By: Rick Hess & Mae Case, DISD
It might be too tacky for some, but others embrace it with open arms. Wherever you stand when it comes to Tiki, one thing’s for sure: there’s no mistaking this style when you come across it. Although inspired by Tiki statues and mythology of the South Pacific, the connection is loose and stylistic. Americans embraced it in the 20th century and to this day, some of the country’s most entertaining lounge bars and restaurants are covered floor to ceiling with its aesthetic. So dim the lights, settle in, and let the Tiki takeover.
Tiki is thought to symbolize not just a sculpture, but the entire Polynesian and South Pacific culture. In fact, Trader Vics came out with a series of ads selling their idea of a getaway in the “South Pacific netherworld that was sexy, joyous, and a bit dangerous” reports San Diego magazine. In 1937 “The Trader,” better known as Vic, created a saloon and turned it into Trader Vic’s as we know it today. This retreat is known for “serving simmering plates of Island-style cuisine and becoming America’s first fusion restaurant concept,” according to the Trader Vic company.
Tiki culture is seen in many parts of the world, and in the 1950s and 60s it exploded across the United States. While modernism was taking one route, other designers were creating tropical paradises. Restaurants and bars boomed throughout the country, giving customers an intimately-lit environment to mingle with others. Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago offers its customers exotic drinks with up to 10 ingredients in glassware influenced by the Tiki culture. The Sip ‘n Dip Lounge in Montana takes Tiki Paradise beyond just tropical food and drinks, with a bar that allows its guests to view live mermaids swimming within an aquarium.
Having a drink at Tiki-Ti in Los Angeles involves “attempting to count the dozens of tiki mugs strewn around the bar while trying to keep the room from spinning” notes the Los Angeles Times. The bar is covered in Tiki décor and offers over 90 different drink specials. With only 12 bar stools, plan on being packed in with the locals who also want a little Tiki spice in their life.
Most of the Tiki lounges you find will offer plenty of custom drink options and interesting sculptural elements to gaze upon. Also, plan on being greeted by a Tiki God, as they tend to be the gatekeepers of these fine establishments. It almost feels like you are handed a torch and a cocktail at the same time when you enter. One thing is certain: within each of these tropical paradises, be prepared for an experience.
Tiki lounges and restaurants thrive off their high-levels of kitsch. Whether it’s your cup of tea or not, being served a custom drink by a mermaid who was swimming behind the bar a few minutes ago should be on everyone’s bucket list. If your summer calendar is wide open, find the Tiki bar or restaurant nearest you and plan a visit. Then pull up a bamboo seat, order a Mai Tai with an umbrella and soak in a truly unique lounging experience you won’t easily forget.