This June I will be celebrating four years in Los Angeles. Wow! Time really does fly. Turns out sometime last year I stopped feeling the zing of being out here, until a dose of summery spring weather mixed with a box of See's chocolates and Saveur magazine’s “Special Edition: Los Angeles” reignited the spirit of this town for me and my excitement to live here was revived.
Sure, one of the coolest parts of being in LA is the weather (right by cool I didn't mean cold ;). That's only one of the joys. The west coast, particularly southern California, is also home to a slew of all things tiki.
Within the last ten days I've had the pleasure of revisiting the first bar I went to as a native Angelino: the Tiki-Ti, LA's most awesome tiki bar on Sunset Blvd. An ex-pat colleague in NY sent me and then how about that, the people I became friends with out here were already loyal "Ti" fans. A few nights after a recent visit there, I dined at a new Trader Vic’s up the street from my apartment in downtown LA. It's true, any time I have a chance to visit a tiki-themed place – with its exotic retro vibe, gigantic (and potent!) tropical drinks and enchanting music – I go.
According to Wikipedia, “Tiki culture refers to a 20th-century theme used in Polynesian-style restaurants and clubs originally in the United States and then, to a lesser degree, around the world...inspired in part by tiki carvings and mythology.”
Well for some reason I’ve always been tickled by Polynesian Pop culture. This may have started as a kid while excitedly sharing a pupu platter at a loosely-Asian NJ restaurant with my family. But I know it especially gained steam when my dad took my sister and I to Disney World for a stay at the still-awesome Polynesian Resort hotel. That über-themed fortress is listed as one of the top tiki destinations in the country, complete with authentic luau dinners on the lovely artificial lake's shores. However, for the purposes of this blog – and selfishly because I live out here – the listing of top tiki places to eat, drink and shop contained in this post are well, all out west too. The destinations are listed in order of proximity to downtown LA (timed without traffic), and each place is linked to its own website.
So please enjoy this list, and feel free to add comments if I’ve missed any important place in the vicinity. Then I invite you to try one of these gems or try them all. Some serve food but all serve drinks. Some are better than others. I’ve tried a few as noted below, but certainly not many. And heck, discovering that "Don the Beachcomber" is still alive and well (even if not a true original location), and that it's only 36 minutes from home, means that particular stop on my tiki trail will soon be checked off that list.
1. GET YOUR TIKI DRINK ON ... and sometimes food too
(All locations are in California unless otherwise noted, distance is from downtown LA)
Location: Downtown at LA Live, our pre-fab Times Square • Distance: 0 min.
Great atmosphere. Food and drink are hit and miss, with the hits being very good. Now a nationwide chain, the music piped into the dining room is more Applebee's and less Tahiti.
Location: Hollywood (per them; I say they're in Los Feliz or Silverlake) • Distance: 10 min.
Open Wednesday thru Saturday only, cash only, smoking allowed. No wine or beer. Profiled in the Saveur March issue. Don't let the rules scare you, it's a treat and an honor! The original proprietor, Ray Buhen, was one of the original bartenders at Don the Beachcomber. His son Michael and his grandsons Mike and Mark run the Tiki-Ti in Ray's memory today.
Location: Glendale • Distance: 15 min.
I was quite psyched to visit this restaurant in sleepy Glendale for its reputation of tiki decor and steak. Both were just okay.
Location: Rosemead • Distance: 22 min.
With a name like that, how can you not visit! A real trooper since 1967, when I visited two years ago their bar was cozy small, their decor looked a little worse for wear, and my friends as usual adored their baked ham steak.
Location: Long Beach • Distance: 22 min.
Location: Huntington Beach (a.k.a. Sunset Beach) • Distance: 36 min.
"If you can't get to paradise, I'll bring it to you," Donn Beach – the founding father of tiki restaurants, bars and nightclubs – always said to his customers. His first venture was a bar in Hollywood in 1934. After an expansion of 16 locations, the original restaurants all closed and this lone location was repurposed in 2009 from an unrelated seafood restaurant. It serves only a handful of the 84 tropical drinks Donn Beach invented.
Location: North Hollywood • Distance: 22 min.
Location: Las Vegas, NV • Distance: 4.5 hours
2 Locations: Santa Cruz + Monterey
2 Distances: 6 hours, 2 min. + 5 hours, 51 min.
Location: Alameda • Distance: 6 hours, 6 min.
Location: Oakland, CA • Distance: 6 hours, 5 min.
Location: San Francisco • Distance: 6 hours, 18 min.
Not your average tiki bar, this place is fancy and located in a Fairmont Hotel. It's practically Disney-esque! And that's okay, because the Tonga Room was one of the nation's first tiki palaces. It opened in 1945 and has since been refurbished. It looks amazing, and I definitely need to go there!
Location: Tuscon, AZ • Distance: 8 hours
Location: Portland, OR • Distance: 16 hours
Looks like a place I would visit once and never leave! Next trip north, I am there. Oh and I'd be flying there, btw, not driving.
2. BUY TIKI STUFF!
Location: Hollywood • Distance: 11 min.
This is a very fun store! Besides random tiki items, other wares include art books, crazy handbags and bacon-scented band-aids.
Location: Santa Monica • Distance: 16 min.
Location: Whittier • Distance: 25 min.
Location: Huntington Beach • Distance: 43 min.
Location: San Clemente • Distance: 1 hour, 14 min.
Location: Palm Springs • Distance: 1 hour, 50 min.
Opening May 8, 2010! This is great news for fans (like me) of this retro tiki-inspired art master.
All right now, that’s a lot of tiki! Enjoy it responsibly.
Until we eat again,