In a visit to Atlanta a few weeks ago, two close friends took me to a place I knew only through myth and Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London": a Trader Vic's. The institution was a leading force in popularizing tiki bars and beverages in the United States, where only two locations now remain. (The chain is flourishing in the Middle East, however.)
Stepping into the bar, which is in the bottom of the downtown Hilton, was like entering a time warp. The walls were covered with Asian newspapers, fishing nets, turtle shells, and at least one how-is-this-legal sawfish bill. I left feeling oddly delighted but full of questions. How did tiki bars ever get to be such a fad? And what kind of place do they have in our culture today?
In the early 1930s, two Polynesian-themed restaurants opened independently in California: Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood, followed shortly by Trader Vic's in Oakland. Following World War II, service members returning from the Pacific theater engendered an American fascination with the region. In the following years, Americans got James A. Michener's Pulitzer-winning book Tales of the South Pacific (1947) and a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical version, South Pacific (1949, then a film version in 1958), and Hawaiian statehood (1959). Elvis Presley's 1961 movie, Blue Hawaii, continued to fan the flames. Swept up in all this were tiki figures, leis, decorative little lantern lights, thatch roofing, and more. Conveniently lost in the mix were the facts about destructive Western colonialism in the Pacific, as well as the Marine Corps-backed coup that overthrew the Kingdom of Hawaii to support American agricultural interests in the late 1800s.
Even when viewed charitably, American tiki culture perpetuates the flattening of various indigenous cultures in Asia and the Pacific Islands. Less charitably, tiki culture perpetuates the colonialist idea that white folks can take what we want from a culture, strip sacred objects of meaning, and mash a whole bunch of unrelated signifiers into something "fun."
But tiki popularity persists, including at a handful of Triangle bars, probably because most folks don't spend their leisure time deeply researching the cultural histories of niche fruity, high-alcohol beverages that were invented to invite a good time.
Chapel Hill's Lantern and Durham's Saint James Seafood and Alley Twenty Six all offer highly refined refreshments that fit the tiki bill. Saint James's tiki menu is a permanent fixture, Alley Twenty Six trots it out on its weekly "Waikiki Wednesday," and Lantern's is a seasonal feature. Typical tiki drinks boast a lengthy list of ingredients to balance several complex flavors, which requires a deft bartender with finely tuned taste buds. On that score, these three spots pass with flying, dizzying colors.
At Saint James, I wondered how the crème de cacao of the Pago Pago (named for the capital of American Samoa) would fare with green chartreuse and muddled pineapple. It feels wrong to call a cocktail "buttery," but it went down with almost alarming ease; served in an elegant coupe glass, its presentation is as gorgeous as its flavor. I surprised myself with how quickly I hit the bottom of the tasty Karl's Retreat, which combined rum with Cointreau, applejack, guava, and lime juice, topped with a Hamilton 151 float.
Up the street, Alley Twenty Six's Waikiki Wednesday features a strong menu. The Bull City Beach Party is citrusy and served with a mint sprig, while the Suffering Bastard—one of several "traditional" tiki cocktails—has a stronger floral bent. Pineapple and rum flavors dominate the Big Island (no complaints here), which has a significantly more prominent alcohol taste than the others. It led one friend to declare it "tastes like you want to sit on the beach and get fucked. Up." Which is the point, I suppose. You can also ask for a Captain's Orders, a thematic drink made at the whim of your bartender. You can request modifications according to your tastes—I stipulated only "no fernet" and got something with honey, orgeat, light rum, and bitters that was divine.
At Chapel Hill's famed Lantern, the biggest winner is the Hurricane Lantern. Light and sweet, it features Flor de Cana four-year rum, pineapple, and locally grown maypop, which is the fruit of a purple passionflower. It feels like the drink equivalent of getting dessert first, especially after chasing it with the salty, gin-based Edgewood. The Junebug—lemon-ginger soda with Pimm's liqueur and cucumber—is light, fizzy, and refreshing.
- Photo by Caitlin Penna
- The Suffering Bastard at Alley Twenty Six in Durham
In Raleigh, The Outpost cultivates a different kind of atmosphere. Think more along the lines of a rowdy rumrunner getaway than a luxe island lounge. Its cocktails are all slightly cheaper and a good bit less fussy, which works out just fine. A bourbon-based Kentucky Buck is tart and heavy on strawberry flavor, while The Outpost's mischievous Hurricane tastes almost exactly like a Fruit Roll-Up. The lone exception to the low-key ambiance is the Zombie, which the bartender finishes off by lighting the drink's floater shot on fire, shaking cinnamon on top for a few extra sparks. The Outpost's drinks aren't as highbrow as the area's other tiki offerings, but they pack a punch that'll leave you reeling through downtown Raleigh.
While tiki drinks may not be as popular as they were a generation or two ago, they remain a cultural relic that reflects the issues of appropriation and cultural sensitivity that have become part of the mainstream cultural conversation. It's something for area bars to consider: just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a tropical cocktail with less problematic branding would be just as tasty.