Polynesian Pop: America’s Fascination with Tiki Culture


Coffee shops that look like spaceships, tropical landscaping, and Tiki galore: if this image sets the stage for any place and time, it would be mid-20th century California. What we call Tiki culture emerged in America’s “Golden Age of Pop Culture,” when everything was unapologetically kitschy and foreign lands were romanticized.

The rise of tiki in California came from a variety of factors, primarily the state’s close proximity to Polynesia — Hawaii’s eventual statehood in 1959 — and the many Hollywood depictions of a tropical paradise. Despite debate surrounding cultural appropriation, tiki culture lives on today through original and revitalized bars, restaurants, and events.

With the help of our best-selling new title California Tiki: A History of Polynesian Idols, Pineapple Cocktails and Coconut Palm Trees, by Jason Henderson and Adam Foshko, let’s take a deep dive into tiki culture.

What Is Tiki Culture, Exactly?

Defining California tiki culture isn’t as straightforward a task as it might seem — it’s an aesthetic, a multisensory feeling, and as Henderson points out in the preface of his book, a language that serves as a tool for expression. Forged from a culture of escapism, tiki represented a slow-paced, tropical alternative to the demands of modern society:

“It was an expression of the yearnings and anxieties of Americans trying to find their place in an expanding economy that often left men and women bereft of meaning. Americans constructed tiki palaces and festooned their backyards with palms and torches in an effort to create a visceral, aural, tactile escape to a world that never existed except in their dreams: an island paradise where the pressures of the gray flannel suit and the house-beautiful tyrannies of women’s magazines could be set aside.” –  excerpted from “California Tiki”

Objectively, tiki culture is defined by the post-World War II era’s obsession with Polynesia, beginning with the tiki bar and wrapping up with the advent of the hippie movement of the 1960s. At its core, tiki culture is defined by a theme of Polynesian elements, including tiki carvings, palm trees, torches, fruity cocktails, bright colors and plenty of rattan furniture.

Pop culture scholars can trace the impetus of the tiki revolution back to the 1933 opening of the tiki-themed restaurant named Don’s Beachcomber, which later became Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood. Founded by a man named Ernie Gantt (nicknamed Donn Beach), he is now credited with creating the first tiki bar in the United States.

Gantt, a bootlegger during prohibition, developed Don the Beachcomber after taking the cheapest possible alcohol at the time — rum — and weaving it into the fiber of his establishment, including the legendary cocktail list. The bar and restaurant were a hit; it eventually expanded to 20 restaurants and spurred many copycat clubs.

There are a few more milestone events that paved the metaphorical way for America’s tropical interest. The first was the release of the 1948 book, Kon-Tiki, Thor Heyerdahl’s epic account of crossing the Pacific from South America to the Polynesian islands — a long and very elaborate journey designed to prove that South Americans could have traveled to Polynesia in pre-Columbian times. The second, of course, was World War II itself, when American soldiers brought home stories of sunshine, turquoise waters and a laid-back lifestyle from Bora Bora and Hawaii.

The Great Tiki Bar Takeover

While Don the Beachcomber settled in to become an American institution, more and more tiki bars and restaurants popped up around the country. Just three years after Gantt opened his Hollywood flagship establishment, an Oakland proprietor named Victor Bergeron followed suit by transforming his existing business into a tiki-themed restaurant. The iconic Trader Vic’s eventually earned a franchising deal with Hilton and opened locations all over the world.

Actor Stephen Crane started a chain of upscale tiki bars and restaurants called Kon Tiki Ports, which was Chicago’s largest restaurant in volume and grossed more than $2.3 million in 1966. Despite the fact that Bergeron and Crane admitted they had learned the tricks of the tiki trade from Gantt — which is why he is widely considered the father of the American tiki bar — there was a bit of territorialism and conflict among these tiki kings.

The debut of the mai tai, which is considered to be the most iconic tiki cocktail, spurred a feud when both Bergeron and Gantt claimed to have invented the drink. Though the recipes were similar, Bergeron’s was less complex — made with rum, lime juice, orange liqueur and orgeat syrup — and he is more often credited with the signature cocktail.

Beyond Bars and Restaurants

Tiki bars and restaurants maintained their popularity throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, complementing other related subcultures and acting as a backdrop for California surf culture and tiki-inspired films and TV shows. It was during this time that Southern California saw the emergence of tiki music, which can be broken down into two primary genres: exotica music and surf music.

The former was defined as the “music of plants and palm trees,” relying heavily on percussion and Hawaiian instruments like ukulele and steel guitar. It was played by big acts, including Les Baxter and Martin Denny.

Tiki is closely linked with California surf culture, and a big part of that is due to surf music, the soundtrack you probably most closely associate with tiki culture today. This kind of music, made famous by acts like Dick Dale and the Del-Tones and the Surfaris, features a guitar-heavy sound with rhythm hand-picking and instrumental techniques first used in an attempt to recreate the sound of waves. At the same time surf culture was ramping up, Polynesia made appearances in major blockbuster films, like the Elvis movie “Blue Hawaii” and “Gidget Goes Hawaiian.”

The Polynesian pop obsession maintained major popularity into the 1960s, but it started to fall from fashion as that decade waned. Henderson and Foshko blame the Woodstock generation as the primary tiki killer — the “free love” generation rejected the theme as old-fashioned, politically incorrect and in bad taste.

“This ‘abrupt wane in popularity’ can be traced to three major narratives that called the salience of Tiki into question: the natural replacement of the Greatest Generation with the baby boomers, American preoccupation with the Vietnam War and a growing interest in ‘authentic’ cultural experience.”

–  excerpted from California Tiki

Riding the Four Waves of Tiki

Tiki culture can be divided into four distinct generations. The interest in tiki culture that dominated in the middle of the 20th century — specifically, between the 1920s and 1960s, ending with the Baby Boomers’ rejection of the sub-culture — is classified by tiki historians (yes, they exist) as the first wave of tiki.

The second and third waves erupted in the late 1970s and mid-1990s, respectively. The fourth wave was ignited at the turn of the millennium after a set of tiki-related books were published. As you’ll see below from the many modern tiki bars and restaurants still in operation, we’re well into a fifth wave, with a total resurgence underway.

Iconic Tiki Kitsch: Where to Find the Best Examples

Many of the original tiki bars and restaurants have been destroyed to make way for new establishments, but there are still a few great examples standing. The primary hallmarks of original tiki are the presence of an A-frame structure (exceedingly rare in modern times), bridges to cross within the establishment, plenty of jungle foliage, wall-hanging masks and weapons and floor-to-ceiling tiki texture with exotic woods, bamboo, rattan and tapa cloth. Here are a few of the original tiki bars still in operation.

  • Trader Vic’s, Emeryville — The flagship Trader Vic’s in Emeryville isn’t the building where the mai tai was invented, but it does sit on the location of Trader Vic’s original restaurant. Still, the Emeryville Trader Vic’s is considered the first establishment, so it’s a must-visit for tiki enthusiasts. The restaurant has a traditional tiki interior, while the large patio overlooks the San Francisco Bay.
  • Trad’r Sam’s, San Francisco — Located on Geary Boulevard in Central Richmond, Trad’r Sam’s is like any other San Francisco dive bar. What makes it so special is the fact that it’s the oldest, longest-operating tiki bar in the world, opened in 1937. Though it’s not over-the-top tiki kitsch, you’ll still see rattan and bamboo remnants at Trad’r Sam’s.
  • Bali Hai Restaurant, San Diego — Located on the northern tip of Shelter Island, Bali Hai has been a San Diego mainstay for over 50 years. The Tiki Oasis, the longest-running tiki festival in the world in San Diego, is credited for bringing interest back to the establishment. If you stop by Bali Hai, make sure to say “aloha” to Mr. Bali Hai, the giant wooden head that tops the building.
  • Royal Hawaiian, Laguna Beach — Founded in 1947, Royal Hawaiian still maintains old-school charm, but it has been refurbished into a “tiki-chic” style. If you’re looking for a fancier tiki experience but still want to dine and drink in a classic environment, this Laguna Beach mainstay is an essential stop. “Tiki California” features a great interview with the creative co-owner and creative director at Royal Hawaiian.
  • Tonga Hut, Hollywood — Not to be confused with Tonga Room — a historical San Francisco tiki bar that’s also still in operation today — Tonga Hut bills itself as the oldest tiki bar in L.A. The laid-back cocktail bar has been open since 1958 and still serves as a favorite neighborhood bar.
  • Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar, San Francisco — This 1945 example in San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel is one of the longest-running tiki bars in California. It features an incredible tiki-themed interior, complete with a central pool and a floating bar. The bar was built around the “Fairmont Plunge,” a 75-foot indoor swimming pool constructed in 1929.

A Modern-Day Resurgence

The authors of California Tiki note that, while the earlier tiki generations focused on escapism, today’s tiki is about reclaiming the American birthright and taking pride in the creative expression of postwar America.

“Modern tiki is an expression of nostalgia for the time of confidence, happiness and style,” they write. “While it’s unlikely that we’ll see a tiki resurgence of mid-century proportions, there are still some new players in the game that are working hard to keep tiki alive to a smaller degree.”

One way that tiki enthusiasts strive to keep the theme afloat is through modern themed events, including conventions and festivals. The largest and longest-running tiki festival is Tiki Oasis in San Diego, which is held for a weekend every August.

Tiki Oasis emphasizes tiki preservation — it has helped save a number of Polynesia-themed establishments. It also features educational symposiums during the day and live music at night, with signature cocktails mixed by famous bartenders. A similar festival, called Tiki Caliente, takes place in Palm Springs once a year.

Finally, you’ll see some great examples of modern-day tiki at some of the Polynesian revival restaurants and bars throughout the country. Though they’re not original, many of these spots are meticulously decorated to honor authentic, mid-century tiki themes. From the recreated Don the Beachcomber in Huntington Beach — which recently announced that it would close its doors for good due to increasing rent — to the iconic Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar at Disneyland, there’s no shortage of tiki goodness in Southern California and throughout the country.

Cheers to Another Wave of Tiki!

While the wave of tiki culture undoubtedly reached a crescendo in the middle of the last century, there are still plenty of people working to preserve and perpetuate its themes and style. The new wave is meant to acknowledge the subculture’s flaws — notably, the fact that it is rife with cultural appropriation — and to emphasize that tiki culture was borrowed from many unique cultures, especially Hawaiian, Brazilian, Caribbean and American.

Even today, tiki culture remains a symbol of adventure and escape, two things still very much in demand. And we think that’s worthy of a mai tai!

If you’re a fan of tiki culture and classic Americana, pick up a copy of California Tiki today!