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A tiki bar is an exotic–themed drinking establishment that serves elaborate cocktails, especially rum-based mixed drinks such as the "mai tai" or "Zombie cocktail". Tiki bars are aesthetically defined by their Tiki culture décor which is based upon a romanticized conception of primitive tropical cultures, most commonly Polynesian.
The interiors and exteriors of tiki bars often include "tiki god" masks and carvings, grasscloth, tapa cloth and tropical fabrics, torches, woven fish traps, and glass floats, bamboo, plants, lava stone, hula girl, palm tree motifs, tropical murals and other South Pacific-themed decorations. Indoor fountains, waterfalls or even lagoons are popular features. Some tiki bars also incorporate a stage for live entertainment such as exotica-style bands or Polynesian dance floor shows.
The first tiki bar was named "Don the Beachcomber", and was created in Los Angeles in 1933 by Ernest Gantt (aka "Donn Beach"). The bar served a wide variety of exotic rum drinks (including the popular "Sumatra Kula" and "Zombie cocktail") as well as Cantonese food, and displayed many artifacts that Gantt had collected on earlier trips through the tropics. When Gantt was sent to World War II, Don the Beachcomber flourished under his ex-wife's management, expanding into a chain of 16 restaurants.
When Gantt returned from the War, he moved to Hawaii and opened "Waikiki Beach", one of the two canonical tiki bars. The bar was designed to evoke the South Pacific, with palm trees, tiki masks on the walls, a garden hose that showered a gentle rain on the roof and a myna bird that was trained to shout "Give me a beer, stupid!" The bar was located on the beach, lit by tiki torches outside which enhanced its primitive ambiance.
The other canonical bar is Trader Vic's, the first of which was created by Victor Bergeron in Oakland, California, in 1936. The quintessential tiki cocktail the "Mai Tai" was concocted at the original Trader Vic's in 1944. Bergeron expanded the business to eventually include branches all over the world, as well as marketing cocktail mixes and other products for retail sale. Members of the Bergeron family still have a hand in the operations of at least one branch. The original Oakland location is gone, but there is still a Trader Vic's located a few miles away in Emeryville, California.
The original tiki bars flourished for about 30 years, and then soon fell out of vogue. In the 1990s, the Tiki culture was revived by a new generation of fans and new tiki bars were founded all over the world that often looked to Trader Vic's and Don the Beachcomber for inspiration.
Many tiki bars have their own house specialty drinks, the recipes for which are often carefully guarded to prevent imitation by other bars. Various kinds of rum and blue Curaçao are common ingredients, along with tropical fruit juices and bitters. Cocktails can be very complicated and dramatic, served in decorated ceramic vessels in the shapes of tikis (called "tiki mugs"), coconut shells or volcanoes among the more popular styles. Cocktails are often garnished with paper cocktail umbrellas, live flowers or plastic animals. A scorpion bowl is a popular cocktail that is served in a ceramic bowl for communal drinking. A variation on the scorpion bowl is the "volcano bowl." Also a communal drink, the volcano bowl drink is traditionally served in a ceramic bowl (similar to a scorpion bowl), but with a raised reservoir in the center, generally resembling a volcano. The reservoir is typically filled with 151 proof alcohol and lit on fire.
- American Heritage August/September 2006 article on the history of the Tiki Bar
- History of the Tiki Bar