I get funny looks every now and then, when I get all excited describing a new exclusive Tiki Mug we managed to get our hands on in a tiki bar. The collection of tiki masks I gave the Greaser as a present freaked out my mother, as she was convinced they were angry spirits, and our friends had to get used to finding ice cold Moai shaped ice cubes in their drinks.
We have come to realize that the concept of Tiki is not common knowledge. As tiki culture was a significant part of lifestyle in the fifties, and we enjoy roaming from tiki bar to tiki bar searching for the tastiest cocktails and mocktails, we will briefly explain what Tiki Culture is exactly!
Living the good life
Tiki is all about living the good life. Tiki is sipping from an utterly delicious cocktail in the shade of a huge palm tree, while you’re listening to the waves of the ocean crash onto the shore, even if you are a million miles removed from the nearest tropical island. Tiki is getting away from the busy, fast-paced life we lead, even if it’s just for a moment.
A physical or psychological place we can retreat for a little while. For some of us, this is in the form of a private little tiki bar set up in the corner of the living room, and for others it is paying a visit to a tiki bar in town or on the beach. However or wherever, tiki is enjoying life.
History of American Tiki Culture
Tiki culture originates from the American 1930s. The style is based on Polynesian culture, even though it is not all that similar to the century-old history of the complex culture. In the twentieth century, the nation’s interest for the Hawaiian islands started to grow. Partly caused by the growing welfare of the people, which made traveling to the island affordable and the Hawaiian statehood, the interest in tropical lifestyle grew immensely. Inspired by popular literature, music and Hollywood movies, the Americans developed a romanticized version of life on the islands. The complex history of the native culture was replaced by their ideal image of exotic culture. Tiki represented the desire for finding paradise on earth.
The American tiki culture is inspired by Polynesian art, combined with specific exotic food and drinks and a tropical décor. Tropical plants, water falls, hand carved tiki masks and Moai, supplemented by artifacts from boats and the ocean form the tiki atmosphere.
According to Polynesian culture, Tiki was the first man on earth, who was half man, half god. The original meaning of tiki was simplified in the American pop culture: tiki was associated with luck and delicious food.
Tiki Bars and Restaurants
The first restaurant with a Tiki theme was opened in Los Angeles in the 1930s, by Donn Beach (born as Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt). After traveling across the islands in the Pacific Ocean for several months, Beach decided to open a bar in a small building just off of Hollywood Boulevard. Donn Beach decorated his bar with souvenirs from his trip, in combination with nets and parts of shipwrecks he had found on the beach. The menu read exotic rum-based drinks, simply because this was the cheapest form of alcohol available. There was room for about 25 men to be seated and the open space that was left was filled with tables to create more places to stand. He called his bar Don the Beachcomber, and the world’s first tiki bar was born.
Under his motto “If you can’t get to paradise, I’ll bring it to you”, the bar quickly became too popular for its location, so Beach decided to open his restaurant in a larger building in Hollywood. He added more elements to the theme such as torches, rattan furniture and flower leis. Tiki culture in America had arrived.
Not too long after that, the first Trader Vic’s restaurant opened in Oakland with a similar theme. Both restaurants were incredibly popular thanks to their strong, yet utterly delicious cocktails and were famous for their laidback vibe. Bamboo, hand carved tikis, palm trees and Hawaiian music symbolized the blossoming era, and the popularity of tiki culture kept growing.
Tiki bars and restaurants would serve cocktails in different ceramic mugs, shaped like tikis: tiki mugs. Signature drinks were served in these mugs so visitors could take them home as a souvenir. From coconut to Hula girl mugs, from pineapple to Moai mugs, and from mugs shaped like rum barrels to large vulcano bowls, out of which small groups can drink at the same time, through colored straws.
Luckily, there still are tiki bars and restaurants that sell souvenir mugs, and we can easily spend days searching for the best ones! If you ask me, cocktails and mocktails taste best in a good-looking tiki mug. You will definitely see our collection of mugs come by on The Greaser and the Doll!
Did you know
Gantt’s restaurant became such a large part of his life, he had his name legally changed to Donn Beach.