When you think about centers of American tiki culture—that kitschy hybrid of Polynesian flair and boozy, rum-centric cocktails that took hold in the mid 20th century—the hardscrabble Midwestern metropolis of Detroit isn’t likely the first place that comes to mind. Surprisingly, though, the Motor City was a hotbed of tiki bars, including the Mauna Loa (the most expensive restaurant built east of the Mississippi, at its completion in 1967) and the legendary Chin Tiki. Now, with her just-released tome Detroit Tiki: A History of Polynesian Palaces & Tropical Cocktails, author Renee Tadey delves into the city’s island-tastic tiki scene of days past. Here, Tadey dishes on how and why Detroit embraced the scene.
What fascinates you most about tiki culture?
The all-encompassing nature of it. Think about tiki bars; they usually have no windows, nothing that connects you to the world outside those walls. It has its own kind of music, décor, entertainment, drinkware, and of course the cocktails.
What made Detroit such a hotbed of tiki?
Detroit has always been a city of makers, there has always been an abundance of creatives living and working in the city. I think there was a mindset of “If they can do it in California, why can’t we do it in Detroit?” Places like the Mauna Loa and Chin Tiki rivaled any of the places in California or Florida. Detroiters work hard, the old blue collar mindset; tiki provided an escape from the daily grind, and people here embraced it.
How was the Detroit tiki heyday different from other American tiki destinations?
First of all, I don’t think most people would associate Detroit with tiki! Cars, yes, tiki, not so much. Detroit was a latecomer to the tiki scene. Chin Tiki didn’t open until 1966, the Mauna Loa opened in 1967, and Trader Vic’s in 1969.
What is your personal favorite Detroit or Michigan tiki bar?
Because of the pandemic I have not yet been to Max’s South Seas Hideaway in Grand Rapids but I hear it is spectacular. I enjoy both Lost River and Mutiny in Detroit; they have great cocktails and a chill vibe.
What is your personal go-to tiki cocktail?
My favorite is the Painkiller. To me it has the perfect balance of tart and sweet, and I love the dash of nutmeg.