Tiki Restaurant History And Ambience

By Rene Thompson

From the late 1940 s to the mid-1960 s, the tiki craze swept the nation as servicemen returned from the South Pacific with nostalgia for island culture. This fad took on many forms, but is perhaps best known for tiki restaurants. Tiki (or south sea chic ) restaurants of the 1950 s had very unique d cor as their owners tried to interpret the tiki style of the islands. These over-the-top restaurants included large tiki bars, statues and masks, and tiki music for ambience.

Though tiki restaurants boomed during the mid-century period, Polynesian-themed restaurants had begun to spring up in America as far back as the 1920s. There, visitors could listen to the Hawaiian music that was then making its mark on American styles of music.


In fact, the tiki restaurants that would experience the most popularity in the 1950s and 1960s got their start back in the 1930s. Don the Beachcomber s and Trader Vic s, the two largest tiki restaurant chains, opened locations in California in the midst of the Depression, offering an escape from reality, if only for an evening. In fact, 1934 is considered to be the official beginning of the tiki craze, though it really took off in the 1950s. The founder of Trader Vic s was also credited with creating the Mai Tai, back in 1944. By 1960, nearly every large city throughout the country had at least one Polynesian or tiki restaurant.

The popularity of tiki restaurants was built on their ambience. Tiki restaurants always played island-style music including unique jazz combined with island beats, a combination known as exotica, from favorites like Martin Denny and Les Baxter. At the table, drinks were nearly always served in ceramic mugs shaped like tiki statues or masks, with their distinctive face and carved-wood appearance. The restaurants would be completely decorated inside and out with tiki d cor, including flaming tiki torches outside and waterfalls and lagoons inside. The dishes were exotic, and Asian or Polynesian influences, including pork, chicken, pineapple, teriyaki and sweet-and-sour sauce, fried rice, pu pu platters (an appetizer sampler) and more exotic dishes like crab ragoon.

In a tiki restaurant, the bar was often considered the most important part of the building. The tiki bar would be constructed of bamboo, with a faux grass skirt and large tropical flowers. Drinks came in tiki mugs or in even more imaginative creations such as cauldrons or coconut shells. In this exotic bar, the bartender would mix up mysterious and fruity rum-based cocktails, some of which would be served flaming. Sometimes the labels were removed from the drink bottles so that those at the bar would be given a sense of mystery about what they were drinking; both Don the Beachcomer s and Trader Vic s also served secret concoctions that could not be found on the menu and were sometimes served in special, larger figural glasses.

In the 1970s, the tiki craze fell victim to changing tastes as the margarita replaced the mai tai as the trendy drink. Some tiki restaurants were renovated to downplay their Polynesian theme, while others were torn down. However, the 1990s saw a resurgence of tiki popularity, and today there several examples of newly-opened Polynesian-style restaurants around the country. Today the tiki culture enjoys a loyal following, and tiki restaurants are as fun as always.

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