny fused American jazz with bongos, marimbas, vibraphones and even birdsong into what would become quintessential lounge music.
And of course, it would be remiss to forget Elvis Presley's connection to Hawaii, which inspired the dealhis favorite room at Graceland.
The Jungle Room στο Graceland
Movie poster fortreatment! treatment! treatment!, one of three movies starring Elvis in Hawaii. (Photo:Paramount Pictures)Tiki culture, Polynesian pop, the South Sea look—whatever you want to call it, it was very much part of American pop culture in the 1950s. This was reflected in the media, and who better to capitalize on the tropical charm of america by the king himself? Elvis signed a contract to film three musical films in Hawaii, and they produced some of his biggest hits, including "Love Me Tender" (fromBlue Hawaii) and "Return to Sender" (fromtreatment! treatment! treatment!). He loved Hawaii and returned there often, most notably for "Aloha from Hawaii Via Satellite," one of the first live concerts on television, where his famous white jumpsuit debuted.
Elvis' connection to Hawaii was so strong that he wanted to recreate it at home, which he did in his jungle room at Graceland Mansion. Complete with bar and waterfall, it was the ultimate tiki bar at home, a sign of fully realized American leisure.
In all three Hawaii films, Elvis played an aversion to the same character - a young man who, instead of fulfilling his duties as a pilot/fisherman/pineapple plantation heir, just wants to surf and flirt. It symbolized a new era in youth culture, and the carefree, fun ethos of tiki culture was a perfect fit. Tiki bars, restaurants, and even amusement parks sprung up all over the United States so that the new, young middle class could break free and “go native,” as many put it.
FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA
Dancers and musicians at Mai-Kai. (Photo:1950 Unlimited/ CC BY 2.0)
There were places likeMai-Kaiin Fort Lauderdale that used the Florida landscape to recreate a Polynesian fantasy, complete with dancers and musicians. More than a place to drink and eat semi-exotic food, Mai-Kai was meant to be an experience. It featured eight dining rooms, each representing a distinct group of Polynesian islands, a lush tropical garden and a floor display with gunners.
On the other coast of Florida, Indian Shores was home to Tiki Gardens, a Polynesian theme park. But of course, the good people of Central America also wanted a tropical getaway in their neighborhood, climate be damned.
Magnificent Kahiki Supper Club (Photo:Swanky / Reviews)
Kahiki Supper Club in Columbus, Ohio has become a destination for those near and far. It was closer to an amusement park than a restaurant, with huge, flaming tiki heads at the towering entrance, an indoor lagoon, and the pièce de résistance: The Mysterious Girl.
Whenever a mystery drink was ordered—a rum cocktail with a smoking volcano in the middle—a beautiful, nameless dancer would deliver it to the customer with a fresh orchid lei, a kiss on the cheek, and a dramatic bow of the tiki head. and disappear with the clang of a gong. This watch may have been stolen from Mai-Kai in Florida. it can be difficult to determine the source of the tiki reproductions, which were anyway imitations of Polynesian influences.
The mysterious girl at the Kahiki Supper Club. (Photo:Ronald Ortman / Review)
But, like any fad, tiki has become outdated over time. Air travel was easier than before, and with greater access to the real Pacific, tiki recreation began to seem odd and messy. After the horrors of the Vietnam War spread across the states, the charm of indigenous life lost some of its escapist luster.
Tiki establishments across the country have extinguished their torches and closed their doors. But there are still a handful of original vintage tiki bars. Most of the Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic's franchises didn't survive, but Montanta's didSip ‘n Dip LoungeHe made. Los Angeles"Tiki Tihas also stood the test of time, perhaps because its founder was the first bartender on the set of Clark Gable duringMutiny on the Bounty, Christian's cabin.
Sip ‘n Dip Lounge
GREAT FALLS, MONTANA
Sip 'n Dip Lounge. (Photo:Hotel Sip 'n Dip Lounge at O'Haire Motor Inn)
The kitsch renaissance of the 1990s made way for many new tiki bars, and their numbers have been steadily increasing ever since. New York has a lot, including Otto's shrunken head. Las Vegas hasFrankieeva Tiki soba; Vancouver is the hostShameful Tiki Room. The most famous tiki room is Walt Disney's Enchanted, although it is perhaps the only one that does not serve alcohol.
Today, few are under the illusion that a visit to a tiki bar represents any authentic Pacific culture. In fact, most tiki enthusiasts don't even mention the real Pacific when they don Hawaiian shirts and host backyard luaus.
Instead, they engage in nostalgic fantasy about the innovations of a bygone era. Tiki culture is a romantic replica of a replica of Polynesia, a plastic paradise that comes from nowhere. The next time you find yourself at a tiki bar, take a moment to enjoy the mid-century kitsch that gave us Mai Tais, limbo and hula girls on the board.
The history of tiki bars
The beginning of tiki bars started in the 50's when Ernest Gantt (better known as Donn Beach) opened the first tiki restaurant in California. He combined his comprehensive knowledge of the far-away tropical lands and his imbibing skills in an over-the-top tropical bar.
Originating from the Marquesas Islands, Tikis are also present in most islands of the polynesian triangle. The most famous are probably the “Moai”, the monumental statues of Easter Island. Half-man, half-god, the Tiki symbolizes a mythical character who created human beings. Polynesians used to worship and fear it.What decade was tiki popular? ›
After World War II, tiki took off and joined the trend of themed restaurants that flourished in the late 1950s and early '60s.What is the Tiki culture controversy? ›
Tiki, per the argument, is a white interpretation of island culture, a gross cultural appropriation that glosses over the struggles of islanders, ignoring the history of militarism and legacy of nuclear testing in the Pacific, and rife with sexualization of native women.What do Tikis symbolize? ›
Among Polynesians, Tiki is revered by all. It represents, their distant ancestors and their ancient gods. As such, it has a ritual value, like an amulet or a talisman, and is transmitted from generation to generation. The Tiki can be represented in different forms.What does tiki bar stand for? ›
A tiki bar is a themed drinking establishment that serves elaborate cocktails, especially rum-based mixed drinks such as the Mai Tai and Zombie cocktails. Tiki bars are aesthetically defined by their tiki culture décor which is based upon a romanticized conception of tropical cultures, most commonly Polynesian.What is the oldest tiki bar in America? ›
One of the premiere Tiki-drink masters of the LA area, and bartender at the very first Tiki bar in the US (Don the Beachcomber's), Ray Buhen grew weary of mixing drinks for bars owned by others. So in 1961 he decided to open his own. Tiki-Ti has been a popular destination for LA Tiki enthusiasts ever since.What was the first tiki bar in the United States? ›
The first tiki bar, Don the Beachcomber, opened in Los Angeles in 1933; it started a sensation as celebrities were regularly spotted sipping mai tais, eating pu pu platters, and listening to ukulele tunes.Does Tiki mean god? ›
In the Maori tribe, which began in New Zealand and made its way to other Polynesian and Hawaiian islands, Tiki culture begins with Tiki, the first man. Believed to have been the creation of the god Kane, Tiki is often worshipped as a god because he was the first and only human being on Earth.
Such carvings were first discovered in Polynesia, and tiki carvings are said to represent a Polynesian God. They're an integral part of South Pacific mythology, culture and history. Similar to the way the Christian religion sees Adam as the first created human, Maori mythology refers to Tiki as the first man.Who was the father of tiki culture? ›
Donn Beach (born Ernest Raymond Gantt; February 22, 1907 – June 7, 1989) was an American adventurer, businessman, and World War II veteran who was the "founding father" of tiki culture.What are some fun facts about tiki? ›
Tiki Facts! Tiki culture was inspired by the art, style, and attitudes of Polynesia. Tiki became huge in the 1940's and 50's and especially in America it was seen as a way to unwind after a long day at the office. A Texan is actually credited with starting the Tiki fad.What is the oldest running tiki bar? ›
Trad'r Sam is the oldest operating tiki bar in the world. Since 1937.What is the most famous tiki? ›
The Mai Tai is one of the most famous tiki drinks, consisting of dark and light rum plus an orange liqueur and fresh lime juice. It also contains orgeat syrup, an almond floral syrup. You can make orgeat syrup or buy it in some liquor stores and supermarkets. You can also substitute amaretto.What does Tiki face tattoo mean? ›
The tiki can also represent deified ancestors, priests and chiefs who became semi-gods after their passing. They symbolise protection, fertility and they serve as guardians.What does Tiki tattoo mean? ›
They are generally used to symbolize protection and fertility. Arms are usually associated to strength, power, and tiki arms are used to symbolize strength, or growth when they are designed pointing upward. Tiki arms. - VARIANTS - - USAGE SAMPLES -What kind of spirit is popular for a Tiki bar? ›
But tiki is inspired by the tropics, and rum's the winner in the tropics, so start with rum. You can always branch out to other base spirits later. One should be either a rich Demerara-style rum from Guyana, or a funky rhum agricole from Martinique. Also choose a rich Jamaican rum.What does tiki with tongue out mean? ›
The tongue sticking out symbolizes a warrior. Stop by the Cove and enjoy a drink with this Tiki in our.What is the oldest bar in America still open? ›
The White Horse Tavern is the “oldest operating restaurant in the U.S.” and is acknowledged as the 10tholdest in the world. The White Horse Tavern is a National Historic Landmark being America's oldest restaurant, having served guests since 1673.
The nation's oldest bar, Rhode Island's White Horse Tavern, opened in 1673. Some of these establishments are in America's oldest towns. Here are 102 American towns founded before the American Revolution.What is the second oldest bar in America? ›
2 The Broad Axe Tavern: 1681
Ambler, Pennsylvania is home to several of America's oldest bars, including the second oldest standing bar, The Broad Axe Tavern. It's been standing since 1681, and legend has it that the name comes from axes used to clear the woods around the area.
Sean's Bar is a pub in Athlone, Ireland, notable for its reputed establishment in AD 900, and claim to being the oldest extant bar in both Ireland and Europe.What is world's older bar? ›
Sean's Bar, which dates back to the Middle Ages! Also listed in the Guinness Book of Records for the historicity of the building that houses it, Sean's Bar has been recognised as the oldest bar in the world. It is located in Athlon, a small town on the banks of the Shannon River, in the centre of Ireland.What is the oldest cocktail bar in the world? ›
Al Brindisi, Ferrara, Italy
Dating back to 1435, Al Brindisi is the oldest Enoteca (wine bar) in the world according to Guinness World Records.
Tiki art is inspired by the ancient Polynesian culture where people believed in Tiki gods. Ancient Hawaiians made sculptures of these deities mainly for worship and spiritual guidance. Since then Tiki sculpture has become an inherent part of Hawaii.Who are the 4 Hawaiian gods? ›
While there are numerous akua (gods) in the Hawaiian Pantheon, there are four major gods Kū, Kanaloa, Kāne, Lono.Can a Tiki be female? ›
He is pronounced Tiki in the Marquesan language and Ti'i in Tahitian. His representation is anthropomorphic. He can be male or female. The Tiki has a protective role.Are Tikis sacred? ›
Hei-tiki are often considered taonga, especially if they are older and have been passed down throughout multiple generations. Carvings similar to ngā tiki and coming to represent deified ancestors are found in most Polynesian cultures. They often serve to mark the boundaries of sacred or significant sites.Who is the famous tiki guy? ›
Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, known better as Don the Beachcomber, is often called the founding father of tiki.
In Hawaiian religion, Kū is one of the four great gods.What is tiki mythology? ›
In Polynesian mythology, tiki often represents the first human being on Earth created by the atua (deity) Tane, who, together with Hine-ahu-one, is considered humankind's progenitors. In areas of Polynesia, carved tiki figures were often thought to be a repository for a certain god's mana (prestige).What is a sneaky Tiki? ›
Add light rum, blue curacao, mango, lime and guava juice. Mix with a cocktail spoon. Add splash of pineapple and float the Myers rum on top. Garnish with wedge of orange, lime and a maraschino cherry. You can also add a chunk of fresh pineapple and a little cocktail umbrella if you're in the true tiki mood.What is the Tiki lifestyle? ›
The Tiki lifestyle is all about escapism. When you step into a Tiki lounge, you should feel like you've been transported to the tropics, surrounded by bamboo, coconuts, beachy vibes, island music, flavorful drinks and nautical details.What was the first Tiki cocktail? ›
Invention of the Mai Tai: 1940s
While working at his bar in Los Angeles, Trader Vic was visited by a group of friends from Tahiti. Trader Vic combined pineapple juice, liqueur, and light and dark rum to create the ultimate Tiki cocktail.
While many of the original locations have closed, Trader Vic's once again has grown to 18 locations around the globe due to a revival in popularity of tiki culture. As of 2022, there are three Trader Vic's restaurants in the United States, two in Europe, ten in the Middle East, two in East Asia, and one in Seychelles.What is the king of tiki drinks? ›
Coming from the Tahitian phrase 'Maita'i roa ae!' meaning, “very good”, this cocktail is considered the king of tiki drinks. It is made of rum, orgeat, lime juice, and orange curacao. For an authentic mai tai, opt for Jamaican aged rum and Jamaican white rum.What do Tiki masks represent? ›
Tiki masks are hand-carved wooden masks that, in their original intent, were used to stand in for deities, protect their users from evil spirits or even increase the mask wearers' fertility and luck.What does Tiki with tongue out mean? ›
The tongue sticking out symbolizes a warrior. Stop by the Cove and enjoy a drink with this Tiki in our.Are Tiki statues bad luck? ›
One reason to have them is that they can bring good luck. While the reality of the tiki gods of Hawaii bringing good luck can be debated, having them in your home just might improve your chances. If nothing else, looking at them will remind you to work hard, have fun and achieve your goals.
In Māori mythology, Tiki is the first man created by either Tūmatauenga or Tāne. He found the first woman, Marikoriko, in a pond; she seduced him and he became the father of Hine-kau-ataata.Is Tiki a religious symbol? ›
What does a Tiki head symbolize? Originally used to mark boundaries for sacred grounds and serve as religious idols, symbols and protectors in Polynesian culture, Tiki mask meanings have evolved over time and have only become richer, encompassing various deities, cultural traditions, meanings and uses.Are Tiki statues religious? ›
Tiki Culture and Art
In most tiki cultures, Tiki statues carved by high-ranking tribesmen were considered sacred and powerful, and these were used in special religious ceremonies.
The tiki can also represent deified ancestors, priests and chiefs who became semi-gods after their passing. They symbolise protection, fertility and they serve as guardians.What is the Tiktok tongue thing? ›
If their tongue sticks out to enunciate certain lyrics then yes, they do the "tongue thing". The viral lyrics are: This is more than a crush/More than a like, like/More than a love/Baby I'ma make you mine/And I ain't giving up. @What tribe sticks out their tongue? ›
Sticking out one's tongue is a sign of respect or agreement and was often used as a greeting in traditional Tibetan culture.What does Hawaiian Tiki tattoo mean? ›
They are generally used to symbolize protection and fertility. Arms are usually associated to strength, power, and tiki arms are used to symbolize strength, or growth when they are designed pointing upward. Tiki arms. - VARIANTS - - USAGE SAMPLES -Why can't you whistle at night in Hawaii? ›
9) Don't whistle at night
Whistling at night is bad luck. The rationale for this superstition is that the whistler will attract a spirit such as the Night Marchers. Whistling during the day is thought to be a good omen, however.
(You want misfortunes of the past to be behind you, not where you enter.) Don't cut your nails at night. (It's bad luck.)What are some Hawaiian taboos? ›
- Don't remove sand from the beach. ...
- Don't take any lava rocks from Volcanoes National Park. ...
- Don't take any pork over the Pali. ...
- Don't bring bananas on a boat.
Tiki Facts! Tiki culture was inspired by the art, style, and attitudes of Polynesia. Tiki became huge in the 1940's and 50's and especially in America it was seen as a way to unwind after a long day at the office. A Texan is actually credited with starting the Tiki fad.Who can wear a Tiki? ›
hei-tiki, small neck pendant in the form of a human fetus, used by the Māori of New Zealand as a fertility symbol. Usually carved of green nephrite or a jadelike stone called pounamu that is found along the western coast of the South Island, hei-tikis normally are worn only by women.