My Travels: Tonga Hut

Tiki at Tonga Hut in North Hollywood
Tiki at Tonga Hut in North Hollywood

Great news from North Hollywood — the Tonga Hut is on the rise! We paid a visit to the Tonga Hut this past Tuesday evening, it was my only visit since my first trip there a few years ago, and it was Hanford’s first time there.

As previously reported, the Tonga Hut was taken over by a new owner, Jeremy, last November; Jeremy was there on Tuesday, and we spent the whole night chatting with him. Jeremy had been going to the Tonga Hut for a few years, and had often daydreamed about what he would do if he owned the place. When he found he had the means to do so, he bought it from the previous owner, who had purchased it from the original family just a year or two before. The difference is already striking — the lighting is more dim, and all the beer posters are gone. This alone has made a world of difference, but Jeremy told us it’s only “an eighth” of what he wants to have happen. Jeremy is brand new to tiki, but you wouldn’t know it from talking to him — he simply saw a cool old bar that should be restored to what it once was, and he told us that if it had been an old Irish pub, that’s what he’d studying. He knew nothing about Polynesian Pop when he bought the place in November, but he’s been a quick and eager student. He’s been poring over resources like Tiki Central and the Book of Tiki, and is eager to do right by the old place — and his ideas are spot-on.

The Tonga Hut is currently supported by a handful of loyal regulars — one has been coming since the place opened in 1958, and the doors to the bar open at 6 a.m. daily. These regulars might find too sudden and drastic a change off-putting, and Jeremy is wisely making his changes slowly and surely. The television sets are turned off, a more interesting mix of music including some oldies are making their way into the jukebox, and the fountains are going to be repaired. Jeremy has a few vintage oil paintings on the walls and is looking to add more vintage art.

When asked about tropical cocktails, he eagerly showed us his notebook from behind the bar, which is peppered with recipes he’s working on, including the classic Trader Vic’s Mai Tai recipe, which he felt was important to have on the menu. See what I’m talking about? Things are looking very, very good. He’s also made sure that the original Tonga Punch recipe is on their menu; Jeremy received the original piece of paper, yellowed and spattered, that the Tonga Hut’s Tonga Punch recipe was written on. When I learned that Jeremy hadn’t heard yet of Jeff Berry’s wonderful drink books, I immediately told them I’d be sending them to him as my gift.

Not only is the Tonga Hut very deserving of support during this exciting renaissance, it’s also a damned great place to hang out. I wish there was an old place like this in my neighborhood. The classic bones of this place are tiki all the way, and it’s much easier to see and appreciate now that the lighting is getting more appropriate, and the walls aren’t blighted by Budweiser. I’ve made some big changes to my Critiki rating of the Tonga Hut. Patience and imagination are still required — the regulars are to be respected for keeping this gem alive for so long, and Jeremy is doing right by them by not ripping the rug out from under them — but it’s not difficult at all to see where things are headed.

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