I’ve seen several articles in the last couple of years claim that tiki bars have been revived by the craft cocktail scene. It may have been off these journalists’ personal radars until now, but tiki bars came back from the dead quite a while ago, more than 20 years ago. Here is a timeline and chronicle of the earliest examples of tiki’s revival.
The openings and closings of Polynesian restaurants and tiki bars are tracked in Critiki, going back to the dawn of these places in the 1930s, and the trends in history are clear. The grand old Polynesian restaurants of yore hit their peak in the 1960s, and then entered a long period of slow decline. Many of them held on through the ’70s, and then there is a spate of closures in a staccato rhythm through the ’80s and early ’90s.
Meanwhile, there were no longer any new places springing up to take their place. There were some smaller Polynesian restaurants that opened around the late 1970s (often Chinese restaurants in the northeast with decor from the Orchids of Hawaii catalog, or places overseas), but the ’80s through much of the ’90s were a total tiki drought.
It is in this bleak, dry landscape of the mid-1990s that a strange thing started happening: small, weird tiki bars emerged, like the first signs of feeble life after a long winter. Today’s new tiki is so money-infused and quality-focused that it’s easy to side-eye and dismiss these early modern tiki efforts.
But I ask you to pause and reconsider the importance of these bizarre outcroppings of early modern tiki: they were born of passion, of creativity, and completely unmotivated by any illusions of acclaim or success. Tiki was only cool in some very small goofy circles1. There certainly was no glory in it. It wasn’t marketable, and the idea of bars serving high-quality classic tiki drinks as we know them today2 was FAR beyond the imagination. For years, if you searched for “tiki” online, you got the football player named Tiki Barber, or you got pictures of someone’s hairless cat named Tiki. These early modern tiki bars only existed because someone felt the urge to build something they personally thought would be cool, and I love that.
Opened in 1990, tiki themed in 1993
Cacao was a very early example of tiki theming re-emerging, and it was thanks to co-owner Bobby Green, who went on to own The Lucky Tiki in Mission Hills and today owns a whole slew of gorgeously-themed establishments all around Los Angeles. This was 1993, and Cacao’s expression of tiki was modest: the tiki mixed with Sci-Fi, and it was really just a shelf of thrifted tiki mugs and a Moai in a flying saucer. Cacao was sold in 2000, and was long ago redecorated, no tiki remains.
Opened in 1993
Politiki, how did you happen, where did you come from?! This cleverly-named bar in the nation’s capitol didn’t just have tiki mugs, they had their own tiki mugs. A whole line of them, cheeky likenesses of U.S. Presidents: Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Nixon, Carter, Reagan (with a cameo appearance by Nancy surrounded by astrology symbols on the back). At its peak, it was three stories, but it shrunk over time and was gone by 2004.
Opened in 1993
It seems unassuming in retrospect, but when Lava Lounge opened in December 1993, it was a major first step toward the modern tiki bar revival. Situated in a small side street strip mall in Hollywood, it quickly became popular with a young, artsy crowd looking for a dark den. True to the name, the walls were crusted with black “lava” and the ceiling was dotted with lights like a starry night, while a water-dripping wall in the back released fog into the room. There was a lot of bamboo (the header image for this article is from Lava Lounge), and lights from Oceanic Arts, and the most delightfully mediocre tropical drinks you can imagine (so much blue curaçao). It was sui generis. Lava Lounge closed in 2007.
Opened by 1996
Lilo Lounge was the darling of San Francisco’s young, hip set during the first dot-com boom. Its decor was light, but tropical drinks of their own creation were served in mugs, they had a volcano bowl, and occasionally hosted Exotica DJ nights and other tiki-scene events thanks to Otto von Stroheim. When the dot-com boom went bust, it took Lilo Lounge with it. It closed in 2001, and became Lingba.
Opened in 1997
Luau Polynesian Lounge was tucked away in a quiet residential neighborhood in Seattle. Its look was more surfy than tiki, but the owners said they were trying to bring a bit of Trader Vic’s into the neighborhood—Seattle’s Trader Vic’s had closed a few years earlier. The host stand was a great big Ku carving, there were other tikis and tropical knick-knacks, a menu full of tiki drinks, and great big flaming pu-pu platters. The evenings I spent here in the late ’90s had a big influence in my eventually wanting to have a tiki bar in my own home.
Opened in the mid-’90s
For many years, Lava Lounge was just a divey beer bar; I was in there several times before I noticed any of the tiki. But there’s tiki tucked around all over: a tiki on the front sign, tikis behind the bar, and a ring of vintage tiki mugs all around the ceiling. Back in the mid-’90s, any tiki at all in a new bar was notable. The bar is still open today, and they now have a full liquor license.
Opened in 1999
Bamboo Hut in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood is my favorite example of early modern tiki. The space is unusually well-decorated for a tiki bar from this era, having scored some monster pufferfish lamps from the Coral Reef in Sacramento.
But the real standout is a massive plastic tiki head, resting atop a waterfall near the entrance. When I first saw it, I thought it was terribly cheap and cheesy, a cartoonishly-rendered idea of a tiki head. That was before I realized its origin: that tiki head was once atop the sign for the Coral Reef, beckoning travelers from the highway to pull over and enjoy an evening of Polynesian bliss. It was intended to be seen from a block away, not a few feet. This same style of tiki head sign was used for several major California Polynesian restaurants back in the ’60s. What an amazing artifact to get to see!
Today the bar is often dismissed as not worth a visit, given how much wonderful tiki we have here in San Francisco. The drinks tend to be lackluster attempts at tropical fare, and the music is usually loudly DJed dance hits. But I often insist my friends with any historic interest in tiki pay at least a brief visit. We’re very lucky to have this missing link of tiki still open and operating.
2000 Brings a Sea Change: Sven Kirsten’s The Book of Tiki
Here we cross over into the new millennium, and the publication of Sven Kirsten’s world-changing tome, The Book of Tiki, in September 2000. Sven’s book was the first telling of the story of Polynesian Pop and Tiki as a full, cohesive history, connecting the dots from decade to decade, from city to city, from restaurant to restaurant. After this time, we start to see many more tiki bars emerge, with a bit more focus in the decor, branding, and overall experience, thanks surely in no small part to this influential book.
Opened in 2001
Purple Orchid Exotic Tiki Lounge, just south of LAX in El Segundo, remains a most charming outpost of tiki, a sort of clubhouse for the people who live in this small town, and for the tikiphiles (and especially surf guitar lovers) around Los Angeles. Owners Dave & Rebecca Fernandez wallpapered the men’s room with Sven’s book.
Opened in 2001
This was the first time a modern tiki bar was opened with real money. It was a Las Vegas bar, in the Venetian Casino. It was one of twins: across from Taboo Cove was retro-swank Venus Lounge, decorated with Shag’s art. Taboo Cove was the most thoughtfully-designed space up to that point in the modern revival, and its design and tikis came from the legendary Tiki Bosko. Bosko was the first modern tiki carver to emerge out of the Southern California scene, and he went on to supply tiki decor for a slew of places, through the entire revival. Like Shag, his distinctive style has spawned many imitators (but please don’t do that! keep developing your own style). In keeping with typical Las Vegas Strip casino modus operandi, Taboo Cove and Venus Lounge closed after just a few years to make way for something newer and shinier.
Opened in 2002
Perhaps the earliest example of the perennially-attempted “tiki, only we’re doing something more modern” approach, Drift Lounge never really caught the world on fire. A lovely sleek space, with some cool Bosko carvings, and a large moai. When they first opened in 2002, they served drinks in actual Munktiki mugs! Can you imagine?
Opened in 2002
Rock-a-Tiki is remembered today for its Elvis impersonator and its rock-mix soundtrack (much lamented among tikiphiles at the time), but it had plenty of bamboo, carved tiki stools, and a great big floor-to-ceiling moai looked out over the scene. Rock-a-Tiki only lasted a short while, closing in 2004.
Opened in 2002
Tiki Lounge was an unusually large and elaborate for a early modern tiki bar. There are three waterfalls, thatched huts, beautiful beachcomber lamps… all the things we take for granted today but were exceptional at the time. And the effort was a long one, the owners spent four years bringing it to fruition.
Opened in 2002
By modern standards, Zombie Hut is a pretty lightweight offering, but when it opened in 2002, we were happy to have it. It’s still around, and still well-known for drinks that are inexpensive and strong, if not good.
Opened in 2002
For many years, Waikiki Wally’s was most elaborate tiki New York City had to offer. The drinks weren’t anything special, but it was a bright, festive spot, more fully decorated than the other new tiki places in NYC. Perhaps its most interesting feature, though, was its underground passageway to drag cabaret Lucky Cheng’s. Waikiki Wally’s closed in 2009 when Lucky Cheng’s moved.
Opened in 2002
Of the three NYC tiki joints that opened in 2002, Otto’s Shrunken Head is no doubt the most visited and best known. Depending on the music on offer when you’re there, it’s more punk bar than tiki bar, but drinks are available in tiki mugs. When the bar was still new in 2003, the Fisherman Trio played live Exotica jazz there on Mondays.
How We Arrived at Today’s Boom
This steady trend continued, and from 2003 on there was a huge expansion as tiki bars started opening all around the world—far too many to list out here. Then in 2006 and 2009, Martin Cate opened Forbidden Island and Smuggler’s Cove respectively, demonstrating the possibilities when tiki is done thoroughly—including great drinks2—and it has spawned a further boom.
1 My writing here is focused on the rebirth of tiki in the form of new bars and restaurants. If tiki was reborn in the 1990s, its gestation was happening in the 1980s in the form of home parties and urban explorations of the remnants of original tiki, particularly around Los Angeles. Otto von Stroheim gave a wonderful talk at The Hukilau in 2016 about that heady period. He told tales of the early participants who initially were drawn into tiki as a goof, but quickly became earnest historians, seeking to one-up each other as they learned more, and dug into their own areas of specialty. Otto, Sven Kirsten, Tiki Bosko, Beachbum Berry, Shag, Kevin Kidney and Jody Daily were all part of the early tiki scene in the Los Angeles area, while in more isolated pockets across the rest of the country, people like James Teitelbaum, Wayne Coombs and others were breathing new life into mid-century Polynesian Pop. It would take a hundred articles to tell their stories. If you have a chance to learn more from one of these people, I recommend it.
2 It took the stars aligning just so for the revival of good tiki drinks to happen, and it didn’t really hit commercial bars until 2006:
1) The drink recipes were lost, until Beachbum Berry unearthed them, starting in the mid-’90s. But when he did, his recipe books were of interest only to those goofy weirdos who were playing with drinks at home. They were well off the radar of actual bars, and there was no craft cocktail scene yet.
2) The ingredients needed to make these classic tiki drinks were simply unavailable. The rum selection at liquor stores was paltry, it was hard to find anything beyond Bacardi, Myers’s, Malibu or Captain Morgan. You had to order away to the Caribbean to get allspice liqueur, and you had to wait half a year for it to maybe show up. Or, you were making your own, along with making your own orgeat, and all the other syrups. Falernum? Hah! You were not finding that at your local store. Creating all the ingredients necessary to make classic tiki drinks was a hobby unto itself. Making one of these drinks correctly was a lot of effort, it was just impractical to do at a bar.
3) The craft cocktail movement happened. This is what ultimately brought all the pieces together: craft cocktails created industry demand for more and better ingredients and rums, which eventually started to gain broad commercial distribution. Starting around 2005, us goofy weirdos who were making these drinks at home caught on that we could talk some of these new challenge-seeking bartenders into making these drinks for us. They got hold of Beachbum Berry’s books (in some cases because we literally handed them to them), plus Martin Cate started to show ’em how it’s done, et voilà: now you can get expertly crafted classic tiki drinks, made with primo ingredients, around the world.
Martin Cate pointed out that Pittsburgh’s Tiki Lounge is worth including on this list, and he’s absolutely right, I’ve added it.
David Krys thought Rock-a-Tiki in Chicago deserves a mention, and I agree, so I’ve added it.
Some WONDERFUL dimension and reminiscing added by Otto von Stroheim:
Your article brings back memories as I helped launch some of these places, and of course I publicized all of these places in Tiki News 95-2001 and helped/hoped-for their success.
Tiki News collaborated with Cacao for a series of art shows including Shag’s first art show ever!
I also hosted a couple events at Michele Marini’s Lava Lounge including the “Exoticon 95” appreciation party when Skip Heller played with his new band featuring Robert Drasnin (aka Bob to Skip) which was Drasnin’s first live gig playing Exotica tunes and led to his future interest in expanding his “Voodoo” series.
Also I was the first resident DJ at LiLo Lounge and had a very successful run there until they closed. I DJed the opening party at Bamboo Hut but their DJ nights soon became a commercial-style dance club. I made the logo and logotype and brainstormed the tagline for Purple Orchid. I was the first resident DJ (along with The Jab) at Forbidden Island.
TRIVIA: I own the first four Politiki mugs (sans Reagan), the photo shown is missing Jimmy Carter. The Reagan mug was added a year or two after they opened.
The Luau logo tiki is based on (stolen from) a custom handmade Tiki that was carved for a Levi ad by a friend of Eric Rindal of APE.
Lava Lounge in Seattle was designed by Larry Reid, visionary punk promoter in Seattle in the late 70s, who ended up collaborating on Tiki Art Now! Volume Three exhibit and catalog 2006
Otto’s Shrunken Head has no relation to me. Owner Steve Pang claims that he took the name from his rehearsal space for his NYC punk band in the 80s.
Waikiki Wally’s flew Don Ho in from Honolulu for their grand opening! – Now THAT’S New York show biz!!!
Thanks for compiling this and documenting it. Taboo Cove deserves an entire article “The Making of…” as it was really the FIRST bar revived in the spirit of Don the Beachcomber’s/The Luau standards of drink and decor. It included logo, signage, exterior design, innovative interior decor, menu design, drink list conjured from Beachbum Berry’s research, proper glassware, swizzlestick. Unfortunately it didn’t last long enough to make a memorable impact.