The ultimate goal amongst the tiki bar lovers here at Critiki is a refined tiki bar, an elevated tiki experience. Exotically evocative balanced drinks; a dark and mysterious room with corners you can’t quite see into; transporting music that doesn’t steal your attention, but focuses it on what’s already there; dozens of dim lights, none of them approaching daylight in tone; an assortment of fascinating and gorgeous Oceanic artifacts…. When it all comes together, it means the bar is fulfilling its vitally important job, doing what a tiki bar is meant to do: it completely removes you from your day-to-day life, like a no-contact massage that transports you to an alternate dimension where bills and jobs and strife don’t exist. To call a space a “tiki bar” is to invoke a promise, that this place will make you forget your cares.
But more often, it doesn’t quite come together like that. And I still love it.
Here’s the thing: a crappy tiki bar still wants you to have fun. The people who own it, they may not be doing the things that would make your heart sing, and that’s okay, because they’re doing what makes their heart sing. They’re the ones who have to get up every day, face the crowds of random sometimes-drunken strangers, and keep trying to bring their own brand of joy to the world. You may wish it was different, the music better, the lighting better, the space better, the drinks better, but ultimately, it’s their party. And it’s just that: a party, that they’ve invited you to. That was nice of them!
What’s more, they know their business in ways we never will. We may scoff at that karaoke night, but maybe it’s paying the bills, maybe it’s what has kept that place in business in the lean years.
Point is, that ridiculous, giant, day-glo blue drink with the whipped cream and the clown nose cherry: that drink wants you to have fun. It’s gross, yes. Yes it is. But it’s also silly and friendly and a good time, if you’ll just let it. Same goes for Jimmy Buffett. Those songs, they want you to have a good time.
That doesn’t mean you have to check your taste at the door. Or maybe it does, but I assure you, you still get to pick it back up again on your way out. Letting your fellow tiki lovers know what to expect on Critiki is helpful. But don’t let your quest for the perfect tiki bar keep you from enjoying a night out at a totally awful tiki bar. Some of my favorite nights out have been at the most terrible, awful, cruddy tiki bars.
Do you know the story of the vinegar tasters? It’s an old Chinese parable. Three people are standing around a vat of vinegar, each has had a taste. The first one reacts: it’s sour. The second one reacts: it’s bitter. The third one reacts: it’s sweet. But that makes no sense: vinegar isn’t sweet? He didn’t taste sweetness, no, he tasted the acid of the vinegar. He tasted vinegar as vinegar should be, and saw joy and beauty in something just being what it’s supposed to be, and that felt sweet to him. This is the attitude I bring to every tiki bar. The bad drink, the busted light fixture, the terrible white plastic chair: these may be things we don’t want in an ideal tiki bar, but sometimes a bar isn’t meant to be ideal, it’s just meant to be what it is. And you can enjoy it for being what it is. You can enjoy a bad tiki bar, a bad bar is a beautiful thing.
So, here’s what you do: you drink that blue drink. You groove on that misfit rock/pop/reggae/whatever song they’re playing, the one you’d turn off if given half the chance. You smile back at those buck-toothed cartoons they’re calling tikis. You can cheer for the sports team that is winning that game on the tv, that’s an exciting thing for them and their fans! You watch the kids doing karaoke and you’re happy for how happy they are, or you’re happy you won’t have their hangover in the morning. But you don’t bring down the room with your sour mood, because is your sense of fun really so fragile that this has bruised it? Jeez, are you that far gone? Nah, you can have fun here.
Now that you’ve gotten the surface irritations addressed, look closer. This space, it belongs to someone. Can you see them in it? They’re there, you just have to look around the room and see them in the details.
Sure, maybe next time you’ll save your hard-earned dollars for a place that’s a better match for your aesthetic desires. Totally appropriate and fair. But as long as you’re in these four walls, and have ordered this drink, take the ride. Have fun. It’s not hard.
(Then come back to Critiki and let folks know what they’re in for. If folks know what they’re in for beforehand, everyone wins.)
For reading on the other side of the subject, here are some articles where I’ve talked about the importance of living up to the label of “tiki bar.” (Those of you with home tiki bars: this isn’t about your spaces, you do your thing! This is about commercial bars playing loose with potentially-misleading marketing language.)
- Six Signs Your “Tiki Bar” Is Not a Tiki Bar
- The Heartbreak of Televisions In Tiki Bars
- What Is a Tiki Drink?
- The Real and the Fake: Polynesian Culture and How We Perceive It
So… what’s your favorite crappy tiki bar?