Tiki Bars and Tiki Cocktail Bars: An Attempt to Keep Things on Track

From the Fall 2017 issue of Ukulele | BY SVEN KIRSTEN

The ongoing tiki revival owes much to the craft cocktail resurgence. First hesitatingly, then fervidly, a new generation of mixologists embraced the books of tiki cocktail author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, and his research inspired mix-masters like Martin Cate to bring the genre to new heights. Both of these men’s work boasts not only impeccable knowledge of the cocktail craft, but also a deep understanding of the atmosphere and art that make tiki an immersive experience.

San Francisco’s Tonga Room, seen in this vintage photo, features a floating bandstand.

It is most regrettable then that among the full-fledged new tiki havens that have opened recently (like the two “Idols”: False Idol in San Diego and Pagan Idol in San Francisco), there are others that are declared to be “tiki bars” simply on the merit of serving tiki cocktails, with no presence of the name-giving décor. This is largely the fault of foodie website writers that cannot look beyond the rim of their Zombie glass, and who know of tiki as a cocktail culture only. This shortsighted view belies the many facets and diversity of the tiki genre.

Then there are those “New Cocktailians” who profess to love tiki, but feel compelled to offer a “new take” on the genre. Unfortunately, what that means is that they are either afraid to be too “kitschy” (i.e. they don’t get that tiki is all about artifice), or do not want to pony up the considerable investment it takes to build out a floor-to-ceiling tiki environment. Thus the moniker “tiki bar” does not always deliver what it promises; instead, one gets served what I call “Tiki Lite.”


 Sven Kirsten is the author of several books on the history of American tiki culture, including The Book of Tiki and Tiki Pop: America Imagines Its Own Polynesian Paradise (both published by Taschen). His latest book, The Art of Tiki, comes out in October.