A fascinating world of drinks, music and kitschy decor perfect for the summer. The place where South Pacific culture meets fake Chinese food and boozy cocktails. And all shaken up in a creepy world of voodoo rituals and zombies. Where does the Tiki concept come from and how do all these things connect? Here’s our best guess.
Written by Mario Villar Sanjurjo / Illustrated by Craig Scott
The founding fathers
You know this, but just to be clear: Tiki bars and restaurants are an American invention with little connection to anything that actually goes on in the South Seas. Legend has it that Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, better known as Donn Beach or Donn the Beachcomber, was the first to successfully combine Polynesian decor with rum drinks and exotic food. He opened his first bar in 1934 in Los Angeles, and at the peak of his career had more than a dozen Tiki establishments around the USA.
Trader Vic’s, the Tiki franchise founded by Victor Jules Bergeron, Jr., was Donn the Beachcomber’s main competitor for decades, and one of the first thematic chain restaurants in the world. This Tiki institution is still alive today with some-twenty locations on different continents.
The Mai Tai is the king of Tiki culture when it comes to drinking. Both Trader Vic’s and Donn the Beachcomber claimed to have created this cocktail, which grew immensely popular during the 40s and 50s. Though there are numerous recipes, it usually involves one or two types of rum, Curaçao, a syrup and lime juice.
The other standout cocktail from the Tiki craze is the Zombie, invented by Donn himself, as a hangover cure for a customer who later complained that he felt like a zombie for days after drinking it. And well, who wouldn’t? It consists of 4 types of rum, brandy and a dash of pineapple and lime juice.
Other classic Tiki cocktails include the Hurricane, the Navy Grog and the Painkiller, most of them consisting of different mixes of rums, liqueurs and fresh fruit juices.
First, a disclaimer: Tiki restaurants didn’t achieve popularity because of their great food. There is a common understanding that most of them served mediocre Cantonese-inspired dishes with a few American additions and some pineapple slices here and there. Perhaps the most popular bites in the Tiki world are pupus - Asian-American appetizers that help with the rum digestion. Over the years, however, some establishments have added their own twists in the food department and now it’s not so uncommon to find Tiki pizza joints.
Exotica was the genre that blossomed under the mid-century Tiki explosion. As with Tiki, this type of music reflected the American fascination with everything Polynesian, but didn’t have much to do with the actual cultures of the South Pacific. Martin Denny is considered the father of Exotica, though it probably was Les Baxter who produced its most popular album, Ritual of the Savage.
Over the years other styles of music have made their way into the scene. Like surf rock (for the obvious ocean connection) and Psychobilly, a genre popularized by The Cramps in the 70s (zombies and freaky voodoo masks may have something to do with it’s introduction into the Tiki landscape).
Tiki fans may not be as numerous today, but they are a serious bunch. They don’t only meet under palm trees with Mai Tais in hand, but they participate in very active online communities and message boards (see tikiroom.com, tikiloungetalk.com or critiki.com).