Early in my traveling career, I began to develop an interest in mid-century Polonesian pop culture. This isn't actual Polynesian culture, but the form that it took in the 50's and 60's in much of the continental United States. I'm talking about backyard luaus, tikified Chinese restaurants and of course tiki bars.
In the past 10 years or so, interest in tiki culture has been rekindled and the appreciation for it has come back in fashion. A few years ago I started to keep an eye out for the few classic tiki establishments that remained from the original tiki fever that swept the nation along with a few of their contemporary brethren.
Since my travels have taken me far and wide, it wasn't long before the list of tiki establishments that I visited became quite impressive including the following:
Tiki-Ti- Los Angeles, CA
Bahooka- Rosemead, CA
Bali Hai- San Diego, CA
The Tonga Room, CA
Mai Kai- Fort Lauderdale, FL
Kawloon- Saugus, MA
The Alibi- Portland, OR
Thatch- Portland, OR
The Jasmine Tree- Portland, OR (Sadly no longer with us)
Trader Vic's- Bellvue, WA
VIsiting a great tiki bar (Mai Kai, Tiki-Ti, Bahooka, The Tonga Room) is like stepping back in time to an era when Chinese food was a novelty and cars had style. In one of these establishments, you can lose track of where you are for a few hours and forget about the daily stresses of work and life. The escape is temporary, but time spent in a tiki bar can be quite refreshing.
The Mai Kai seems as if it has remained locked in time with a regular floor show, extensive drink menu and its original decor; it is truly a destination worth visiting and revisiting. While in Florida for business, I had an evening free so I spent it at the Mai Kai. Their bar has an impressive happy hour which includes 2 for 1 drinks and half priced appetizers. The people watching here is fairly decent, and I found that some of the regular patrons were quite friendly.
The Tiki-Ti is a treasure and I was fortunate enough to meet my brother and his girlfriend here for drinks while I was in Los Angeles a while back. This establishment has a very clubhouse feel to it, people are friendly and the drinks are strong (not to mention amongst the best you will ever have). You'll find more than just standard tiki cocktails here, but an array of drinks that can only be had at the Tiki-Ti. Thanks to a loophole in the anti smoking rules of California, this family run business allows smoking since it doesn't bother the family at all. When I think tiki bar, I think Tiki-Ti.
The Bahooka is the first tiki establishment that I ever visited as my mother had dinner here while she was pregnant with me. Gritty and often crowded, the ribs are legendary but they don't do a thing for me. The drinks, on the other hand, are well priced and available in large portions for sharing. Aside from the great, dark booths with a nautical theme and copious number of fish tanks, everything on the menu can be ordered flaming. Drinks are easy, but have you ever had a flaming side salad? I have.
I visited the Tonga Room while I was at a business conference in San Francisco. Fortunately, it didn't take much arm twisting to talk people into going with me and I soon found myself in the Tonga Room with a group of coworkers. We had a great time, and I enjoyed scoping out the excellent decor which includes part of an old ship and a bandstand that floats in the "lagoon".
Not all classic tiki establishments have stood the test of time as well as those mentioned above. Many tiki bars didn't survive the 70's and some of the establishments that did survive have taken drastic measures in order stay afloat. This often includes removing much of their tiki decor and making changes such as putting in lottery machines (The Alibi, Kowloon). Kowloon even has a comedy club and has only one tiki of note which adorns it's facade. It is sad that some things have to change so much in order to stay around. This fact makes it all the more important to visit the remaining classic tiki establishments that remain.
I'll continue to stop by tiki bars that I come across in my travels as the next time I come through town, they might be closed. I encourage you to do likewise as this is a part of America's culture that could very well disappear if we don't support it. If you have a favorite tiki bar that I should keep on my radar, please let me know in the comments section below.
You can learn more about Polynesian pop culture by reading The Book of Tiki by Sven A. Kirsten. If you'd like to check out tiki bars on your travels, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Tiki Road Trip by James Teitelbaum and spending some time searching the online community of Tiki Central where you'll find more information about tiki bars than you'll know what to do with.
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