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FOOD AND DRINK

8 MIN

Billy's Guide to the Tiki Craze

From Chicago to Abu Dhabi, faux-tropical bars are all the rage

Deep in the recesses of the Freehand hotel in Chicago, a long-slumbering spirit rises again from the depths. Behold! The Broken Shaker bar breathes new life into mid-20th-century faux-Polynesian décor: walls decked with a happy-looking red octopus and pictures of birds, leafy wallpaper, and ceramic mugs with grimacing idol faces.

Fashion model Andrea Parsons, 40, has plunged right in. “I love the cocktails,” she gushes, sipping on a drink ladled from a shared silver bowl on the panelled wood bar. Normally a vodka martini drinker, she visited The Broken Shaker with friends. “I decided to try the rum punch because it fit in with the whole feel of the place. It works with the funky, bohemian and Polynesian theme.”

Across North America, and the world at large, bars redolent of the 20th century’s take on the tropics – “funky, bohemian and Polynesian,” as Parsons describes it – are putting cocktails festooned with paper umbrellas into the hands of a new generation of drinkers. For some it’s a means of escape into a different world. For others, meanwhile, using images and material from Polynesian cultures to sell rum is anything but harmless fun.

Below, Billy answers some questions to help you bushwhack your way through a thicket of phony foliage and sail the seas of rum.

What is “tiki”?

While tiki bars are meant to evoke Polynesia, at The Shore Leave in Toronto, co-owner Julian Altrows, 28, takes glee in its tacky inauthenticity, the Hollywood fakery of it. He describes tiki as a mashup of “Polynesian décor mixed with Caribbean rum mixed with exotica music” (and the last of these is itself a mashup – exotica is an obscure music genre that New York-born musician Martin Denny pretty much just invented out of disparate elements in the 1950s).  “It’s all over the map. None of it makes sense.”

The essential fantasy elements of tiki were dreamt up and assembled by two California-based bar owners in the 1930s: the tough-talking Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron – whose Trader Vic chain of restaurants still exists – and an eccentric ex-bootlegger named Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, who called his bar “Don the Beachcomber” for his tendency to assemble Polynesian tchotchkes. (He later legally changed his name to Donn Beach.)

Adam McDowell/Billy

Zach Littlejohn, left, and Julian Altrows of The Shore Leave

The lure of exotic décor and powerful cocktails turned Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s into popular hangouts for celebrities. Others imitated the formula, naturally, and then Hawaii’s accession to statehood in 1958 created a mass craze for all things Pacific. By the 1960s, tiki’s torch lit up nearly every corner of North America: The continent was dotted with bars, restaurants, resorts, motels and even car washes done up in a lush, ersatz “primitive” look. Tiki bars, an oasis away from workaday cares, are credited with such social developments as men feeling comfortable walking around in public with their shirts untucked.

(Incidentally, the term “tiki” was only invented in the 1990s, after the craze was over. During the trend’s heyday, customers would have been enticed inside by a promise of “exotic drinks” and a “South Seas,” or “island,” or “Polynesian-style” setting. Meanwhile the term “tiki” comes from Polynesian religion: In traditional Maori beliefs, for example, Tiki was the first man. In some other Polynesian languages “tiki” and related words simply mean “idol,” as in a carving.)

Finally exhausted by the 1970s, tiki faded. Some blame the Vietnam War, figuring that images of that conflict made it difficult to see Pacific scenes as an escape from workaday troubles. At any rate, tiki sank below the surface of North America’s collective unconscious and lay in wait.

Why is it popular again?

At Toronto’s Miss Thing’s – where the décor is a generalized retro tropical theme, rather than orthodox tiki per se – head bartender Robin Wynne estimates at least 70% of his customers are women, with most between age 25 and 40.  

It may seem mysterious that tried-and-true tropical tropes would connect with a clientele born after the tiki era, but the images – the faux bamboo, the nautical bric-a-brac, the contorted faces on ceramic mugs – is recessed deeply in the North America’s collective cultural memory, including among those who don’t know what “tiki” denotes. Even if you’re too young to remember when tiki was all the rage, you’re likely to have encountered the lingering residue: perhaps in the form of a board game, a theme park attraction, or a Scooby-Doo rerun.

Tiki was born during an era of malaise, and washes back ashore to offer relief during times of collective anxiety, says Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, an influential devotee of the subculture.“The Depression, World War II, the Cold War and the threat of nuclear winter all drove people into Tiki bars so that they could take a mini-vacation from the weight of world events,” Berry says. “Today is no different. The corporate oligarchy and the politicians they purchase are dooming 99% of us to economic armageddon, while climate change looms as the entirely preventable event that will nevertheless almost certainly destroy life as we know it.

“Bad for humanity,” Berry notes. "Great for tiki."

At Toronto’s Miss Thing’s, Robin Wynne says tropical drinks in a fun setting add up to an escape from more mundane concerns: the stress and gloom of early 21st century urban living. “When people are working 60 to 70 hours a week and they don’t see their family and they live in a small box condo and they’re consumed with debt and they have so much stress … to get out to a tiki bar, where you hear Hawaiian music and the lights are low and you feel like you’re on an escape,” says Wynne. “It kind of brings a little bit of restoration and life balance to you, and that’s super important.”

Another reason tiki bars (and tiki-influenced ones like Miss Thing’s) have sprung up: Rum is trendy among bartenders, in a way that bourbon and tequila were a few years ago. In Chicago, where vodka, whisky and craft beer reign as most people’s poison of choice, rum is gaining some serious traction. For example, the trend-setting Aviary, a James Beard award-winning watering hole known for deconstructing cocktails then building them into works of art, recently experimented with a pineapple daiquiri. Instead of pouring the contents into a typical tropical glass, bartenders used pineapple-inspired decanters topped with crowns resembling those of the fruit.

Back at The Broken Shaker, head bartender Frankie Sarkis says the rum resurgence has definitely helped drive people into his establishment. “Consumers are now delving into the different types of rum and even calling for them by their country of origin,” Sarkis says.

What are the cocktails like?

Like Tex-Mex cuisine, the tiki cocktail canon keeps going back to a few favourite ingredients, combined in novel permutations to make new and delicious drinks: zombies and mai tais and more obscure numbers like the jungle bird and the test pilot.

What Donn Beach and Trader Vic did was to use a piece of newfangled kitchen technology – the electric blender, still a novelty in the 1930s – and fill it with rum, which was cheap in the post-Prohibition era because no one in America wanted it when they could get real whisky again. Never mind that rum didn’t go with the theme (the astute may have noticed that rum isn’t a Pacific ingredient at all, but rather a Caribbean and Latin American one.)

Your typical tiki drink starts with a walloping amount of rum and then often adds even more rum, often arriving somewhere past three or four ounces. Hold on to the wall if you’re descending a staircase. Other common ingredients include citrus and exotic syrups like falernum and orgeat.

At The Shameful Tiki in Toronto, co-owner Alana Nogueda insists on serving to the traditional 20th century recipes, which can be as complicated and difficult to execute as they are colourful. “It’s boozy drinks done properly,” she says, adding: “I love citrus.”

Adam McDowell/Billy

Alana Nogueda of The Shameful Tiki Room

Jeff “Beachbum” Berry agrees. “The drinks – when made properly, as they now are thanks to the craft cocktail renaissance – are delicious,” he says, modestly declining to mention the fact that he did more than anyone to keep genuine 20th century tiki cocktails alive.

This was a monstrous feat: While Bergeron published his recipes in popular Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guides, the late Donn Beach kept his formulae secret. Even his own bartenders didn’t really know the recipes. To stop them from taking jobs at competing establishments and bringing the recipes with them, the Beachcomber’s own bartenders were trained how to assemble the cocktails by pouring set amounts of liquid out of generic numbered bottles.

The story of the rediscovery of these recipes sounds as unlikely as that of tiki itself: Beachbum Berry has spent decades interviewing elder 20th century tiki bartenders for clues, puzzling over Beach’s surviving notes, and reverse-engineering the steps and ingredients. Decoding the original zombie, for example, was the mixological equivalent to solving Fermat’s last theorem, but Berry eventually cracked it. He has published the resulting decoded recipes at last in a series of books. Thanks to his efforts, bartenders the world over are able to make their customers an authentic zombie à la Beachcomber (and many other classic tiki drinks).

OK, I’m ready. Where can I go experience the tiki?

As well as The Broken Shaker, tropical drink fans in Chicago can choose from Three Dots and a Dash and Lost Lake (the latter recently reopened after repairing fire damage). Montrealers can dip their oars into the tiki wave at Le Mal Nécessaire. Toronto has seen The Shameful Tiki Room, Miss Thing’s and The Shore Leave all sprout from the undergrowth over the past year. New Yorkers are spoiled for choice, as usual, with spots including Jade Island, The Happiest Hour, Mother of Pearl, Otto’s Shrunken Head and Zombie Hut. Tiki bars are a thing everywhere from London to Cleveland. And even survivors from the trend’s original epoch – which lasted from the 1930s all the way into the ’70s –  are seeing curious younger faces step through the doors.

Some of these places really look like your grandparents’ tiki bar, employing a true-to-1957 thatch-and-bamboo décor, grim-faced Polynesian idols (sometimes as drinking vessels) and authentic remakes of specific 20th century cocktails. Other spots cherry pick certain aspects of the old tiki vibe (rum, tropical tropes) while carefully avoiding others – sometimes, as we’ll see, because of contemporary concerns over cultural appropriation.

At The Broken Shaker, which is somewhere toward the "modern reimagining” end of the tiki authenticity spectrum, head mixologist Freddie Sarkis says he’s happy to see the trend trickling down from big cities to smaller ones. Rummy drinks and paper umbrellas are popping up on menus all over the United States, reaching economically challenged towns in the manufacturing belt, where a little levity is badly needed. “It's very exciting to see blue-collar towns embrace tiki – like I believe it was originally intended, as an escape from the everyday.” 

Meanwhile, to find Toronto’s The Shore Leave you’ll have to venture to a mixed-income east end neighbourhood where pubs and sports bars are the norm. If tiki is washing up on shores like these, it could be a sign of tiki finding its way past hipsters and into the mainstream again.

How is tiki different this time around? 

The typical tiki imagery may have been taken at face value 60 years ago: People might actually have believed that the food and decorations were authentically Polynesian. But today’s bar customers are better travelled and savvier. They’re likely to realize that what they’re being served is a naïve, mid-century Hollywood vision of the Pacific. And that’s precisely what they want.

Twenty-first-century tiki is about “the invocation of a period in North American white history when there was prosperity and escape and fantasy,” says Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, a Maori woman who teaches at the University of Waikato in New Zealand and is known for her work on issues of cultural appropriation. Like others, she questions whether, for the sake of a fun night out, it’s all right to pretend you’re as culturally naïve as grandpa was.

“I’ll be really honest. I can’t stand a thing about it,” Te Awekotuku says of the tiki aesthetic. “It’s so mad and insulting and weird.”

As an indigenous person, she says she’s somewhat resigned to encountering potential offence wherever she goes. “Sometimes you have to suspend judgment, otherwise you’ll spend your entire life being horrifically outraged and critically offended. And you can’t live in the 21st century and be on constant high alert (for cultural appropriation),” she says. “What can we do? Go in there with chainsaws and flamethrowers?”

Among the worst offences would be pouring rum into images of other people’s gods. “It’s ignorant, it’s blasphemous, it’s greedy and it takes away … the cultural value of the object. It diminishes it and turns it into something incredibly tacky and grotesque,” Te Awekotuku says.

Any bar owner paying attention who would like to avoid that sin might want to follow the examples of Miss Thing’s (which doesn’t use idol images) or Lost Lake, where the owner says he carefully avoids using imagery that could cause offence. These are commendable moves, Te Awekotuku says.

Sven Kirsten, a California-based author of several books on tiki culture, acknowledges that traditional tiki was riddled with potential cultural insults, and these have no place in our century. “There was a reason for it to go away,” he says. People became more “aware of colonial crimes by Western nations against native cultures.”

Like other tiki proponents, Kirsten says coming back to it now is about revisiting an aspect of 20th century America, not Polynesia per se. “If you want to put it this way, (the make-believe world of tiki) is a ritual connected with our grandparents, who had their own beliefs and mores,” he says.

“Although we’re intellectually aware (of its inauthenticity), tiki can sort of function as a tongue-and-cheek escapism. Emotionally, we still have a need for this kind of escape,” he says. “There’s no paradise on earth, but we can create it for ourselves in our own backyard.”

Published Thursday, June 16th 2016

Header image credit: Adam McDowell/Billy

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