A Top 10 Tiki Tour

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What happens when a love of tribal art, mid-twentieth-century pop culture, and good rum drinks all come crashing together? I had never asked that question before, but it was answered for me anyway in 1991, when I discovered my first vintage tiki bar. This, I thought, was truly the place for me. It seamlessly incorporated three favorite recreational pursuits—and in an amusing way.

The bar at Hala Kahiki.
 
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What happens when a love of tribal art, mid-twentieth-century pop culture, and good rum drinks all come crashing together? I had never asked that question before, but it was answered for me anyway in 1991, when I discovered my first vintage tiki bar. This, I thought, was truly the place for me. It seamlessly incorporated three favorite recreational pursuits—and in an amusing way.

Spending the 1990s on tour with a variety of musical acts—alternately as a keyboard player and as a sound engineer—afforded me an opportunity to visit all the major cities in North America. During all these trips, the search for tiki was a constant. I began to share my discoveries on a Web site beginning in 1995. The site’s popularity suggested a book, which became Tiki Road Trip (Santa Monica Press, 2003).

After I had visited over a hundred bars, bowling alleys, restaurants, and strip clubs festooned with ersatz Polynesian fertility symbols, it became clear that a true tiki style could be quantified.

The sense of having entered a time warp to a bygone era is key, as is the patina that comes with remaining unrenovated (but not unmaintained) for decades. Actual tikis are mandatory, of course, but what isn’t present is an essential consideration as well. Televisions, neon beer signs, and loud music all take you right out of the fantasy of being in some unspecified far-off land.

The line between having fun with tiki and offending living Pacific islanders is a tricky one to walk. It is best to imagine an uncharted island group, somewhere west of Easter Island, north of New Zealand, south of Hawaii, and east of French Polynesia. It is here that we enjoy a dance that resembles the hula—but isn’t. We drink complex rum drinks and never mind that rum is a Caribbean concoction. We carve idols that resemble the deities of the Marquesas, Rapa Nui, or Hawaii—but not exactly. We sing songs about island life, though the indigenous music of any one real island has never been heard here.

A passage in the Mai-Kai.
 
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Like the actual Pacific islands, our fantasy archipelago is scattered widely, often with great distances between outposts. You’d need a talented navigator to help you find them all. Until you acquire one (hint: Tiki Road Trip), here’s a primer to the very best.

Mai-Kai Restaurant

Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in 2006 (the big party is during the Hukilau Festival, October 5–8), the Mai-Kai is the real deal—and the last of its kind. A series of large rooms, each named after a different Pacific island, are copiously decorated with a variety of authentic Pacific island artifacts. The floorshow is spectacular, the drinks are wonderful, and the family that owns it is just as enthusiastic about it as they were in 1956. From the lush outdoor gardens to the splendor of the mystery-drink ritual, it simply doesn’t get any better.

Hala Kahiki

River Grove, Illinois

Forty-five minutes from downtown Chicago, this intimate cocktail lounge is everything a great tiki bar should be, with staff in Hawaiian attire, hapa-haole music playing over the sound system, and more than a hundred drinks on the menu.

Trader Vic’s

Atlanta, Georgia

The last of the original Trader Vic’s to open in the United States—in 1976—is a perfect example of why the chain was so successful. You could get lost in the village of intimate little dining rooms, tropical drinks don’t get much better than these, and the food, cooked in Trader Vic’s trademark Chinese ovens, is delicious.

Trader Vic’s

Emeryville, California

Another vintage Trader Vic’s location, packed full of original art and artifacts collected over the past 72 years (the chain originated in 1934).

The Atlanta Trader Vic’s.
 
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Tiki-Ti

Los Angeles, California

This diminutive shack might hold 30 people, and two of them will be Mike and Mike junior, the son and grandson of Ray Buhen, the ex–Don the Beachcomber bartender who founded Tiki-Ti in 1961. Along with Mai-Kai and any Trader Vic’s location, Tiki-Ti completes the holy trinity for those looking for truly outstanding tropical cocktails.

The Alibi Portland, Oregon

The Alibi is a bit more divey than the rest of the bars on this list, but the amazing sign outside, the pre-tiki history of the place (dating from the nineteenth century), a great mural, and lots of tikis make this one great.

Omni Hut

Smyrna, Tennessee

Forty-five minutes southeast of Nashville sits this lovingly maintained restaurant. Omni Hut has survived a fire, the lack of a liquor license (bringing your own is absolutely allowed), and proximity to pop-country music.

Jardin Tiki

Montreal, Quebec

Located near the Olympic Village in Montreal, this massive restaurant is notable for its turtle pond, many gigantic tikis, and the two-story-high atrium in which you dine. The food is a lackluster Chinese buffet, but you won’t care. It’s all about the ambience.

Tonga Room

San Francisco, California

Visually, the Tonga Room has no peer except the Mai-Kai. Every half hour an indoor rainstorm pours water into the lagoon in the middle of the restaurant, complete with recorded thunder and strobe-lightning. Beautiful woodwork and mushroom-shaped huts make this one a stunner, but the food and drink leave plenty to be desired. Nevertheless, here you revel in an atmosphere of complete escape and relaxation.

Tiki Revival: Everywhere!

Dozens of new tiki bars have opened in the past decade. A few truly get it. Some of these: Forbidden Island, Alameda, California; Waikiki Wally’s, New York City; and Tiki Terrace, Prospect Heights, Illinois.

James Teitelbaum has been writing about tiki since 1994.