Tiki is a grand American tradition. Born in that most fantastical of places—where else?—Hollywood, the kitschy cocktail trend kicked off with Don the Beachcomber, a bar opened by a Texan bootlegger whose vision was spurred by trips to the South Pacific and Caribbean. By the 1950s and ‘60s, Los Angelenos were hooked on the decorative torches and boozy rum drinks in silly glasses, a seemingly authentic taste of faraway lands that was anything but.
While tiki has come in and out of fashion in various cities, it will likely never fade away, and for good reason. It embodies drinking culture at its most celebratory. Modern mixology masters and mavens are constantly rethinking tiki with fresh ingredients, interesting liquors and bold twists. Here are the tiki temples old and new across the globe that are worth planning a trip around.
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The original Don the Beachcomber is dead and gone, as is its LA rival, Trader Vic’s, which opened later and spawned an international empire. (Both now essentially exist in name only at other locations.) But Tiki-Ti, a small dive in the city’s Los Feliz neighborhood, is a local institution. Opened in 1961 by Ray Buhen, who worked under the Beachcomber himself, it continues under the management of his son and grandsons, who regularly join the patrons in a heartfelt toast to the patriarch. Until recently, it still allowed smoking indoors. Get one of the original tiki concoctions, including a flaming, intensely alcoholic Scorpion Bowl that will light your hair on fire if you’re not careful.
Tucked inside the Fairmont Hotel in the ritzy Nob Hill area of San Francisco, Tonga Room has been serving residents and tourists Mai Tais since 1945. The giant room is elaborately designed—imagine a much higher-end Disney version of a tiki lounge—and includes a waterway with a boat featuring a live band. Perhaps in acknowledgment of the times, the menu has been updated to include both classic and contemporary versions of tiki cocktails served by serious bartenders. The 1934 Zombie elevates a standard with fresh juices and an unexpected touch of absinthe.
The oldest tiki bar still in operation in LA, Tonga Hut remains a window into the past while still appealing to modern drinkers. New owners took over in 2005 and have kept it going strong. They also run the location in Palm Springs, which somehow manages to be both exceedingly laid-back and raucous. A generous happy hour, board games and thoughtfully made tiki cocktails keep veterans and newcomers returning.
Palm Springs continues to be a die-hard tiki capital, and Bootlegger is a must-visit in the sun-soaked town. Located in the same space as an original Don the Beachcomber outpost, the cramped bar serves vintage drinks and loads of festivity. Regulars love the Pod Thai, made with rum, lime, coconut cream, lemongrass syrup, basil and soda.
Tiki, at its core, is about going big. Hale Pele clearly understands this, having pulled out all the stops for its lavishly designed, multi-colored space, decorated with illuminated pufferfish straight out of a drug-induced hallucination. The menu, featuring over 50 different cocktails, can be overwhelming, but you’re in safe hands here. Drinks are balanced and made with premium ingredients. The A'a'po'e is an original concoction complete with aged rum, gin, passion fruit and secret spices. The cheerful vibes are the opposite of every Portlandia stereotype.
Mountainous Colorado might not be the most obvious home for a tiki paradise, but Adrift brings a sophisticated touch to its theme. The bar, made out of bamboo sticks, is in itself a work of art. Cocktails use fresh-squeezed juices. A Mai Tai will introduce you to joys of the drink you may not have known existed. For something more unusual, grab the Francisco de Miranda, named after a Venezuelan military leader, which combines rye whiskey, Gingercello, amaro, lemon and black rice vinegar. The food is equally exceptional. Duck wings are doused in mango and pickled chiles, and sliders are packed with tender, fall-apart pork made in the Hawaiian kalua style.
Vegas wouldn’t be complete without a truly exceptional, 24-hour, hedonistic tiki escape, and Frankie’s is it. No one will judge your for guzzling a fruity rum bomb like, say, the Bearded Clam at any time of day under the decorative thatched roofing of the dark dive. The kitsch factor and amount of indoor smoking are both high. If all that somehow doesn’t seem risky enough, you can also put your money into a gambling machine.
Tiki may be a Californian invention, but smack-dab in the middle of the country is not a bad place to enjoy the culture these days. Lost Lake in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, from award-winning beverage director Paul McGee, successfully brings its inspiration into the present. The chic design, with a subtle palm wallpaper print, evokes Old Hollywood glamour. Friendly bartenders not only serve up classics, but they’re also well-versed in rum generally, which makes this an ideal spot for any lover of the spirit.
Opened in 2013, also under McGee’s guidance, Three Dots and a Dash brought the modern tiki wave to the trend-averse Windy City. It did so by bringing a subdued vibe to a generally over-the-top genre. Alongside more, ahem, provocative drinks like the Strip and Go Naked, the menu offers easy-drinking choices you’ll want to have more than one of, like an Old Fashioned with select cask bourbon and Caribbean rum. Don’t skip the food, with tasty riffs on dishes from all over the world like yuca fries and crispy rice salad.
Bearer of perhaps the coolest bar name in history, Psycho Suzi’s encompasses tiki maximalism and Midwestern chill at once. Groups of tattooed bikers show up day and night to get uncivilized at the expansive lounge, which includes three (!) different themed bars and an outdoor space. The drinks, like the food, are all about comfort. Grab the soothing, rum- and coconut cream-based Coconaut, scarf down a thai pizza, and your troubles will seem far, far away.
Despite many attempts over the years—notably PKNY and the superb Lani Kai, may they rest in peace—the tiki fad hasn’t really taken hold in Manhattan. Which is fine, according to the regulars at Otto’s. Opened in 2002, Otto’s is a totally singular mix of tiki lounge and throwback Alphabet City punk bar that somehow just works. A backroom hosts performances, while the front is a rotating scene of some of the most interesting people you’ll meet in the city.
A handsome cocktail bar inside a Chinese restaurant called Sichuan Garden, itself part of a legendary mansion known as the Baldwin House, The Baldwin Bar has multiple levels of intrigue. The most important thing to know, however, is that award-winning proprietor Ran Duan is making some of the most delicious, unlikely spins on a nearly century-old formula.
A newcomer on the list, Brooklyn’s Dromedary, opened in 2016, does right by not trying too hard. Billed as “urban tiki,” the Bushwick bar in a converted catering hall space prizes unpretentious fun. The open floorplan and outdoor patio are ideal for mingling while holding a drink in an ingenious marlin head-shaped mug. The Hawaiian-shirted bartenders serve some sneakily complex cocktails like the titular concoction with aged rum, sherry, walnut-date orgeat syrup, and “critter bitters” (toasted cricket). Food, including burgers and nachos, is made with meat from local purveyors, because this is still Brooklyn, after all.
This subterranean den in London’s Notting Hill area has fabulous retro styling. Glamour pictures hang on the wood-paneled walls over snug seating. While the decor suggests a luxe ‘70s porn star hangout, the drinks and extensive rum list are no joke. The Hell in the Pacific balances sweet and tart, mixing Plantation dark rum, maraschino liqueur, grenadine, lime juice and pomegranate molasses.
LA’s Trader Vic’s exists in memory only, but you can almost re-live being there at one of the earliest international outposts of the bar. The London and Tokyo branches include antique furnishings and knickknacks from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Drinks are made true to the chain’s founder, the late Vic “The Trader” Bergeron. Asian fusion dishes like BBQ spare ribs are cooked in the trademark Chinese-style ovens. Nothing comes cheap, but the transportive experience is worth it. After all, what could be more delightfully discombobulating than nursing a Mai Tai among wood carvings in the middle of Japan’s biggest metropolis?