A History of the Tiki Bar

Photo: The tiki bar at the legendary King Yum polynesian restaurant in Flushing, NY. (Jason Perlow)

How sex, rum, World War II, and the brand-new state of Hawaii ignited a fad that has never quite ended… He approached his drink menu the same way he approached his décor: with an eye toward frugality. Rum was the least expensive of the spirits, and Gantt had sampled a variety in his travels. He devised an exotic menu of rum-based drinks that complemented his theme and scratched the names on a board behind the bar … His restaurant became an instant landmark, more Hawaiian than most of Hawaii itself. Beach amplified the faux-tropical theme with palms and thatch and a sweeping shingled roof, part space age, part ceremonial Polynesian meetinghouse. The popular arranger and composer Martin Denny played at the restaurant’s Bora-Bora lounge for nine months straight. Beach was often at the bar, a genial host wearing a gardenia lei that, he was quick to reveal, was for sale in the restaurant’s gift alcove. A myna bird presided over the premises, trained to blurt out, “Give me a beer, stupid!” In the boozy intimacy of late evenings, a gentle rain would often begin to patter on the corrugated metal roof over the bar … he filled his newly christened restaurant with South Sea detritus, lined the walls with dried grass mats, used palm tree trunks as columns, and hung fisherman’s floats, masks, and spears—all things that brought to mind the mysterious South Sea Islands … A growing number of tiki bars and restaurants emerged as landmarks on the American cultural landscape, building and expanding on the foundation laid by Donn Beach and Trader Vic. Here one could briefly enter an exotic world and engage in curious rituals amid hula girls and seductively unfamiliar music. Temples of tiki cuisine cropped up throughout the country to meet the demands of what the tiki historian Sven Kirsten called the “modern primitives.” The tiki restaurant existed in a sort of perpetual twilight, lit by propane torches, the fiery eyes of tiki statues, and golden flames licking off the pineapple-and-brown-sugar dishes delivered by a hula girl. If there was a cult at the tiki palaces, it was that of the tiki drink. Few customers came to the restaurants solely because of the food. (Noting the flaming entrées, the Columbus Dispatch once wrote of the Kahiki that it “is one of the few restaurants in Columbus in which food can injure you.”) The lure was the drinks. Restaurants sought to outhustle one another in concocting the most outrageous cocktails, giving them names like Pele’s Bucket of Fire, Sidewinder’s Fang, Molucca Fireball, Tonga Surfrider, and the Aku-Aku Lapu.

Quite an interesting foray into the world of faux Polyneisian restaurants and bars and those rum drinks with tiny parasols in them … when I lived in Columbus, Ohio, we often visited the Kahiki, a restaurant shaped like an outrigger canoe, waterfalls inside, huge tiki torches in the parking lot, and a million rum drinks … Trader Vic’s here in Atlanta is somewhat similar …

American Heritage: Tiki (September 2006)

reported by Melissa Goodman

5 Responses to A History of the Tiki Bar

  1. Joe Kissell says:

    Melissa: Thanks for pointing out that article! I have a special weakness for Tiki bars, particularly the Tonga Room here in San Francisco. I wrote an article about Tiki for Interesting Thing of the Day a while back.

  2. Perfect article, Joe! Thank you for sharing it with us … I loved the “hokiness” associated with tiki bars and the drinks and faux palm trees .. what a perfect ambiance!!

  3. MrBaliHai says:

    Melissa, you may be interested to know that some rather large bits of the Kahiki have been saved from the wrecking ball:


  4. In the days when we ate at the Kahiki, the big Tiki godheads were quite impressive … I rather doubt that they would go with my present decor …

    There is a photograph of the Kahiki as it appeared before it was torn down .. as well as a history of this landmark … nowadays, one can buy Kahiki frozen foods in many grocery stores … but it lacks that “kitsch” …

  5. more, including the “objets d’arts” …

    the video captures the essence of the place …

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