A tiki bar is an island-themed bar and restaurant that specializes in complicated fruit cocktails. They are generally decorated extravagantly with tropical décor, including island flowers and plants, surfboards and tiki carvings. Modern tiki bars often try to not only create an island look, but also make it appear vintage mid-20th century, when the style first became popular.
The original tiki bar is believed to be Don the Beachcomber, named after its founder, Donn Beach. Founded in the early 1930s, this Los Angeles bar was originally beach-themed, featuring starfish and fishing nets. Later on, the founder decided to make it exclusively Polynesian in atmosphere by adding traditional décor including carved tikis. With this, the trend truly began. Don the Beachcomber became a chain including 16 restaurants across the country.
After World War II, some returning soldiers found themselves longing for the tropical atmosphere of the South Pacific. They became a large portion of tiki bar patrons, and the popularity of the bars continued to grow. With the admission of Hawaii as a U.S. state in 1959, the appeal of a romantic, island-theme bar gained even more popularity.
Donn Beach, leaving his chain of bars to other managers, moved to Hawaii to open Waikiki Beach, a bar considered one of the two best examples of the style. The other contender for top status was the Los Angeles chain, Trader Vic’s. This chain, which still has 25 locations, was a friendly rival of the Don the Beachcomber restaurants, and the both claim to have invented the mai tai, a famous rum cocktail.
After the 1960s, tiki bars fell out of fashion, possibly due in part to the unpopular American war with Vietnam. After nearly thirty years of lowered popularity, retro trends of the 1990s brought the style roaring back. By focusing on the vintage post-World War II look of the décor, the bars now not only feature a tropical escape but also a nostalgic look at America of the mid-20th century.
The main focus of the tiki bar has consistently been complex, colorful cocktails. Often, bartenders were secretive about their recipes, sometimes even removing bottle labels so that customers couldn’t figure out the drinks. Drinks often have amusing or image-evoking names such as Scorpion, Zombie, Coconut Lime Ricky and Guava Daiquiri of the Party Gods. Many drinks are rum based, but often feature colored liqueurs like chartreuse, Blue Curacao or Midori.
If you wish to create a tiki bar in your backyard, many online companies sell bars made entirely of bamboo, some featuring matching stools and thatched roofs. These sets begin around $2,000 US Dollars (USD). With a few strands of colorful lights and some tropical plants, you can throw your own luaus and tropical parties all year round.