This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Tiki Time!, first released on October 22, 2019. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

MARIE KING: Yeah. It will take a minute for your eyes to adjust. That’s for sure. I should have warned you to walk in like a pirate with one eye closed.

TWILLEY: There’s some map over there of Hawai’i. And then now I’m seeing…

GRABER: That looks like a carving of a ship over there out of wood


TWILLEY: There are masks everywhere. Yeah, we’ve been transported to Polynesia I think, Cynthia.

GRABER: Polynesia, at night, underwater.

TWILLEY: Or, you know, North Hollywood on a 100-degree day in September.

GRABER: We were in North Hollywood at the Tonga Hut because the Tonga Hut is America’s oldest surviving Tiki bar in Los Angeles, and LA is the original home of Tiki culture.

TWILLEY: Tiki is having a little bit of a moment right now. Which initially struck me as weird—in my head, Tiki drinks were these awful, sickly sweet blue drinks with umbrellas in them that I would die of shame before ordering.

GRABER: And we were curious: what do those fruity, tropical drinks and the Tiki bars that serve them have to do with sacred Polynesian carvings that are also called Tikis? But how about we start with an easier question to answer: What are you listening to? That’s right, it’s Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, I’m Cynthia Graber—

TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And this episode, we are talking Tiki. Why were Tiki drinks and Tiki bars and Tiki culture so huge in the mid-20th century, and why are they coming back now?

GRABER: Is Tiki just pure American escapist fun, or are Tiki bars appropriating Polynesian culture in a way that’s maybe inappropriate, and even offensive?

TWILLEY: It’s a story that involves Hollywood, cryptography, and a wooden leg.


KING: My name is Marie King and I am the beverage director here at the Tonga Hut in North Hollywood.

TWILLEY: On the outside, the Tonga Hut looks pretty much like all the other single story, slightly run down storefronts on this sunbaked strip of road, but on the inside, it’s something else altogether.

KING: So it’s typical for a Tiki bar. It’s all about escapism. So there’s no windows. You have no idea what time of day it is outside, if it’s rainy, or sunny, or hot, or cold.

GRABER: We certainly had no idea—within a couple of minutes of sitting in the bar, listening to the soothing water sounds and being bathed in the cool darkness, I had totally forgotten just how roasting the heat was in the parking lot outside.

TWILLEY: Here at Gastropod, we’ve made an episode about cocktails before. I know, I know, we suffer for our art. In that episode, we told the story of Jerry Thomas, the father of mixology—the guy who basically invented the craft cocktail and then popularized it in America, back in the mid 1800s.

GRABER: You might remember—or you might not and you should go listen again—he had this cocktail where he tossed flaming whiskey between two silver cups. The cocktail was called the Blue Blazer.

TWILLEY: Thanks to Jerry, American cocktails were quite a thing.

KING: Then Prohibition ruined everything and all our bartenders went to Europe.

JEFF BERRY: Anybody with any skills as a bartender or a drink maker, when Prohibition hit in 1919, 1920, they went elsewhere to ply their trade.

TWILLEY: That second voice, after Marie—that’s Jeff Berry. He also runs a Tiki bar, called Latitude 29 in New Orleans.

GRABER: So that’s the booze situation in America in the 1920s. There were these great cocktails that Jerry Brown invented and popularized. And then there was nothing but low-quality bootleg bathtub gin and mixers to hide the taste.

TWILLEY: Until after Prohibition ended in 1933. And one guy in Los Angeles was prepped and ready to go.

BERRY: A guy named Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt who called himself Don the Beachcomber opened up the first post-Prohibition Tiki bar, which was just called Don’s Beach Cafe, later Don the Beachcomber’s, the day after Prohibition in Hollywood in a small hotel lobby.

TWILLEY: Ernest slash Don may possibly have indulged in some bootlegging during Prohibition. He certainly had no trouble getting hold of rum as soon as it was legal again.

KING: He opened his place in ‘33. Prohibition ended December 5th, ‘33. So you do the math. He had to have had some kind of a speakeasy to develop all of these recipes, or get something—he had something going. They were getting ready.

GRABER: Even before the bootlegging, Don had quite an interesting backstory.

BERRY: Don Beach née Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt was the son of a New Orleans family that had moved to East Texas to go wildcatting, to try and strike oil. Which they did. And when it’s time for him to go to school, his parents who were now wealthy you know had saved up a college fund for him.

TWILLEY: Don’s parents were open-minded people. They told him they were equally happy if he wanted to go to Yale for something more academic or to study art at the Sorbonne in Paris. But Don wasn’t thinking about studying at all.

BERRY: So you know being a guy after our own hearts he decided he was gonna take a trip around the world. And this—he was born in 1907. So this would have put him around you know the early 1920s, mid 1920s. And he did what very few people his age, what very few Americans were able to do, which is actually see the world. The world was a much larger place then. There was no Internet, no television, no commercial jet travel. And he would take steamships. And he actually circled the globe twice, visited just about every continent.

GRABER: Don fell in love in particular with the South Pacific—Tahiti, the Cook Islands, Hawai’i. Even after he ran out of money, he would get work on ships just to find a way back to the islands. He’d hang out there for a while, just scouring the beach for odds and ends to help make a living.

BERRY: He actually was a beachcomber. I mean his nickname Don the Beachcomber was not just an affectation. He actually did live on the beach in Tahiti and he combed it.

TWILLEY: But by the 1920s, Don had washed up in LA, and, in addition to maybe being a rum runner, he had a variety of side hustles—wheeling carts in the produce market, building sets for the movie business. That last one helped when he came to set up his bar, Don the Beachcomber.

KING: All of his décor came from movie sets. So he was—you know because he was so traveled, he had an idea of what was out there and what was exotic. And he was hired for years to decorate movie sets. And he would then buy it off of them and repurpose it in his place.

GRABER: Don the Beachcomber—the bar doesn’t exist anymore, but it was in fact the very first Tiki bar. It was total tropical fantasy-land—It was small and intimate, and he’d decorated it with Polynesian-themed knick knacks both from his trips and from movie sets.

KING: You have the flotsam jetsam as he called it, which was the, you know, fishing floats and that South Pacific décor.

TWILLEY: Don even installed a sprinkler system on the tin roof for more atmosphere—when it got late, he’d set it off, it would sound like a tropical downpour was drumming on the roof, and everyone at the bar would decide to order another round rather than venture outside.

GRABER: But Don didn’t just decorate his bar this way because he so loved the Pacific islands.

BERRY: You can’t just assume that Don opened up a Polynesian themed bar because he liked Polynesia. He was a little cannier than that.

TWILLEY: In fact, the South Seas was in the zeitgeist in the 1930s. It was seen as exotic and exciting—it was the New New World.

BERRY: You could still have yachtsmen like Templeton Crocker sailing from San Francisco in his yacht and discovering tribes in Papua New Guinea that had never seen a Caucasian before. And of course that makes the newspapers. You have Margaret Mead writing Coming of Age in Samoa about the South Seas’ sexual freedom. You had Catherine Rutledge out on Easter Island excavating these weird mysterious giant stone statues. And this captured the public imagination.

GRABER: On top of all this, Americans were also already familiar with Gauguin’s exotic paintings of Polynesian women. And Hawaiian music was popular.

BERRY: That sort Bing Crosby strumming the ukulele kind of thing.


BING CROSBY: Come with me / while the moon is on the sea…

BERRY: So I mean, you could be a little bit more cynical and say that Don didn’t just create this décor out of love, it was also to cash in on something that was very much in the cultural ether.

TWILLEY: The other thing was that America—as well as Europe—was in the grips of the Great Depression.

BERRY: Everybody’s bummed out. And they have a little mini vacation in this beautifully-appointed faux Polynesian atmosphere with these amazing exotic cocktails.

GRABER: So that’s the story behind Don the Beachcomber’s atmosphere. But what about those cocktails?

KING: They didn’t call it Tiki back then. He called them “rum rhapsodies.”

BERRY: A little bit pretentiously. He put an H in rum in the French style just to make it more classy.

TWILLEY: But here’s my question. Rum is a Caribbean spirit, right? Why not serve Polynesian rhapsodies instead?

BERRY: The problem was, there is no such thing as a Polynesian cocktail. I mean he had Polynesian décor. But what do you serve in the glass? In the New Hebrides they did have a Polynesian drink, a Native Polynesian drink, it was called kava. What they would do is they would sit in a circle or around a big wooden bowl and chew the psychoactive root of the kava plant, which gave you sort of a nice mellow sociable high. They’d chew that, they’d spit it into a bowl and they’d mix it with coconut milk and then they pass it around and you drank from it. This was not the sort of thing that would go over very well in Hollywood in 1934.

GRABER: So, no psychoactive saliva-based drinks for Don. But he had another idea: he’d also traveled to the Caribbean in those round-the-world adventures that he’d spent all his college funds on.

BERRY: And that’s where he had discovered the Planter’s Punch in Jamaica and the Daiquiri in Cuba. The Queen’s Park Swizzle in Trinidad.

TWILLEY: These are all based on rum. So Don knew rum, and he knew rum drinks, but rum also had a practical advantage. It was the closest spirit available to import—Cuba was close by and willing to supply thirsty Americans.

SHANNON MUSTIPHER: You have to keep in mind this is right after Prohibition. And so rum was the only spirit that had been readily available in the U.S. while distillers were not in operation.

GRABER: Hence the term rum-running. Shannon Mustipher runs the bar at the Caribbean-themed Glady’s in Brooklyn, and she recently wrote a cocktail book called Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails. And Shannon says that rum was actually the cheapest, too.

MUSTIPHER: For a bar operator, costs was really important especially if you’re talking about being in a Great Depression. So rum fit the bill. It was inexpensive, it didn’t cost too much. Contrast it to whiskey, which was really expensive because there wasn’t—there really wasn’t any left and it was going to take a few years to make more whiskey and age it.

TWILLEY: So Don has rum, and he knows some of the basic Caribbean rum drinks. But he doesn’t just serve those Caribbean drinks—he reinvents them.

BERRY: And it was an entirely new way to serve and mix a cocktail. He basically took the 300 year old Planter’s Punch poem: One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak. Sour being citrus, sweet being sugar, strong being rum, and weak being water or ice and he squared or cubed it.

GRABER: He was like, okay, I could use lime juice as my sour. But what if I mix lime and grapefruit in the same drink? And how about, instead of just sugar as my sweet, what if I mix honey and maple syrup together, or infuse my sugar syrup with some spices or pomegranate syrup?

BERRY: So he dimensionalized those two elements. And also what was really radical and groundbreaking was that he did the same thing with the strong. Instead of just one rum, he would say OK, Planter’s Punch generally has a dark Jamaican punch rum in it. What if I added to that in the same glass, a white Puerto Rican or Cuban rum, which has a more floral, dryer kind of profile.

BERRY: The two rums enhance and inform each other. The Puerto Rican rum cuts the heavy molasses sweetness and density of the Jamaican, and the Jamaican adds flavor and depth to the light dry Puerto Rican. So anyway, this was revolutionary. Nobody ever had drinks like this before. Nobody ever made drinks like this before.

TWILLEY: That basic idea—take a Planter’s Punch and cube it—that’s the recipe for what became Don’s most famous drink, the drink that put him on the map—the Zombie.

GRABER: Don liked to tell a tale of how he invented the Zombie.

KING: A businessman came in and was so hung over and he had a sales meeting and Don made him a couple of these and he walked in like a zombie and nailed it. But there’s no way, as perfect as this cocktail is, that Don just whipped it up behind the bar in two seconds. There was a lot of, you know, coaxing and finessing with these rums and the Don’s mix and the Pernod and the bitters.

KING: But yeah, that’s the legend that Don created for it. But yeah, it was strong, it was popular. There was a limit of two in the bar. You couldn’t have more than two.

GRABER: But even with a limit, that didn’t stop the crowds from storming his place. There were lines out the door. It was a real see and be seen.

KING: Everyone that went into Don the Beachcomber was a who’s who of Hollywood. Howard Hughes, Cary Grant.

TWILLEY: Joan Crawford, Clark Gable. Don’s little bar was a huge success, so almost immediately there were copycats—people started opening up their own version of a Polynesian paradise all over LA. Remember, Americans were already obsessed with the South Seas, but the whole vibe struck a particular chord in California.

SARAH MILLER-DAVENPORT: First of all, I mean Californians of course really embrace surfing in this period, which is a Hawaiian sport. And you know there’s also a kind of a belief in a sort of shared attitude, an aesthetic sensibility, right. So Californians very much see themselves as, you know, more modern and more relaxed than the rest of the United States, or certainly more so than the kind of stodgy East Coast.

GRABER: Sarah Miller-Davenport is a historian at the University of Sheffield, and she just wrote a book called Gateway State: Hawai‘i and the Cultural Transformation of American Empire.

TWILLEY: Californians just vibed with that aloha spirit. So within a couple of years, there were copycat bars all across the state. Most of them were just knock-offs and nothing to write home about. But Jeff and Marie told us one of these copycat bars was really the equal of Don the Beachcomber’s.

BERRY: The only restaurateur who went Tiki or went faux Polynesian in the 1930s who could rival Don’s palate and his skill was a guy named Victor Bergeron. He was the French Canadian son of a waiter in Oakland.

KING: And he was in San Francisco. He had his own little place there called Hinky Dink’s. It was famous for a Frankenstein. You could get a Frank and a Stein for 10 cents.

BERRY: And Hinky Dink’s was basically just a little barbecue shack with a Alaskan fur trapper theme, you know, snowshoes and taxidermy on the walls. In 1937 he took a vacation to Hollywood and discovered Don the Beachcomber’s. And he like everybody else he waited on line for 90 minutes to get into the bar

KING: He saw the popularity of what was happening at Don the Beachcomber and tried to recreate that up in his place.

BERRY: And he turned Hinky Dink’s into Trader Vic’s. And he turned himself from Victor Bergeron into Trader Vic Bergeron.

GRABER: Trader Vic, as he was now known—he was super savvy, and he seems to have had a great palate. Everyone else was just copying Don, but Trader Vic actually used new spirits and juices and invented his own drinks.

BERRY: And the food in his restaurants was revolutionary for mid-century U.S. I mean he introduced elements of East Indian, Malaysian, Japanese and other cuisines onto his menu, which was unheard of at the time. Like Don the Beachcombers and all these other Tiki places just served basic Cantonese Chinese food. You know it was cheap, they’d hire a Chinese cook and then that would be that. But Vic pioneered what he called international cuisine and he did it very, very well. And to the point where you know he had white tablecloth fine dining restaurants with multi course meals of his own invention.

TWILLEY: Vic was also something of a showman.

BERRY: He had a wooden leg from his childhood illness but he would invite people to stick a fork in it and then he would tell them that he had lost it to a shark on the high seas.

GRABER: Both Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic were soon franchising around the country. You want a Polynesian-themed night out on the town in Chicago, complete with dancing ladies and tropical drinks and an expensive dinner? You got it.

BERRY: That could have gotten old but then World War 2 happens and things get even worse and more and more people flock to Tiki bars. And then GIs come back from the actual South Pacific with a renewed interest in all that. And in the 1950s, everything combines. You have a booming post-war manufacturing economy. You have all these vets coming back, writing and making movies about their experiences. And Tiki just goes into overdrive. And it’s perfectly suited for the Eisenhower-era suburban culture as well which was kind of stifling and moralistic. But you can make a little escape into the pagan South Seas in your local Tiki bar.

TWILLEY: International travel was still a little too expensive for regular people in the 1950s, but increasingly, a middle class couple could treat themselves to a nice night out—and get away from it all that way.

GRABER: The musical South Pacific came out in 1949. Does this mean I finally finally get to play a bit of something that both you, Nicky, and my partner Tim like to make fun of me about—my deep and abiding love of musical theater?

TWILLEY: Oh dear god, there’s no stopping you is there?

GRABER: Nope. South Pacific, here we come!


SINGING: Some enchanted evening / You may see a stranger…

GRABER: Thanks for indulging me.

TWILLEY: I’m not going to let you make a habit of it, OK.

GRABER: We’ll see. Anyway. The point is, Tiki just kept getting more and more popular.

BERRY: Things continue to grow apace in the 1960s when you see, really, the height of faux Polynesian restaurant chicness, sort of Tiki chic. These were not low-end beach bars or Jimmy Buffet style places. Most of them, like Trader Vics, Don the Beachcomber, and Stephen Crane’s KonTiki chain, were high-end luxury restaurants. And they were event dining, you know, and people would save up and go out on a Friday night dressed in their best clothes to these places.

TWILLEY: Even Disney got in on the Tiki craze, with its very own Enchanted Tiki Room. It opened in 1963, and drilled its soundtrack into the brains of America.


SINGING: In the Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki room / In the Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki room / All the birds sing words and the flowers croon / In the Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki room.

GRABER: Even in the 1960s, international travel was still expensive. And so Sarah says, for white middle class Americans, these Tiki bars and restaurants allowed them to feel cosmopolitan.

MILLER-DAVENPORT: Going to Tiki bars, right, or these Polynesian restaurants becomes a way for many white people to express your kind of embrace of foreign cultures in this moment.

TWILLEY: And speaking of embrace, Tiki bars and this whole American love affair with faux Polynesian everything—by the 1960s, it’s not just about being open-minded. It’s about being sexy.

MILLER-DAVENPORT: Which is a period where more broadly you see a kind of loosening of some of these sexual norms.

MILLER-DAVENPORT: And I think there’s something very appealing to women or at least in the way that these various, you know, cookbooks and magazines portray it, for women to kind of cross these racial boundaries, right. To kind of play-act as a kind of Polynesian princess.

GRABER: White middle class women went to Tiki bars and held backyard luaus and dressed in mu’umu’us and ate that faux Polynesian pan-Asian cuisine.

MILLER-DAVENPORT: The way it’s described is often as a way, you know, the luau was a chance to kind of loosen up. It’s a chance to play-act as a Polynesian woman. And of course the stereotype of Polynesian women is that they’re much more overtly sexual than white women.


TWILLEY: So Tiki’s popularity relied on some pretty racist stereotypes. But that’s not why it became uncool.

BERRY: The crash came with Vietnam. It started in the late 1960s, and Tiki finally started to spasm and age and die in the 1970s. And by 1980 it was all over.

GRABER: So the first death knell sounded for Tiki with the hippies.

KING: The hippie kids kind of didn’t want to do what their parents and grandparents had been doing. You know, that was passé.

BERRY: It became something square. You were protesting the Vietnam War and mom and dad might be for it. You know they might be voting for Nixon. And there was a great generational divide.

TWILLEY: And then, by the time you get to the 1980s, two things happened. Sugar consumption really took off—by the early 1980s, Americans were eating ten pounds of it a month per person.

KING: Palates became sweeter. Drinks became sweeter. The piña colada. You know? It’s sweet on sweet on sweet.

GRABER: And Marie said that Don and Vic’s original Tiki drinks—they didn’t fit this new taste profile. They weren’t actually particularly sugary.

KING: And a lot of these complicated flavors—people couldn’t wrap their heads around.

GRABER: This is also the time that people have decided that they don’t have time for anything. It’s the 1980s, people were too busy fiddling with their shoulder pads and checking their car phones to make anything from scratch. There was no time to mix up a complicated cocktail.

KING: People started cutting corners, you’ve got you know time constraints and people didn’t want to wait that long and three ingredients—and not the good three-ingredient drinks, like a Manhattan or a Martini. It was vodka, tonic, and lime.

BERRY: When I came of age and when I started drinking legally, there was not a decent cocktail to be found anywhere. Even in high end white tablecloth restaurants they’d be making daiquiris with bottled imitation lime juice or sweet and sour mix and stuff like that.

TWILLEY: In the 1980s, when Jeff Berry had just turned 21, he went out to LA. And he stumbled on one of the last remaining Tiki bars in the city, a place called the Tiki Ti that is still open today—it’s the second oldest Tiki bar in Los Angeles.

BERRY: And it kind of really opened my eyes or opened my palate, I guess you would say, because up to that point I was living in the cocktail Dark Ages. But this drink at the Tiki Ti was a culinary craft cocktail, twenty years before that term existed. It was fresh citrus. It was secret homemade syrups, premium rums. And it was delicious.

GRABER: Jeff was totally intrigued. This was world changing for him. He wanted more. He was on a quest for more Tiki bars.

BERRY: There was one that looked great from the outside in North Hollywood called the Tonga Hut. And there was like an Easter Island figure outside, palm trees, a really cool looking sign. I thought, Well that’s gotta be good so I went in. And this would have been around ‘84, maybe ‘83, ‘84. And there were a bunch of construction workers in wife beater t-shirts drinking longneck Budweisers and the jukebox was playing Black Oak Arkansas.

TWILLEY: This is before Marie had taken over the Tonga Hut. But she knows the sad story.

KING: Jeff Beachbum Berry came in and ordered a Mai tai. And the girl behind the bar was wearing a Guns N Roses T-shirt that she had fringed the bottom of. And she was like, Okay sure what’s in it? He said, You know, this rum, this rum, orange curaçao, juice of one lime. Okay, grabbed the blender, free poured everything in there.

BERRY: So she takes a whole lime, unpeeled actual fruit and puts it in a blender with all the other ingredients and blends it. And you know the lime peels are just like flying all over the blender and it’s sort of like this weird green flecked thing.

KING: The blender’s popping around in the blender cup as she’s blending it. She pours it into a pint glass. The lime’s BLECH, you know it’s half shredded and he was like, thank you. Kindly drank it, paid for it and left.

BERRY: But the Tonga Hut was a big eye opener for me, it was like OK, you’ve got to get more knowledge about this stuff.

GRABER: This Tonga Hut fiasco was a major bummer for Jeff. He realized his new favorite drinks might be in danger of disappearing.

TWILLEY: By the 90s, people were beginning to rediscover Tiki—but not necessarily the cocktails. They were getting into the music, buying surf rock, and exotica albums. They were getting into the retro, kitschy aesthetic, like Aloha Hawaiian shirt style.

GRABER: And as Jeff went on his Tiki cocktail quest, he discovered one major problem. Almost nobody knew how to make Don’s famous drinks anymore. Jeff decided it would be his mission to track down the recipes before they were lost forever.

BERRY: Very few of these recipes found their way into print in cocktail guides. They were just very, very closely guarded and people held them close to their chest. So all you really had were the Dark Ages versions of these drinks. You know, the crappy cheap versions that you could still make, using, you know, store-bought mixes and the like.

TWILLEY: It wasn’t just that the new generation of bartenders hadn’t learned how to make these more complicated cocktails. It’s that Don had deliberately kept his recipes secret so that no one else could make them. He literally wrote his recipes in code.

BERRY: What he did was for all of his mixes and his syrups and all that, he would remove all labels from the bottle and put a label like “Don’s Mix Number 2.” Or “Don’s Spices Number 4,” or “Don’s Dashes Number 8.” And the new hires who could not be trusted, you know, who were behind the bar—when they got the recipes, that’s the recipe they got. The recipe might say half ounce lime juice, quarter ounce Don’s Number 2, quarter ounce Don’s Number 4, two dashes Don’s Dashes Number Eight.

GRABER: Don was tired of people copying his success, and he wanted to make sure no bartenders could steal his recipes and start their own bar. Or maybe they got poached by another bar, and someone asked for a Zombie.

BERRY: And the guy would turn around and look at the back bar and say, Well where’s your number two, where’s your number four. You know I’m completely stuck here.

TWILLEY: Jeff even managed to track down one of Don’s little recipe books. But it was all in code!

BERRY: And it said one half lime, one half orange, one quarter Number Two, one quarter Number Four, two and a half St. Croix and then a dash Angostura Bitters. And it’s like, What the hell am I supposed to do with that?

GRABER: So Jeff started interviewing old bartenders who had worked with Don back in the day, and finally he had a couple of lucky breaks. He found a guy named Bob who used to work at a big Tiki bar—

BERRY: So I started asking him questions about Don’s mixes and syrups. I said have you ever heard of a Syrup Number Four. And Bob said, Oh yeah, sure. He said, It was a cinnamon syrup. Totally offhand. So this thing I’ve been wondering about for two years, okay, Number Four is a cinnamon syrup. So one by one I started to decode these recipes. The more people I talked to who could give me a hint about this or that. Dashes Number Eight turned out to be Angostura bitters. Number Four turned out to be grenadine. Dashes Number Six turned out to be allspice.

TWILLEY: Jeff started publishing these decoded recipes, first in a zine that he photocopied and hand stapled at Kinko’s, and then in a book that’s become a Tiki bible.

BERRY: I think I’ve got all the good ones but there’s still some things that I don’t know. I don’t know what green syrup is. That’s an ingredient in some of his drinks. Like one called the Cleopatra. I’d love to know how to make a Cleopatra. There are things like a Panama Daiquiri he had in 1937. And it just says “Panama red syrup.” I don’t know what that is.

GRABER: Still, Don invented at least 70 drinks and Jeff thinks he’s published nearly three-quarters of them.

BERRY: And one thing led to another and now you’ve got this Tiki drink renaissance where it’s been several years now and it’s just this global thing where hundreds of craft cocktail Tiki bars have opened up. And it’s kind of cool to see that sometimes 80 percent of their menus come from the recipes I’ve decoded or found, some of them I just found and put into print.

KING: We owe everything—I owe my career. And every modern Tiki bar today that’s making drinks owes itself to Jeff Beachbum Berry.

GRABER: Marie got into Tiki in the 90s. And then a bit more than a decade ago she had the chance to take over the Tonga Hut. It was one of the only early Tiki bars that was still open, but it was not in the best of states.

KING: When we took over in 2005, none of the water features were working. Big Mo, our logo Tiki up front there, was being used as a dartboard. You know, you could see a giant divot under his nose where people just tossed darts because this was a sports bar and a dart bar. There were five giant 1980-era TV’s in here.

TWILLEY: Marie cleaned up the Tonga Hut and she started serving real Tiki drinks again. And since then, the Tiki renaissance hasn’t stopped. In fact, Shannon says it’s still picking up steam.

MUSTIPHER: I’ve seen, at least in New York, about 8 or 10 tropical themed bars open up in the last year and at least one Tiki bar is in every major U.S. market, and that all happened in the last three years. So it’s growing and it’s growing fast.

GRABER: Retro culture is hot—it seems like everyone these days is copying Mad Men, same time period.

TWILLEY: And we’re in a craft cocktail revival. That started in the early 2000s, with a handful of talented mixologists. And they drew inspiration from the highlights of America’s cocktail history. First Jerry Thomas. But then Don the Beachcomber.

BERRY: They started to realize that good Tiki drinks, not just the syrupy cruise ship ones that they had tasted in the eighties and nineties, were in fact craft cocktails.

GRABER: So Tiki cocktails got much much better again. But there’s also been a lot going on lately that’s kind of reminiscent of when Tiki first became big. We’ve had 9/11, and endless post 9/11 wars, and a major recession…

KING: So the recession did a lot for us. You know, people wanted the escapism.

TWILLEY: And right now, in 2019, when we look at the news, many of us want that escape more than ever.

MUSTIPHER: I won’t go into details of why that might be, but I think our political situation is, you know, kind of putting some people on edge and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that people want the escapist style of cocktail right now.

GRABER: But this form of escapism, is it escapism for everyone?

KALEWA CORREA: I don’t think those spaces are necessarily designed for Pacific Islanders.


GRABER: Kalewa Correa is a native Hawaiian, and he’s curator of Hawaiʻi and Pacific America at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

CORREA: The first time I actually saw the inklings of a Tiki bar I guess would be starting when I was a kid at Disneyland.


SINGING: All the birds sing words and the flowers croon / In the Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki room.

CORREA: So that was the first time I ever saw a representation of Pacific Island culture that was sort of in that characterized, sort of stylized version of almost cartoonish way of presenting stuff. You’re kind of like, Oh here’s parts of my culture. But you know they have funny voices and they’re talking to me right now.

TWILLEY: Later, as he got older, Kalewa went to a Tiki bar near the Honolulu Airport with friends. And that weirded him out even more.

CORREA: Yeah, so. I suppose it’s interesting to see visualizations that we know here in Hawai’i. I can only speak from a native Hawaiian perspective because Tiki bars are an amalgamation of multiple Pacific Island cultures. I can only speak from it, from my side—but to basically see representations of what we hold sacred in spaces in Hawai’i in a more sort of informal almost comical setting… It was interesting.

GRABER: Representations of what they hold sacred—Kalewa is referring to the Tikis, these Polynesian-style carved figures that many people say are what makes a Tiki bar a Tiki bar.

CORREA: Basically a Tiki or Kiki as we say it in Hawai’i is an embodiment of an ancestor or oftentimes an akua or a god. So essentially what you’re looking at is a physical manifestation of God.

TWILLEY: Once you know what Tikis mean to native people in the Pacific Islands, it’s not super surprising that yeah, they don’t necessarily feel like Tiki bars are a place for them. But Kalewa says that it’s not just that the décor is actually pretty offensive to him and others—it’s that it also contributes to a white colonialist narrative that implies that traditional Polynesian culture has died out.

CORREA: And I think you know, to be honest, I do think that Tiki Bars play a part in in that in thinking that the traditional spiritual practices and religion of not just Hawai’i but also throughout the Pacific that they don’t exist anymore and that they can be commercialized or can even be comical in certain ways.

TWILLEY: It’s not that Kalewa is against people enjoying tropical cocktails and having some fun. And he’s definitely keen to stress that the issue of Tiki bars is not keeping him or other native Hawaiians that he knows up at night. But still.

CORREA: I would say it’s not a hot button issue. It’s tolerated and you know now that there is a resurgence it’s sort of like, I thought we already went through this and I thought we’ve you know talked about this and dealt with it, and now it’s the resurgence again.

GRABER: So, yeah, he’s a little disappointed. But Kalewa says he’d feel a lot better about tropical bars if the Tiki carvings were no longer part of the décor—that, and the black velvet images of nearly naked Polynesian women.

CORREA: Where I probably take the most the issue with Tiki bars is probably the over-sexualization of indigenous and native women. Basically relegating women within our societies to being objects. Because that imagery is not coming out of our culture.

TWILLEY: We have no time for relegating women to being objects in any context, for sure. But one argument you’ll hear in defense of Tiki bars is that they’re not really offensive because they’re not actually trying to represent Polynesia at all.

KING: This is American-Polynesian Pop. We’re not trying to disparage anyone. We’re not trying to take your gods and you know, ridicule them. Because none of these Tikis in here you would find on an island. These are all American, you know, appropriations of classic Polynesian art. You know? So—we don’t mean it maliciously. It’s not meant to be offensive. This is truly what I consider an American invention.

CORREA: I would agree with that, that it’s particularly an American invention, because you know, I don’t think that necessarily you would have Pacific Islanders adopting American ways of knowing and thinking and then turning them into you know places to get drunk. I do think that there are other ways of probably going about it and being a little bit more authentic. You know—if owners are basically saying that it’s an invented concept, great. Carve your own images, stop using the images from throughout Polynesia and the South Pacific. You know, there are definitely elements of ancestors that are actually carved and used in every Tiki bar across the United States. And so if it is an invented culture, start inventing your own images.

GRABER: Jeff has classic Tiki décor in his New Orleans bar—including Tikis. But like Marie, he sees some of Kalewa’s points.

BERRY: Yeah, there is no denying that in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, the depiction of Polynesian natives on menu art and and the general ethos of these Polynesian places was that: We are the dominant white Western culture here and all this exotic otherness is just for our pleasure. And look at these carefree abandoned natives, don’t you wish you could live their life? And yeah, there was something demeaning about that and disrespectful. Tiki mugs—if I may. I think there is a lot of wrongness in a lot of Tiki mugs. We don’t use very many of them in my place because that’s where you find the cartoonish exaggeration. And a lot of Tiki mugs are based on Hawaiian Tikis. For example Ku, the war god, is very often depicted in modern Tiki mugs. That’s a living breathing spiritual thing to a lot of Pacific Islanders in Hawai’i. That’s still part of their culture and to see a big toothy grinning Ku Tiki mug. Yes that is a problem.

TWILLEY: To be clear, Kalewa is not arguing that Tiki bars need to be shut down. It’s more that he thinks that their owners have a responsibility to try to do things differently today.
CORREA: Wouldn’t it be revolutionary if someone actually opened a Tiki bar that did strive toward authenticity, where they did use it as a teaching moment. Where it still could be fun but it could also, like, be educational at the same time.

GRABER: Frankly, I’d welcome a little more of the history and culture of the islands, I never see Polynesian culture represented in the U.S. Unless you count the poke bowl trend, or maybe Moana. But literally nothing else.

CORREA: You know if you look at the representation of Pacific Island Native Hawaiian culture in the media, I mean if you’re getting it from a Tiki bar—wow, we have a lot of we have a lot to talk about. Because there’s so much more richness that occurs here in the Pacific than we’re ever able to present on our own. And so I think that, you know, if you are an American and you’re going to and frequent a Tiki bar, I would say try and learn a little bit more beyond what your experience within a bar is. Maybe then you’ll reflect on things a little bit different.

GRABER: Shannon says she appreciates the old Tiki bars for the sense of history. But she doesn’t think it’s okay to build one in that same style these days. Her Tiki drinks are served among Caribbean tropical décor—and no Tikis in sight.

MUSTIPHER: So you know, if someone were to build that style bar from scratch today with the benefit of history and knowing what we know, I would view that very differently than I would like an historical bar which to me is just like a snapshot of a time.

TWILLEY: When Don the Beachcomber invented his drinks, they weren’t called Tiki drinks. He called them rum rhapsodies. Other people called them tropical drinks. And there’s nothing offensive about the drinks themselves. In fact, they’re pretty great—both Jeff’s decoded versions of Don’s originals, and the new tropical drinks that Marie and Shannon have come up with today.

GRABER: I was nervous about those original cocktails before we started this episode, I assumed Mai Tais and Zombies were those sickly sweet things I’d heard about in the 80s. But I tried a Mai Tai at a high end cocktail bar in Boston, and it was refreshing and fruity and balanced and definitely, on its own, an escape.

TWILLEY: So yeah, the drinks are delightful. They’re worth rediscovering. And the original bars are—well, I guess I see them as a window onto a way of thinking that we should have moved beyond.

CORREA: You know, again, not to rain on anyone’s parade or say that they can’t have fun. I’m just saying, you know, think.

TWILLEY: Huge thanks this episode to Marie King of the Tonga Hut in North Hollywood and to Jeff Berry of Latitude 29. He’s the author of several Tiki bibles, including The Grog Log and The Sippin’ Safari, links on our website at Gastropod dot com.

GRABER: Thanks also to Kalewa Correa at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and Shannon Mustipher of Glady’s. We’ve got a link to her new book, Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails, online too.

TWILLEY: And thanks also to Sarah Miller Davenport, whose new book, Gateway State, covers a lot of ground we weren’t able to get to—the story of how Hawai’i became a state is fascinating. We’ve got some fun extras in our special newsletter for our Super Supporters. You can get that by giving $5 an episode, or $9 a month, on our website or through Patreon.

GRABER: Three Dots and a Dash, by the way, for those of you who listened to the end in our last episode—it’s one of Don the Beachcomber’s famous drinks and it’s named after the morse code for “victory” during the Second World War. Orange, lime, honey, two types of rum, allspice, almond, cloves, ginger, pineapple, cherries… it’s got it all!

TWILLEY: We’ll catch you again in a couple of weeks. ‘Til then, cheers! And tell us what you think of when you think of Tiki. We gave some fans who came to our talk at Yale last week a sneak preview of our Tiki episode and here’s what two of them, Noah and Erwin, had to say.

NOAH: So I’m from Atlanta, Georgia and I had never heard of Tiki outside of tiki torches.

ERWIN: When I lived in Beijing, the Tiki Bungalow, endearingly known as “Tiki” for short, was a hip bar folks went to to rally for the night. It closed at a time where the government was shutting down shops, so people thought it was gone for good. But it came back soon after and earned the nickname “Tiki 2.”