Alta: Tiki bars - as much about atmosphere as booze - are back and better than ever. [various California cities]


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.


A different view from Sarah Burke, former arts writer and editor of the East Bay Express:


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.