When American soldiers returned from World War II, their stories and souvenirs from the South Pacific helped fuel a wider interest in Polynesian Tiki culture, first introduced in California in the mid-1930s. The original Tiki bar design featured Cantonese cuisine, flaming torches, rattan furniture, flower leis and exotic rum drinks, later popularized by adding an iconic tiny umbrella as a garnish.
Tiki bars and umbrella drinks remained popular in the United States until the 1980s when they began to disappear. But in the last decade or so, along with a renaissance of craft cocktails, Tiki culture is back, and so is the umbrella.
Some say it’s Tiki’s time again because Americans today are seeking the same thing they were in the 1940s – an escape.
Michael Thanos, 47, is founder and owner of Forbidden Island Tiki Lounge in Alameda, California. Described rather grandly as a “tropical vacation spot and a retro oasis in the cultural wasteland of the 21st century,” it serves classic cocktails and features Tiki statues, glowing puffer fish and velvet Tahitian paintings.
Thanos said Forbidden Island, one of the first neo-Tiki bars to open early this millennium, helped spark the current Tiki craze. This year, the lounge celebrated its 10th anniversary.
Don’s Beachcomber Cafe, founded by Earnest Raymond Beaufort Gantt in the 1930s, became a chain of 16 restaurants, rechristened Don the Beachcomber, by the time America entered the Second World War. Gantt was the true originator of American Tiki culture, followed in the late ‘30s by the ultimately dominant competitor, Trader Vic’s. Both claim to have invented the immortal Mai Tai – made of rum, Curaçao liqueur, and lime juice, associated with Polynesia, and which frequently features a tiny umbrella. (Maitai means “good” in Tahitian.)
All the Don the Beachcomber establishments were out of business by the late 20th century (although there was one, in reclaimed name only, that started in 2008 in California and closed in April 2018).
“What we did is revive interest in Tiki with a desire to recreate a mid-century style Tiki lounge and do it right, not only in terms of décor and ambiance, but to serve true Tiki cocktails that were enjoyed by patrons in the mid-century,” claims Thanos. “We wanted to return to Tiki’s true roots and revive that for a whole new generation who have grown up with a very skewed image of what the Tiki cocktail is.”
Thanos has been a fan, devotee and collector of Tiki artifacts for the last 20 years. He said Mai Tai’s didn’t always have umbrellas – at least not until 1959 when bartender Harry Yee, of the famed Hilton Waikiki, added a parasol to a drink.
“The story goes that he was originally using sliced sugar cane as a garnish,” Thanos says, “but was annoyed by patrons leaving the sticky stuff in the ashtrays, so he switched to a ‘cleaner’ accoutrement. Of course, there are many theories as to the purpose of the umbrella.
“Most notable is that it’ll keep the pests away from the sugary goodness, especially in a tropical setting; or that it will keep the sun out and slow the melting of the ice. I believe that it’s main purpose is to give the imbiber the feeling of a ‘tropical escape,’ an umbrella on a virtual beach.
The Polynesian themed restaurants, then known more generally as “Hawaiian-restaurants”, with their abundant tropical decorations, thatch and nautical artifacts, were popular from the start in the post Depression, pre-WWII years, but the movement really took off post-war.
Michael Thanos continues our education: “GIs returning home were missing exotic ports of call (if not being constantly in danger), and they began replicating Tiki bars in their backyards, which soon resulted in neighborhood establishments exploiting the same sense of escapism and nostalgia.
“Of course, mid-century America was also infamous for its xenophobia, but along with that was a sense of hope and wonder for the exploration of new frontiers, from tropical islands to outer space. With the addition of Hawaii as our 50th state in 1959, the idea of the Polynesian escape was firmly entrenched in the hearts and minds of everyone.
“In times of social and economic uncertainty, it provides the perfect escape from reality. It’s probably no coincidence that the historical popularity of Tiki and its resurgence occurred during tough economic times.
“Once something is almost gone, everyone starts freaking out trying to save it, whether that means preserving existing examples, or creating new ones. Tiki was all but gone by the new millennium.”
Thanos says Forbidden Island is a “time warp”, with a vast selection of premium rum, classic tunes, and well crafted Tiki cocktails, such as the Classic Mai Tai, Island Mai Tai, Planet of the Apes, Boo Loo, Chamborlada, Macadamia Nut Chi Chi, Monkeypod, Navy Grog, Painkiller, Rum Runner and Shark’s Tooth.
Eve Bergeron, the granddaughter of Victor Bergeron Jr., does public relations for Trader Vic’s Worldwide. After looking through vintage photos she didn’t find any with Vic making umbrella drinks. “For a long time we haven’t used umbrellas in our cocktails,” she says wistfully, “although recently we added the Mai Tai Wave – three variations of the Mai Tai served in mini Mai Tai glasses on a surfboard. One has an umbrella.”
Martin Cate, another passionate rum collector and Tiki enthusiast for decades, owns Smuggler’s Cove San Francisco – a Tiki bar that showcases more than 500 rums from around the world and 70 cocktails.
Cate agrees that escapism has led to Tiki’s resurgence. “It still meets a real need to go somewhere that feels like perpetual dusk, where it’s dark, atmospheric and relaxing,” he said. “I went to a Trader Vic’s location in 1994 in Washington, D.C., and I was just entranced by how this really fascinating themed space was buried in the basement of this big hotel. It seemed like such a contrast to the surroundings. It was filled with fish lights and Polynesia ephemera and felt like finding a secret oasis that was relaxing and sheltering.”
That made him want to learn more about the history of Tiki culture, including umbrella drinks.
“It seems to be largely the work of Harry Yee, who was a bartender in Hawaii,” he said. “He did a lot of things. He put umbrellas in drinks for the first time. The umbrellas kind of became the visual cue for the Mai Tai, even though it didn’t happen until later in the history of Tiki bars.”
Cate said Smuggler’s Cove has the largest collection of rum in America, and its drink menu celebrates Tiki drinks and rum cocktails from the last 300 years, basically one-upping everyone else on the planet.
“I hope that customers take away the idea that these great exotic cocktails of the 1940s and later were carefully made affairs with fresh juices and rums,” he said. “A lot of what we do is try to get people to experience these drinks as they would have been experienced years ago.”
Sven Kirsten has written three books on Tiki culture. His latest tome, Tiki Pop (2014) offers the essential history of Tiki’s disappearance and revival.
He says the umbrella Yee introduced was a logical step in a long line of exotic drink garnishes originated by Don the Beachcomber. It all comes back to Don’s…
“Gantt’s flair for showmanship and creating an other-worldly experience extended from the décor of his bar to the décor of his drinks. His Hollywood cocktail lounge looked like a South Seas film set, and his drink creations were garnished with orchids, tropical fruit, and ice cones. The alcoholic concoctions were served in hollowed out pineapples and coconuts.
“They were so unusual in their day that Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper reported that Salvador Dali, guest of Harpo Marx at Don’s, was convinced that his drink had especially been decorated for him, the famous surrealist. This trend peaked with cocktail containers being shaped like Polynesian gods.”
Kirsten informs us Tiki takes its name from the Polynesian Idol, the Tiki, which became the poster god of this phenomenon in the ’50s and early ’60s.
“In today’s world, the media has made us aware that even the remotest tropical paradise has its own set of problems, but while we understand that intellectually, we emotionally still yearn for it. Tiki allows us to playfully indulge in this need. We know it is not real, but it is our own private Bali Hai.”