By David Alan
Photography by Jenna Noel
The Eastern Polynesian-inspired tiki theme was a dominant aesthetic in American popular culture for decades. No doubt images come to mind of Hawaiian shirts, grass skirts, mai tais and the eponymous torches. “Polynesian Pop” proliferated in the postwar years and is resurfacing again with the opening of elaborate tiki bars like Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco. In honor of this tiki renaissance, let’s prepare an ambrosial concoction, garnish it extravagantly and take a look inside the thatched-roof hut.
The word tiki refers to the large, carved-wood figures created as religious or folk art in the Maori and Marquesan cultures. Co-opting the term, though, is as close as American tiki gets to referencing any actual culture. Although tiki draws on elements from many island and tropical locales, it’s not representative of any specific geographical place or culture, but rather a uniquely American cuisine and aesthetic. Tiki, after all, can happen anywhere—from a high school prom or college frat party to one of the Hollywood-glam tiki palaces of the 1940s. A grass skirt and a lot of imagination (and no small amount of rum) can take you on an exotic adventure.
Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, a Texas native, opened his first Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Hollywood in 1934. The bamboo bar was an instant success, attracting Hollywood’s biggest stars. In a single stroke, Gantt—who would later legally change his name to Donn Beach—created not just the tiki cuisine, but also a design aesthetic that would sweep the nation.
The location of Don’s was as significant as the chronological context. Tiki was a product of Hollywood—not just geographically, but also creatively—and the tropical decor was not reflective of any specific island culture, but rather a pastiche of many of them. It was a tropical fantasy, where the drinks flowed as copiously and voluptuously as the island maidens in coconut bras. In the wake of the Depression and the atrocities of World War II, this paradise offered an easy escape.
American soldiers in WWII experienced the allure of the Polynesian culture, and brought home their new affinity for all things tiki. As the story was told in such spectacles as South Pacific (the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical based on the book by James Michener, himself a veteran of the Pacific war), American curiosity about the tropics was virtually insatiable.
In the postwar years, tiki popped up everywhere. Every major city had a tiki palace à la Don the Beachcomber or Trader Vic’s, but it wasn’t limited to restaurants and bars. The aesthetic also crept into many aspects of American visual culture. The allure of the tropics enthralled Americans from coast to coast, allowing them to experience the exoticism of far-flung destinations without having to leave the comfort of home.
By the time Hawaii became a tourism hot spot in the 1950s, colonizing Europeans had replaced much of the state’s indigenous artifacts and architecture with their own. Tourists who sought an aesthetic similar to what they’d seen in suburban tiki restaurants back home were sorely disappointed. So developers began importing “authentic” tiki artifacts from firms like Oceanic Arts, located in the Los Angeles suburb of Whittier, just a few miles from tiki’s spiritual homeland in Hollywood (and still in business crafting Polynesian artifacts for restaurants and theme parks).
Even Central Texas fell prey to the tiki craze. Drivers heading east of Bastrop on Highway 71 may have noticed the Tahitian Village development—a 1970s ode to Polynesian architecture. Closer to home was our own tiki restaurant, Lahala House (now Joe’s Crab Shack on Riverside), a partnership between Corpus Christi restaurateur Harry Porter and G. Jim Hasslocher of Jim’s Restaurants fame. Porter eventually sold his interest to Hasslocher, who renamed the restaurant Steak Island. The thatched-roof establishment billed itself as “Austin’s Most Exotic Restaurant,” and was built on the shores of Town Lake (now Lady Bird Lake) at a time when there weren’t many businesses on the water. Though the Steak Island menu was more steak and seafood than pupu platter, the decor and sarong-wrapped waitresses were definitively tiki. It was considered fine dining by Austin standards of the time and was a favorite haunt of President Johnson when he visited Austin.
Of course, you can’t talk about tiki without mentioning rum. Rum originated in the tropical destinations that the tiki aesthetic was meant to evoke, and at the time tiki culture was flourishing, aged rum was in abundance while whiskey was not. American whiskey production suffered from the dual blows of Prohibition and the war effort, while the distilleries in the Caribbean continued to produce aged rum. Most tiki drinks featured at least one type of rum, but sometimes many types were used—each adding its own nuance of flavor to the cocktail. Though rum is known as the spirit of choice for tiki drinks, it may come as a surprise that tiki drinks use every spirit in the bartender’s tool kit, and that not all tiki drinks are sweet and punch-like. The suffering bastard, for example, is made with bourbon and gin, and is a far cry from a piña colada.