With their rumpus room romance and short-sighted exoticism—comical to some, outrageous to others—Tiki bars will likely not escape cancellation. Of course, the pandemic could kill them off first.
But for fans of such spots as Boston’s Shore Leave, The Polynesian in New York, and Chicago’s Three Dots and a Dash, soaking up a pseudo South Seas ambiance is merely part of the program: grooving on all the rum-based concoctions is the real reason for bellying up to the bar. And for that we can thank trailblazers Donn Beach and Victor Jules Bergeron, Jr.
Variously described as a drifter and bootlegger, the Texas-bred Beach (born Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt) spent his youth exploring the South Pacific. Thanks to his wanderlust, Hollywood hired him as a consultant on such pictures as John Ford’s Hurricane. In 1934, he opened Don the Beachcomber, a tiny dive in Hollywood (tricked out with “artifacts and curios” he’d collected on his travels), where he served up tropical drinks. When the crowd was thinning out, he’d run a hose over the roof and the water cascading outside the door would send patrons back for another nip. Thanks to his enterprising ex-wife, who ran the business while he served in the Air Force, Don the Beachcomber became a brand with outlets across California and beyond.
Hot on Beach’s heels was Bergeron, the son of a San Franciscan grocer. Bergeron had opened his own beer joint, Hinky Dink’s, up the the coast in Oakland, but after a visit to Beach’s establishment, set out to do him one better. Bergeron would go on to launch outlets across the country, all kitted out with bamboo, nautical bric-a-brac, and faux-Polynesian artifacts. As epicure Lucius Beebe once wrote, patrons with a “talent for chaos” could find themselves running afoul of all the “fish nets, stuffed sharks, and Hawaiian ceremonial costumes” that gave the bars their color.
While there are still Trader Vic’s operations in California and Georgia (Trump gave the Plaza Hotel outpost the boot when he owned the property in the 1980s), most are located overseas, primarily in the Middle East. There’s a descendant of the original Don the Beachcomber in Hawaii (where Beach set up shop in the 1940s), but it seems the last mainland outlet in Huntington Beach (not a part of the original chain) closed in 2018.
No doubt, many of today’s drinkers cast a gimlet eye over the kitsch and take-me-away ethos that drives Tiki culture. But hey, the Zombie is a classic. And who can resist a Mai Tai (which both men claimed to have concocted) when the sun is high? Or, perhaps most classic of all, the Daiquiri?
Trader Vic’s Daiquiri
from Trader Vic’s Book of Food and Drink (1946)
1 1/2 oz. Puerto Rican rum (Ron Merito or Brugal)
1/4 oz. maraschino liqueur (De Kuyper or Nuyens)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
3/4 oz. fresh lime juice
This drink should be made in a Waring type mixer with a large handful of fine ice; no more than three should be made at one time. Strain into thoroughly chilled Champagne glasses.