The long days have returned and, for many, thoughts turn to warm days on the beach and toes in the sand. And what better companion on a summer day than a rum cocktail? Personally, I limit my enjoyment of rum-based cocktails to only four seasons a year, and when summer rolls around, you can bet I’ll be enjoying an exotic cocktail or three. So when I’m parched on that sweltering July day, I make a beeline straight to the nearest dark, windowless tiki bar.
Welcome to the true taste of tiki: perpetual twilight. Art-filled rooms full of dark nooks and crannies and covered in long shadows. The warm glow of softly colored glass floats and the comforting flicker of candlelight. An imagined torch-lit lanai at dusk, where it’s always the violet hour.
This is the world of tiki that first sang its siren song to me. It was a wet, midwinter night when I first set foot in a tiki bar. Drawn by its moody lighting, soft music and strong drinks, I found shelter from the storm. When all these elements combine, a cumulative effect results—a feeling of contentment, tranquility, relaxation and coziness. Something not unlike what the Germans call gemütlichkeit or the Danes call hygge (and perhaps it’s telling that our Protestant work ethic–influenced culture doesn’t have a comparable term in English). I soon discovered in my tiki journeys that the season didn’t matter in a tiki bar. A timeless, seasonless environment was carefully crafted for your pleasure.
Maybe it seems counterintuitive. Some think the tiki experience means a day at the beach. What could be sunnier, for example, than Fort Lauderdale, booming during the midcentury growth of Florida’s Gold Coast. Yet it was here that the greatest of all tiki palaces, the mighty Mai-Kai, rose from the sandy dunes to become a towering icon of Polynesian Pop design. And there in the land of beaches and palm trees, it remains a dark, shadowy space—so perfect in its execution that the tropics outside cannot match its charm. Even Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic opened outposts in Hawaii, bars shrouded in darkness. Paradise within paradise.
Windows become both a literal and figurative portal to the outside world in a tiki bar—to traffic, to stress, to reality. My San Francisco tiki bar, Smuggler’s Cove, is nestled on what’s essentially San Francisco’s southbound autobahn, Gough Street, where drivers re-create Death Race 2000 daily. It’s best hidden from view if one wants to enjoy a Mai Tai in peace. And why sit outside near a burbling stream when your drink can be carefully executed inside, free of mosquitoes and never to run dry? The enchanting sound of running water became a highlight of high tiki design, as guests walked across footbridges over elaborate networks of streams and pools, the calming effect magnified by the cool cocktails in their hands. Setting foot in the Mai-Kai, Chicago’s Hala Kahiki or even the sadly departed Bahooka in Rosemead, California, I discovered another of tiki’s charms: the warren of dark rooms that seemingly appear around every twist and turn, providing seclusion and intimacy. Low huts covering the booths at places like Kansas City’s TikiCat offer escape within escape.
For the past 25 years, I’ve found my own escape in tiki bars around the world, both old and new. I’ve enjoyed them with like-minded enthusiasts by the truckload at tiki-themed events, and on quiet date nights with my wife, Rebecca. Elaborate venues where the TVs are turned off and the Wi-Fi is iffy. Where your only priorities are real human interaction and lashings of rum.
Escape is a dying art. Most Americans scarcely even take vacations anymore and, when they do, they often bring at least a little Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco work with them. Leave it outside— the tiki bar is not the place for such burdens. You don’t have to wait for nightfall; it’s already waiting for you. Tiki-Ko—a tiki parlor in Bakersfield, California—channels Somerset Maugham to sum it all up nicely with their slogan: “A Shady Place for Sunny People.” So take a minute to unwind, and to hell with the summer sun. Slather on that SPF Zero and get to work on that ghostly pallor, because we’ve got some indoor drinkin’ to do.
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