The Rise and Fall and Rise of the American Tiki Bar

Kitschy faux-Polynesian drinks have made a dramatic comeback, and it began with one man’s fixation on Don the Beachcomber.

Smuggler's Cove tiki bar, in San Francisco
Eric Risberg / AP

Tiki bars are hot these days: You can enjoy a fruity tropical drink while surrounded by faux-Polynesian decor in most major cities around the U.S. and elsewhere, with new spots opening every month. The trend is a revival of a nearly century-old American tradition—but the knowledge of how to make classic tiki cocktails had been all but lost in the intervening decades. It took an amateur sleuth who went on a deep dive into cocktail archaeology and recipe cryptography to bring back the lost flavors. But while the drinks he rediscovered are delicious, does the classic tiki-bar interior, adorned with carvings that resemble traditional Polynesian gods, stand the test of time? Listen in for tales of Hollywood celebrities, backyard luaus, and a savvy restaurateur with a wooden leg.

When Donn Beach, né Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, opened his bar Don the Beachcomber, in December 1933, Prohibition had ended just days earlier. Marie King, the beverage director at the Tonga Hut, the oldest operating tiki bar in Los Angeles, believes he must have been doing some bootlegging or rum running on the side. “He had to have some kind of speakeasy to develop all the recipes,” King told Gastropod. Beach, the son of a Texas wildcatter, had spent his youth—and his college fund—traveling the world; this is when he fell in love with the South Pacific. When the money ran out, he ended up in L.A., where one of his many hustles involved building movie sets for Hollywood. Beach decorated his new bar with what he called “flotsam and jetsam” meant to invoke Polynesia, most of which he bought from the movie sets he’d once decorated.

Don the Beachcomber was a huge hit. The tiny space was usually filled with a who’s who of Hollywood: Howard Hughes, Cary Grant, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable. It wasn’t just the decor, which capitalized on a 1930s fascination with the South Pacific—it was also Donn’s inventive new drinks. The drinks were based on rum, says Shannon Mustipher, the author of Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails. Cuba was nearby and willing to sell to the U.S., she says, “so rum was the only spirit that had been readily available in the U.S. while distillers were not in operation.” Plus, she points out, rum was cheap at the time—a major selling point for a bar that opened during the Great Depression.

Donn’s cocktails blended multiple versions of rum, as well as multiple citrus juices, sweeteners, and spices, in complicated recipes that took their inspiration from traditional Caribbean punch recipes but added layers of flavor and nuance, according to Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, the owner of the tiki bar Latitude 29, in New Orleans. This was truly the second wave of American craft cocktails, Berry told Gastropod. “Nobody ever had drinks like this before,” he said. “Nobody ever made drinks like this before.”

Berry tasted his first classic tiki cocktail in the 1980s, when tiki bars had nearly disappeared and cocktails were limited to three-ingredient Harvey Wallbangers. Its balance and complexity stood out like a beacon of hope amid the sea of cheap spirits and sickly sweet mixers that were popular in that decade. But as he set out to drink more of these delicious tropical cocktails, Berry realized he had a problem: Most bartenders had no idea how to make Don the Beachcomber’s original drinks correctly, and to make matters worse, Beach had written his original recipes in code.

In this episode, Berry tells Gastropod the story of how he decoded Beach’s legendary concoctions and fueled today’s tiki renaissance. And we do some detective work of our own to investigate tiki’s rise, fall, and revival. Why did tiki bars peak in the 1950s and ’60s, before nearly disappearing in the ensuing decades, and what brought about the revival today? Sarah Miller-Davenport, the author of Gateway State: Hawaii and the Cultural Transformation of American Empire, describes how Polynesian-style bars and restaurants allowed mid-century, middle-class white Americans to feel cosmopolitan and adventurous, in part by playing on racist stereotypes of Polynesian sexuality. These stereotypes are part of the reason Kalewa Correa, the Hawaii and Pacific America curator at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, says tiki bars make him, a native Hawaiian, uncomfortable—that and the ubiquitous tikis, Polynesian-style carvings that invoke images of Polynesian gods. Listen in for the story of American tiki bars—and for the debate over whether they’re just another form of cultural appropriation.

This post appears courtesy of Gastropod.