With the renewed interest in tropical cocktails in the craft cocktail world, it’s a natural progression that we are now seeing an increase in new commercial bars centered on these drinks. And the drinks are good! Great, even! But not all whiskeys are bourbon, and not all tropical bars are tiki bars. We’re seeing more and more of these places that are so off-base that, as they say in physics, “they’re not even wrong.”
Six signs your “tiki bar” is not a tiki bar:
1. When you say “a tiki” you’re referring to a drink and not a carving
2. There are no tikis
This is the fundamental. A Tiki Bar Must Have Tikis. Where are your tikis? And don’t come at me with knockoff carvings from Indonesia. Take a moment to learn how the carving style varies between the different islands, and some of the modern interpretations. Please, oh please, don’t buy junk off of eBay willy-nilly. Need a carver? Send me an email, let me hook you up. Sincerely, I’m here to help. This is the heart of a tiki bar, it’s not time to go weak. Invest your time, invest your brain, invest some dollars.
3. It’s decorated with signs that say “Tiki Bar”
If your tiki bar has to announce itself like this, you’ve got work to do. I’m not talking about external signage, I’m talking about the use of signs as decoration inside the bar. It says, “I had no idea what to do for decoration, but I found these things.” A tiki bar is an unmistakeable design style. It shouldn’t need a big ol’ label on it any more than your cat would need a sign on it that says “CAT”.
4. It’s not brown
Step back, squint your eyes, and look. What color do you see? Tiki bars are unabashedly brown. They have other colors, too: there’s often a bit of dark green faux foliage, and fishing float lamps come in a rainbow of hues. But the backdrop, the layers of different organic textures used as the casing of these places, bamboo, lauhala, bac-bac, thatch, tapa… it’s brown on brown on brown on brown. If you squint your eyes and see blue or green or gray, you are not in a tiki bar.
5. It looks like the set of The Golden Girls
If lighter colors, palm fronds, a fresh and airy ocean feel appeals to you—go for it. Build that bar. But own what it is: a Golden Girls bar. That is an awesome concept for a bar. Serve cheesecake, you’ll make a mint. I will go to that bar. Just, for god’s sake, don’t call it a tiki bar. (Other labels that might be a better fit: tropical bar, beach bar, surf bar, Hawaiian bar, Caribbean bar, Florida bar.)
6. You don’t know the difference between a tiki drink and a tropical drink
Buckle in, kids. Piña Colada? That’s not a tiki drink. Jungle Bird? That’s not a tiki drink. Painkiller? That’s not a tiki drink. Daiquiri? That’s not a tiki drink. Singapore Sling? That’s not a tiki drink. Suffering Bastard? Well, there is a version that was born in a tiki bar, but it’s not the one you’re serving, that one was born in Egypt.
These drinks you’re serving, the connection they have to tiki is indirect, at best. These drinks have their own histories and traditions; don’t wipe that history out, and don’t muddle the history of actual tiki drinks in the process. You’re serving tropical drinks. Or exotic drinks. Even “umbrella drinks” is often more appropriate than calling them tiki drinks. Tiki drinks are (sometimes!) tropical drinks, but not all tropical drinks are tiki drinks. Want to dive deeper on this point? Me, too! I wrote an article on the difference, and why it matters. Everyone gets sloppy on this point, so don’t feel too bad… but take some time to understand the difference and respect the provenance of what you’re serving.
This list of signs doesn’t touch on what would make your bar a good tiki bar. That’s a subject to be covered in a thousand other articles. We’re only talking about some very baseline indications that you’re not even in the ballpark.
If you like the bar you have, and you aren’t trying to create a tiki bar, then that’s absolutely okay. You are the one who has to step into this space and feel alive every day, you’re the one that has to find the fire in you to serve this room. Build whatever bar makes your heart soar. But words have meaning, and you want to use the right ones. Be proud of your tropical bar. Don’t do it the disservice of trying to sell it as something it’s not.
Just as important: if you aren’t calling your place a tiki bar, or calling your cocktails tiki drinks, and the press tries to use those words, help them understand. Make yourself clear. Help them find the right words. And if you are yourself a member of the press? I don’t have to tell you the power of words. Choose them wisely.
p.s. — Sometimes I hear from folks that they are trying to step aside from the traditions of tiki because they don’t feel comfortable using the imagery of cultures (Polynesian or American) that they aren’t familiar with. That is a good and noble instinct! I endorse that motivation full-heartedly. You may just need to work on your execution of that feeling. If you’re hoping to sidestep cultural appropriation concerns, the first thing you’ll want to ditch is the word “tiki.” Think about it for a moment.
p.p.s. — Florida, as ever, has its own weird thing going on. There’s a somewhat recent history of beach huts, fashioned after the style of Seminole chickee huts, getting warped into “tiki” huts. These beachside bars are born of Florida pop culture, not Polynesian pop culture. Please don’t spread the confusion further.