Trader Vic’s founder and namesake, Victor Bergeron, with tiki masks in his famed San Francisco restaurant in 1961.
As is the way with many nostalgic pieces of popular culture, the over-the-top style of tiki has been revived as escapist fun. As with most other bars, escape can be found in alcohol. But walking into one of the new tiki bars — or a classic tiki restaurant like Trader Vic’s, which ignited the Bay Area tiki craze in 1934, or the Tonga Room, which originally opened in 1945 with a cruise ship theme, the ambiance is the escape.
Tiki bars are designed to transport the visitor to some platonic ideal of paradise — complete with little paper drink umbrellas, of course. It’s not just about throwing tropical bric-a-brac onto the wall — tiki decor is serious business.
The most common answer relies on the logic that because Tiki Bars don’t feign authenticity, they don’t count as cultural appropriation. In his essay, “The Cultures of Tiki,” anthropology professor Scott Lukas cites tiki guides and interviews with tiki aficionados to conclude that tiki culture is a playful theater of inauthenticity in which the set pieces and performances are cultural samples being remixed into something mythical. Those invested in tiki culture are in it for a kitschy cultural fantasy — an imagined lifestyle associated with Jimmy Buffett and piña coladas garnished with tiny umbrellas. And, as Lukas argues, in the same vein as goth and punk, the tiki aesthetic challenges classist notions of “high” and “low” brow culture by celebrating something traditionally garish and distasteful. “The whole point of tiki, as I heard time and time again in many field observations,” he writes, “is to eschew the serious and the conventional and to delight in the campy and the controversial."
But such a dismissal of the obvious appropriative roots of tiki culture requires a willful historical amnesia (the kind on which much of American identity is built). Such logic traces tiki bars only back to Don’s Beachcomber — the first ever tiki bar, opened in Los Angeles in 1933 — and glosses over the Polynesian origins of the imagery. That murkiness is key for constructing the tiki style, rendering the entire South Pacific a platter of stereotypes and aesthetic tropes to choose from.
… Which is not to say that, as pure mixology, tiki hasn’t proven its brilliance. Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry of Latitude 29 in New Orleans, as well as tiki’s founding fathers, Bergeron and Donn Beach: Their artistry and advocacy for Caribbean rums has been a powerful source of delight in a world seriously in need of it. Yet this sophisticated culture of drinks has been tethered to a crude imperialist fantasy that has treated the South Pacific as a source of escape.
The Kon-Tiki team hopes to open both spaces around late January next year barring any permit issues and the cosmetic fixes that’ll reflect the duo’s somewhat divergent and miscellaneous inspiration points. Aivaliotis and Reagan mentioned aesthetics ranging from American tropical and Miami pastels to “a place where Indiana Jones would be fanning himself off or something,” says Aivaliotis.
Kon-Tiki Room at Palmetto (scheduled to open late January, 2020)
1900 Telegraph Ave. at 19th Street (former site of Fauna)
Tiki bars/Polynesian restaurants were kind of a hoot Circa 1970s. I went to one in Los Angeles near the farmer’s market around Fairfax Avenue. Tall drinks, with straws and umbrellas. Some of them served in coconut-like vessels, some had smoke coming out of the top, big wicker Adams Family chairs. One in the San Fernando Valley in California, had fishnets, seashells and fishes on the walls. I miss the paper wrapped chicken. Small pieces of chicken wrapped in little square tin foil packets. It was around for about a decade, and then disappeared. I had a small outdoor hibachi for cooking steaks, back then. There’s an old episode of the TV show called Taxi. Elaine Nardo had to go on a date with lou de Parma. He took her to one of those tiki bars/restaurants. It was hilarious. I would try it again if one opened up near me.
No shrimp toast on my pupu platters. More like tempura-battered shrimp. I’ve made my own small bites, nibbles plates with a few spare ribs, tempura-battered shrimp, an egg roll, won-ton, etc. No lazy Susan, though