Tiki bars have a unique and storied history in the twentieth century. Based on the idea of a tropical island, typically Polynesian, bar and serving up artfully mixed drinks, tiki bars continue to attract people seeking fruity drinks and a few hours on an island getaway.
The term tiki comes from the carvings of Central Eastern Polynesian culture, typically made of stone or wood and depicting the human form. While mythology varies greatly between cultures, tiki is sometimes the name of the first man. Tiki bars, though owing their name to these cultures, are often a vague blend of various island identities and themes. The name is more about depicting a carefree destination.
Traveler, bootlegger, and restaurateur Ernest Gantt is considered the founder of the first tiki bar. In 1926, Gantt left his home in Texas and traveled the world, visiting islands in the Caribbean and the South Pacific. In 1934, Gantt opened Don’s Beachcomber Cafe in Hollywood, California. Three years later, the establishment moved across the street and was renamed simply Don The Beachcomber.
Gantt’s bar specialized in tropical rum cocktails and was decorated to appear like an island getaway. Don The Beachcomber became a popular restaurant that entertained many celebrities and served seemingly exotic Asian dishes for the time. While Gantt served in World War II, his wife expanded his business into a chain that included sixteen restaurants.
Following his return from the war and his divorce from his wife, Gantt moved to Hawaii. Having lost his restaurants in his divorce settlement, he sought to remake his fame. He legally changed his name to Donn Beach, mirroring the ubiquitous name of his tiki bar empire. In Hawaii, he opened up a similar establishment on Waikiki Beach and founded the International Marketplace in Honolulu where he famously had an office up in a banyan tree.
In the 1940s and 1950s, tiki bars experienced a huge surge in popularity as the public developed a love of tropical culture and all things island. This mirrored the United States general interest with Hawaiian culture and the nations of the South Pacific that was strong at the time. The addition of Hawaii as the fiftieth state only continued the island craze.
Competing tiki bars and restaurants opened up around the country, each serving their own exotic cuisines and mixed drinks. One famous tiki bar drink, the Mai Tai, was claimed by just about every tiki bar as their own signature cocktail.
Many tiki bars incorporate decorations depicting tiki gods, hula dancers, and torches. Others feature dance floors and live music to round out the island flair. Island-themed drinks may be served out of glasses made to resemble tiki carvings or out of coconut shells. Rum and Blue Curacao are common ingredients, as are juices such as mango, pineapple, and passion fruit.
Today, tiki bars continue to thrive both as chains and individual establishments around the US. Tiki bars, though not authentically Polynesian, offer a glimpse of a vacation, an escape from daily life that can be found nearby in just about every city.