Wine and Spirits

The Sweet Escape

On the enduring allure of the tiki bar.

Tonga Room, San Francisco.

IN OUR TIME of pandemic-induced malaise and despair, it’s become vital to fumble around in the dark for any cultural source of joy or moment of relief: an all-night binge watch of “The Golden Girls” (RIP Betty White), keeping the Christmas lights up past December, endless baking, and, more importantly, eating. But there are lessons to be found in the hard annals of history that might help guide us through our anguish today. In the wake of the stock market crash of 2008, kids escaped into the Busby Berkeley–style pop of Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, and Katy Perry. In response to the high inflation and stagnation of the 1970s, couples started swinging and bought water beds to bring a little bounce into their bedrooms. And as the Great Depression raged through the 1930s, those who could turned to one new experience where you could leave your troubles at the door: tiki, that characteristic American mishmash of rum, fried foods, and vacation fantasy.

Tiki bar culture, as we know it now, was more or less invented in the 1930s by Ernest Gantt (later known as Donn Beach and, to his admirers, the “godfather of tiki”), who opened the archetypal Don the Beachcomber at a tiny hotel in Hollywood, California, in 1933. “In 1932 at the repeal of prohibition — we’d had fourteen years of darkness in that stupid thing called the Eighteenth Amendment — and finally we saw the light. We’d all been drinking this horrible rotgut stuff — bathtub gin — for fourteen years,” he once recounted in an interview. And so, to make up for years of moonshine misery, he created drinks bursting with knockout flavor, using rum as the starting point, inspired, he said, by his travels in the Caribbean and the South Pacific. And he served them adorned with cocktail umbrellas.

Along with a team of Filipino bartenders, Gantt invented the Sumatra Kula (light rum, plus orange, lime, and grapefruit juices), the Zombie (three different kinds of rum, lime juice, falernum, Angostura bitters, Pernod, grenadine, cinnamon syrup, and grapefruit juice), and the Q.B. Cooler, a fruity antecedent to what would become the Mai Tai, perhaps the most enduring of all tiki drinks. The Beachcomber’s Hollywood location helped attract celebrity clientele like Charlie Chaplin and Marlene Dietrich. Gantt eventually added his take on Chinese-American food to the menu and filled the place with palm fronds, bamboo, and fishnets, and the tiki craze was well on its way.

Tiki culture peaked midcentury — there were around 20 Don the Beachcomber restaurants at the height of its popularity — aided in part by Hawaii officially becoming a state in 1959, which helped a surf-and-sand cultural explosion hit the mainland. Tiki’s cool faded in the late 1960s, when hippies who wanted nothing to do with the kitschy lounge tastes of their parents became the new arbiters of taste. But it survived in fits and starts, with some scattered resurgences throughout the decades.

Some of the original tiki spots have held on — the last Don the Beachcomber closed in 2018, but its primary rival in the 1930s, Trader Vic’s, still has locations in Georgia, California, Qatar, and Japan, with a new one being built in the San Jose airport. Incidentally, in 1993, a New York location of Trader Vic’s in the Plaza Hotel was closed after 25 years by Donald Trump after he bought the hotel and declared the restaurant “tacky” (though some might consider Donald hating tiki as something of a ringing endorsement). Some of tiki’s characteristics have also been absorbed into the larger culture — think of Jimmy Buffet’s take-it-easy “Margaritaville” ethos and the resilient popularity of Hawaiian shirts. No less than Trader Joe’s owes its name (a reference to Trader Vic’s) and South Seas aesthetics to its founder’s interest in tiki.

Beneath the kitsch pageantry, I, for one, find myself instinctively drawn to its core ideal: the pleasure of escaping inside a glass of sugar and rum.

Tiki’s larger decline, though, is in some ways due to its struggle to adapt and evolve for a changed era. In recent years, as with so many reevaluated things, tiki has come to be seen in a different light, one that focuses on the more unpleasant truths of its origins. Though inspired by Polynesia, the early tiki trailblazers were largely white men. They cobbled together elements from Pacific Islander, Asian, Caribbean, and Californian culture and mixed them up with coarse abandon, just like they did their rum cocktails, which were often poured into kitschy cups made to look like sacred Polynesian religious idols. “Tiki” itself is a word used by the Māori — the Indigenous people of New Zealand — for a type of stone or wood carving of a god found throughout Polynesia; because of the term’s hallowed origins, some contemporary critics have even pushed to retire its use in the context of bar culture and exchange it for a less contestable descriptor like “tropical.”

But tiki has never completely lost its pull on the American palate. Beneath the kitsch pageantry, I, for one, find myself instinctively drawn to its core ideal: the pleasure of escaping inside a glass of sugar and rum. I still remember the first piña colada — the iconic frozen pineapple drink invented at an upscale hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico — I ever drank on a beach. The flavor was so incandescent and sweet that it immediately flipped a switch in my taste buds I’ve yet to turn off. Even when I’m counting calories, I can’t resist ordering one whenever I’m on vacation somewhere warm. It will always taste like relaxation.


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A number of new establishments are reimagining tiki for the twenty-first century. Interestingly, they’re not labeling themselves as such. Take the curious Sunken Harbor Club, which opened in 2021 behind a bead of curtains and above the swanky chophouse Gage & Tollner in the heart of Brooklyn. It does not advertise itself as tiki or have palm trees and hula girls as decor, but it specializes in tropical drinks and recalls the more maritime side of tiki, with a ship’s wheel on the bar and a backlit blue mural of a mermaid behind it, which gives the entirety of the tiny space a calming ocean glow. The interior feels like the hull of the Pequod: lined from top to bottom in dark-brown wood, with lanterns and ropes hanging from the ceiling, and spears mounted on the walls. There are pork dumplings and cod fritters, with a sauce so spicy only a cold sugary cocktail as a quencher will do. The classic Mai Tai is on the menu, but so are some inventive new makeovers, like the Singapore Burrapeg, a Champagne-cocktail version of the old standby Singapore Sling. Also on offer is a tall rummy White Zombie with a grapefruit-and-flower garnish; it’s so strong that when I order it the waiter half-jokingly tells me there’s a two-drink maximum. “People don’t give tropical drinks enough credit for diversity of style,” Garret Richard, chief cocktail officer at Sunken Harbor Club, told the New York Times. “They think it’s all just crushed-ice drinks.”

A favorite spot in New York is Pokito, which is something like the Gen Z dive-bar version of a tiki locale. Nestled on a quiet block of South Williamsburg, the proprietors would likely not refer to the bar as tiki, but the interior is dotted with paper lanterns and drenched completely in hibiscus-pink light, with floors of green-and-white tile that’s been drastically chipped away from wear to reveal the concrete underneath, as though it weathered a bad storm. The drinks are bright, brilliant concoctions in shades of anthurium red, tangerine orange, parakeet green, and orchid purple (my personal favorite: the Lolita, with vodka, butterfly pea flower, lavender, and lemon), some served with a cocktail umbrella, and the vibe is easy and lounge-like, with long benches made to spend hours on.

But there’s nothing quite like the straightforward, tried-and-true tiki mainstays, like San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove, which serves over 700 kinds of rum and around 80 different kinds of mixed drinks. The absolute best, however, is the Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar, opened in 1945 and still in operation today, across town in Nob Hill, appearing like a hidden cave inside the majestic old Fairmont Hotel. The Tonga Room was designed with help from a Hollywood set director, and it’s cinematically and dimly lit, with a pool in the center made to look like a lagoon; every 30 minutes, the sound of thunder cracks and water falls from a sprinkler on the ceiling into a basin, like rain. A house band called the Island Groove floats in the center of the lagoon on a thatched boat, an actual old schooner that carried lumber between San Francisco and the South Pacific, playing wavy, Hawaiian-style surf licks.

To wash down your cashew shrimp and chicken fried rice, you can order rum cocktails like the Bora Bora Horror or Pineapple Royale, which is served, of course, inside a whole pineapple. Guava panna cotta and Baked Alaska, a meringue relic from an era long ago, are available for dessert. The room is cavernous and dark, which helps preserve just enough of its heyday glamour: if you squint, you can almost imagine the post-war revelers coming through, wowed by the novelty and newness of a place that felt like far away.

In the age of Seamless and fast casual and drab plastic takeout containers, there’s something freshly magical about the idea of tiki places like the Tonga Room: it’s restaurant as entertainment; adventure, even. There is no point in ordering delivery on your iPhone from a tiki bar — you have to actually be there, to touch the bamboo and wicker, to drink from the coconuts, to hear the artificial rain and thunder. "Every American needs this,” food guru Anthony Bourdain — who partly credits going to 1960s tiki bars as a kid for making him yearn to travel — once said of the Tonga Room. “Because if you've got no love in your heart for this place, you are a sick, twisted, lonely fuck.”

However cheap and inauthentic it all might seem, there is in tiki ultimately some kind of unlikely there there, a place where you can go and be immersed in something — a fantasy, a folly, an absurd dream only Americans could’ve come up with. It’s no wonder tiki was born during the Great Depression — it’s a sugar rush, a shot of saccharine serotonin, a technicolor relief from the real world. And in a difficult post-pandemic moment, when many of us are somehow still stuck in the house baking bread, tiki is a time and place apart from the home we have — somewhere, nowhere, everywhere, where the food is fried and the drinks are always as sweet as sunshine.

The Top Tiki Bars in the U.S.

Travel writer Alex Frank shares his picks for a vacation in a glass.

  • The Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar

    The quintessential tiki tavern. Appearing like a hidden cave inside the majestic old Fairmont Hotel, the Tonga Room was designed with help from a Hollywood set director, and it’s cinematically and dimly lit, with a pool in the center made to look like a lagoon.

  • Sunken Harbor Club

    Opened in 2021, it specializes in tropical drinks and recalls the more maritime side of tiki, with a ship’s wheel on the bar and a backlit blue mural of a mermaid behind it, which gives the entirety of the tiny space a calming ocean glow.

  • Smuggler’s Cove

    A kitsch extravaganza in San Francisco, with over 700 kinds of rum and around 80 different kinds of mixed drinks.

  • Trader Vic’s

    The O.G. tiki spot and “home of the original Mai Tai” in California, with cuisine classics like crab Rangoon, wonton soup, Maui Waui shrimp, and Huli Huli half chicken.

  • The Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar

    The quintessential tiki tavern. Appearing like a hidden cave inside the majestic old Fairmont Hotel, the Tonga Room was designed with help from a Hollywood set director, and it’s cinematically and dimly lit, with a pool in the center made to look like a lagoon.

  • Smuggler’s Cove

    A kitsch extravaganza in San Francisco, with over 700 kinds of rum and around 80 different kinds of mixed drinks.

  • Sunken Harbor Club

    Opened in 2021, it specializes in tropical drinks and recalls the more maritime side of tiki, with a ship’s wheel on the bar and a backlit blue mural of a mermaid behind it, which gives the entirety of the tiny space a calming ocean glow.

  • Trader Vic’s

    The O.G. tiki spot and “home of the original Mai Tai” in California, with cuisine classics like crab Rangoon, wonton soup, Maui Waui shrimp, and Huli Huli half chicken.

Our Contributors

Alex Frank Writer

Alex Frank is a contributing editor at Departures. Based in Manhattan, Frank previously worked at Vogue.com as deputy culture editor. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, GQ, Pitchfork, New York Magazine, Fantastic Man, and the Village Voice.

Justin Chung Photographer

Justin Chung is a photographer and director based in Los Angeles. His approach to capturing subjects crosses the faculties of both storytelling and commerce — always keeping people at the center of his work.

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