—Donald Trump, when asked
why he was closing Trader Vic’s
at The Plaza, 1989
Ignore, if you can, the fact that the man who spoke these words is famous for gold buildings, gold seat belt buckles, and gold hair, and then ask yourself, “Did he have a point?” By 1988, the year Trump bought the Plaza Hotel, the Trader Vic’s in the basement—probably the most famous branch of the most famous Tiki bar chain in the world—had become that dullest of things, a New York Institution. Three decades’ worth of prep school kids, ad men, and movie stars had been fattened on its spareribs, Samoan Fog Cutters, kava bowls, curry puffs, and pu-pu platters, and when Trump told the Times about his plans for The Plaza, it was predictably outraged. Even Richard Nixon weighed in: “It was always our daughter’s favorite restaurant,” he said, “and it quickly became mine, too.”
Then and now, Tiki provokes these kinds of strong reactions—either it’s insufferable or it’s the best. It’s my friends’ favorite genre of bar, or it’s the worst thing they’ve ever heard of. With their plastic grass, pink paper umbrellas, and yellowing ceramic skull mugs, Tiki bars have been on the cutting edge of tackiness for the better part of their 80-year history. And yet it is the humble Tiki bar, increasingly, where young urban epicures go in search of fresh-squeezed mixers, painstakingly aged liqueurs, wild-fermented imported liquors—in short, “authenticity.” A slew of high-profile new Tiki spots have opened in the last few years—Manhattan’s Mother of Pearl, San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove, Chicago’s Three Dots and a Dash—stocked with world-class ingredients and manned by top-tier bartenders. For Americans who were of drinking age in the middle of the last century, this turn of events must seem especially bizarre—since when were Tiki bars authentic or world-class in any way?
You can’t tell the story of Tiki without bringing up vast ingenuity and equally vast bigotry, heroic soldiers and charming hucksters, avant-garde and kitsch. It’s a cultural phenomenon as crude as the society that birthed it, but in a flailing, babyish way that provokes an amused headshake instead of a gasp. It is also, by its very nature, so overdetermined that it forces people to judge it, second- and third-guessing its excesses. It makes a mockery of indifference. No wonder it’s gotten popular again.
The former president’s grumblings couldn’t save Trader Vic’s from the future president. By 1990, the Plaza had a new basement bar and restaurant—tropical, but certainly not Tiki—and over the next decade hundreds of other Tiki bars across America closed their doors. As of 2019 there are only three Trader Vic’s locations left in the United States, though you can still buy memorabilia and peruse menus from the chain’s heyday half a century ago online.
It’s the menus that offer the clearest glimpse of what made the genre so popular. In the Eisenhower years, Plaza patrons could enjoy a variety of drinks and entrees named after places they’d probably never been: Oysters San Juan, Fuji Beef, Calcutta Chicken Curry, Crab Rangoon, and Mahi Mahi “from the Pacific.” Anyone with a wallet could taste the treasures of faraway kingdoms and Edenic islands. Of course, patrons had no way of knowing whether the chicken they’d ordered really had anything to do with Calcutta, besides the fact that Trader Vic said it did.
It’s unsurprising that the two crucial figures in Tiki’s history were notorious liars. Victor Jules Bergeron Jr. opened the first Trader Vic’s (originally called Hinky Dink’s) in Oakland in 1934. By 1951 he’d franchised locations in Seattle, San Francisco, and Honolulu. As a child, Bergeron had lost a leg to tuberculosis, but after he became famous he’d tell customers he had been in a shark accident. His great rival, Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, opened what is usually considered the first Tiki bar, Don the Beachcomber, in Hollywood in 1933. Later on he had his name legally changed to Don Beach. He claimed that he’d spent his 20s hopping freighters in the South Pacific and learning about exotic liquors, but it’s likelier he was living in Texas for most of that time. Both Gantt and Bergeron swore, to their dying days, that they’d invented the Mai Tai.
The initial popularity of Tiki was based on a simple insight: After 13 years of Prohibition, alcohol was tainted by any and all domestic associations. Bars that seemed too overtly “American” evoked the specter of bootlegging—which meant that the friendliest, most accessible-seeming new establishments were also, paradoxically, the most conspicuously Other. Bergeron and Gantt offered their customers an experience that was at once timeless and carefully calibrated to its era. Like Odysseus’s weary mariners among the lotos eaters, Depression-era Tiki patrons were invited to forget their troubles, lulled by a loosely Oriental aesthetic that provided an alternative to Western civilization without threatening it in the slightest. And the bits of other cultures that Tiki drew from for its look and flavor—Polynesian nomenclature (in Māori mythology, “Tiki” is the name of the first man), Hawaiian music and fashion, Easter Island iconography, Cuban liquor—gestured back to a century of menacing foreign policy. Thrown together, they formed a shrine to America’s colonial might at the exact time when it was starting to slip.
Gay Talese’s description of Sinatra—“one of the few prewar products to withstand the test of time”—goes double for the Tiki bar. Tiki didn’t just withstand World War II; it rode it into the cultural stratosphere—at times, the war seemed to make real the daydream Tiki had sold from the start. After 1945, the GIs who’d been deployed to the Pacific flocked to Trader Vic’s (during the conflict, Bergeron had been savvy enough to send them barrels of free rum, compliments of the company). Some brought their war booty with them: A 1940s Arisaka rifle decorates the Oakland Trader Vic’s to this day.
America was entering a golden age of collecting-as-controlling, when the logic of consumerism rendered the cultures of the Pacific as bright and docile as Barbie dolls. On the highbrow end of things, the Museum of Modern Art organized an Arts of the South Seas exhibition in 1946; later, on the opposite coast, Disneyland built an Enchanted Tiki Room (the two projects had more in common than either MoMA or Disney wished to admit). In 1949, Rogers & Hammerstein reworked James Michener’s Pulitzer-winning Tales of the South Pacific into a gaudy musical called South Pacific, which went on to win the Tony. Hawaii became the 50th state in the Union in 1959, and before long Don Ho albums and Elvis movies and canned pineapples flooded the market. Taken together, these artifacts served an important purpose: They transformed a part of the world that only a couple years ago had seen some of the bloodiest combat in world history into a product any American child could enjoy.
If the Depression-era Tiki bar was all about fleeing America for the utopia of a Pacific island, postwar Tiki brought America to the island, tamed it with American laws and customs, and insisted it had been American all along. That this was all, plainly, an illusion seemed not to matter—the sooner you acknowledged the illusion, the sooner you could surrender to its charms. How appropriate, then, that the quintessential midcentury Tiki bar patrons were ad men, professional illusion-makers.
A good number of these people had spent their late teens or early 20s as soldiers in Hawaii and Polynesia and Japan and knew how little the illusion had to do with the real thing. But authenticity was never really the point—at Trader Vic’s or Don the Beachcomber or the Tonga Room at the Fairmont, they were offered a cheerily submissive version of the place where they’d spent the most harrowing years of their lives. With the past reimagined so creatively, they were free to unwind, forget themselves, and be, in effect, different people. Mad Men, which had more than its share of scenes set in Tiki bars, understood this well. In the Season Six premiere, Don Draper the advertising virtuoso flies to Hawaii to research a new hotel campaign. “I think we’re not selling a geographical location,” he tells his clients, though he might as well be describing Tiki’s giddy appeal. “We’re selling an experience. It’s not just a different place. You are different.”
The history of the Tiki bar, fascinating and farcical though it is, might not be worth reconsidering if the genre hadn’t made such an improbable comeback of late. Last year, a 200-seat bar and restaurant called The Polynesian opened in Times Square, and there are countless other new bars offering similar takes on the Tiki experience, even if it’s usually a muted, two-dollar-signs-on-Yelp version. The usual explanations for why this is happening strike me, on the whole, as valid but unconvincing. It’s not kitsch or camp or Mad Men or cultural appropriation that caused the Tiki resurgence—or at least it’s not purely these things.
The last term in particular is interesting. It is admittedly entertaining to see the same kinds of Brooklynites who are wont to deem nearly everything cultural appropriation sucking down Scorpion Bowls and Blue Hawaiians. When asked about this, Kevin Beary, beverages director of Three Dots and a Dash and winner of the 2017 World Mai Tai Competition, said, “It’s hard to appropriate a culture that was made up in the first place.” On the other hand, The Polynesian’s website goes to great lengths to make clear that its recipes are grounded in “the heritage and indigenous art forms of Oceania’s treasured past that originally inspired Tiki culture.” And then again, The Polynesian also claims to “honor its progenitors, Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber”—i.e., the people who invented the garbled version of Oceania that was, for years, the only one many Americans knew. When 21st century Tiki fails to be authentic, it settles for being authentically inauthentic.
But why all this self-important (and self-defeating) authenticity in Tiki bars, of all things? Some kind of nostalgia must be involved—nobody would have bothered to resurrect a midcentury fad unless they missed it. Most of the people you find in Tiki bars are 40 or 50 years too young to remember the first go-round. But perhaps this makes sense. Today’s Tiki patrons are no Don Drapers; they walk through the faux-bamboo door burdened with student debt and high interest rates. With their futures uncertain, why wouldn’t they turn back to America’s recent past, not for its artifacts so much as its attitudes: its comforts, its desires, even its neuroses? Few 21st century people would admit—sober, straight-faced, and in broad daylight—that they dream of burning their bills and fleeing to a tropical island. But in a Tiki bar, nobody judges them for their dreams. They can want whatever they want to want and be nostalgic for anything, whether or not they experienced it in the first place.
The last time I was at a Tiki bar, I experienced something like this. I went to Three Dots and a Dash with my mother—we’d flown into Chicago a few nights before because someone we both loved was seriously ill. When we arrived, exhausted, the lights were dewily blue and the ukulele music was barely more than a hum. Everyone behind the bar already seemed to know we were there to drink alone, together.
My mother asked the bartender for something that didn’t taste like alcohol, and I teased her—“Why drink alcohol if you don’t like the taste?” She laughed—“Because I like my drinks fruity!” It felt like we were running through an old bit we’d perfected over many years visiting many bars together, long before we’d had to worry about the health of the person we’d come to Chicago to visit. One Missionary’s Downfall and one Monkey’s Uncle later, as we sat in our cab, I found that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gone to a bar with my mother, or if I ever had. It was very late, and another long day loomed ahead of us. I missed the bar already.
The critic J. Hoberman has a useful term for this feeling: “A nostalgia that is nostalgic for nostalgia itself.” The first time I read those words, I couldn’t decide what they meant. The more I think about them, the more precisely they seem to sum up the charm of Tiki bars in the early 21st century. The drinks are large, sweet, and delicious because America is, or maybe used to be. The object of Tiki’s nostalgia is a muddle because America can’t decide if the 1950s was the best of times or the worst. Hoberman’s term applies equally well to other puzzling recent trends—some delightful, others less so. Hoberman himself was trying to explain why so many people voted for Donald Trump.