Talkin’ Tiki: Put Some Polynesian Paradise In Your Life

Don Beachcomber map

Who doesn’t love the notion of a tropical escape? Seaside thatched huts, grass skirts for the ladies and flowery shirts for the gents, a potent umbrella drink in a quirky cup and those big-nosed, blockheaded statues. Admit it. You feel better already just reading the words. Though the Tiki trend flourished in the ’50s and ’60s, Americans never really lost their taste for a homegrown bit of Polynesian idyll, and Tiki bars still thrive across the country — including modern incarnations of two legendary outposts. Here’s our primer of Tiki-culture history, hot spots, signature drinks and more to get you in the spirit of the islands wherever you are.

1958: French actress France Nuyen plays lovely local girl Liat in the musical 'South Pacific', directed by Joshua Logan.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Why Tiki?

In a word — escapism. When American servicemen returned home from World War II, they brought along tchotchkes and memories of exotic South Pacific islands that were so, so different from home. One of them, James A. Michener, turned his experiences into the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tales of the South Pacific, which was made into the beloved 1949 musical South Pacific by Rodgers & Hammerstein. At the same time, Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian adventurer with no sailing experience, assembled a balsa-wood raft he called Kon-Tiki after an Inca chief and piloted it from Peru to Polynesia, capturing the adventure — and moviegoers’ imaginations — in an Oscar-winning 1951 documentary also called Kon-Tiki. Soon Tiki fever raged, bolstered when Hawaii — America’s own Polynesian paradise — earned statehood in 1959. City dwellers and suburbanites embraced it with equal fervor, bedecking their homes with thatch-roofed basement bars, surfboard-shaped coffee tables, little plastic hula girls and carved wooden statues of Inca gods, and replacing Manhattans and Gin Rickeys with fruity, boozy, rum-based libations as cocktail party beverages of choice.

Don the Beachcomber bar

Don The Beachcomber

In 1933, Texas-born Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt — a bootlegger with a case of wanderlust — opened a laid-back little restaurant that would turn Hollywood on its ear. From its quirky name “Don the Beachcomber” to its torches-and-rattan décor to its — and this part is key — potent rum punches and exotic (at least to landlocked Americans) eats. As more American soldiers returned stateside with an affection for all things Polynesian, Tiki culture became all the rage and Don the Beachcomber was ground zero for a beachy good time — leading Gantt to change his mouthful of a birth name to simply Donn Beach.


USA - 1939: A menu for Trader Vic's reads "Trader Vic's" from 1939 in USA.

Jim Heimann Collection/Getty Images

Trader Vic’s

A year after Don the Beachcomber opened its doors, Victor Jules Bergeron Jr. debuted his own Polynesian joint in San Francisco, briefly named Hinky Dinks, then polished to Trader Vic’s. Hours apart, Donn and Vic each did booming business, fostering a friendly rivalry that culminated in both claiming credit for the pinnacle of all Tiki drinks, the Mai Tai — a take on maita’i, the Tahitian word for “good.” A testament to the notion that a good idea — especially one that deals in rum-soaked escapist fun — endures, Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s franchises remain open to this day.

Or-what  Syrup?

To be truly authentic, your Mai Tai must be kissed with Orgeat syrup, a sweet, nutty emulsion made from almonds, sugar and orange blossom water or sometimes rose water. And not all almond potables are the same; If you can’t get your hands on Orgeat (and promise us you’ll really, really try), don’t be tempted to toss in a little Amaretto or crème de almond for sport. Instead, head for the coffee aisle of your local grocery and grab a bottle of almond syrup — the same kind your local coffeehouse uses to make you an almond mocha. And while we’re at it, do not get creative with your juices, either. No pineapple. No orange. No papaya nectar, because gosh that sounds tropical. Lime juice. Period.

Mai-Tai drink

The Trader Vics Mai Tai

3/4 ounce fresh lime juice

1/2 ounce orange Curaçao (Pierre Ferrand is most authentic)

1/4 ounce Orgeat syrup

1/4 ounce simple syrup (buy yourself a bottle of demerara if you want to save time, be truly legit and feel a tad exotic all at once)

2 ounces aged rum

Combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker, shake vigorously and pour into a double old fashioned glass.

Falling For Falernum

Like its cousin Orgeat, sweet, syrupy Falernum blends almonds and fruit juice — lime, this time — but Falernum heats things up a bit with the flavors of ginger, allspice and/or cloves. Originating in the West Indies, the mixer apparently derived its name from a Roman wine. Though it might be tough to scare up in your local liquor store, a number of brands can be easily found online for your next Zombie onslaught.

zombie cocktail

The Zombie

Credit Don the Beachcomber’s Donn Beach for this one, which he apparently created as a cheeky hangover cure. Like the Mai Tai, the Zombie now boasts enough recipe variations to turn you into one, but this one harkens back to the original. And no, you still cannot add pineapple juice.

6 ounces crushed ice, plus extra to fill glass

3/4 ounce fresh lime juice

1/2 ounce fresh grapefruit juice

1/4 ounce cinnamon syrup

1/2 ounce Falernum

1 1/2 ounces Puerto Rican gold rum

1 1/2 ounces aged Jamaican rum

1 ounce Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum

1 teaspoon grenadine

Dash Angostura bitters

6 drops Pernod or Herbsaint absinthe

Mint sprig

Place crushed ice, lime juice, grapefruit juice, cinnamon syrup, Falernum, Puerto Rican rum, Jamaican rum, Demerara, grenadine, bitters and Pernod in a blender. Blend until slushy, about 2 to 3 seconds. Pour the contents into a zombie glass or pint glass, add more crushed ice to fill and finish with a mint sprig.

old style illustration, easy-drawn naive characters, backgrounds and character can be used separately

Our top Tiki bars

The tiki trend still continues, here are some of favs you can find across the US.

Otto’s Shrunken Head — NYC

Foundation — Milwaukee

Psycho Suzi’s Motor Lounge — Minneapolis

Mai Kai — Fort Lauderdale

Bai Hut – Sarasota

Three Dots and a Dash — Chicago

Adrift — Denver

Lei Low — Houston

Frankie’s Tiki Room — Las Vegas

Golden Tiki – Las Vegas

Tiki-Ti — Los Angeles

Pacific Seas in Cliftons Republic – Downtown Los Angeles

Pacific Seas tiki bar

Tonga Room — San Francisco

Bali Hai — San Diego

The Alibi – Portland

Of course there are probably some we are missing so let us know what your favorite is in the comments.



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