Nope, Tiki is not Canceled.

About this time last year, I honestly wasn’t sure which direction Tiki would go in light of so much unrest in this country. A seemingly growing choir of voices was questioning Tiki’s existence as a subculture/aesthetic, and the pandemic threatened many of our favorite destinations’ existence, too.

Those of you involved with discussions about Tiki and cultural appropriation may remember they spiked a bit last year, which led me to pen my thoughts in a blog post, where I mostly asked questions and cautioned against unintended consequences of “canceling” it, so to speak. I wrote a follow-up after seeing the conversations the post provoked (as well as after getting some unkind, unconstructive feedback from opposing parties). Tikiphiles were also up in arms at the thought of Tiki being canceled after articles came out in publications like Punch and the New York Times essentially calling it out for insensitive racist, colonialist tropes.

History repeats itself—this is the same kind of backlash Tiki got starting in the 1970s, which led to its de-evolution in the 1980s. And I think a few people (including myself) really thought Tiki would be headed that way again. I mean, we’ve all retreated to our home bars at some point, so it didn’t feel so far-fetched that it could happen again if bar owners felt it would turn off patrons to go full-on Tiki and own it.

I’ve never been more glad to be wrong. Tiki is showing its resiliency.

The New Tiki Kids in Town

Since the pandemic began, numerous new Tiki destinations have opened up, inviting patrons into immersive, exciting experiences that go far beyond just a kickass Mai Tai.

The great Don the Beachcomber in Huntington Beach may be gone, but new Tiki speakeasy Secret Island opened in nearby Long Beach September 30th and already has acts like the Hilo Hi-Flyers, The Hula Girls, and Tikiyaki 5-0 lined up to play shows. Tiki Tom’s in Walnut Creek took advantage of their pandemic closure to fulfill a desire to transform their bar into a true Tiki destination and reopened on August 24th to rave reviews. The crazy beautiful Sinking Ship at Tiki-Ko in Bakersfield is finally open and is a Tiki lover’s dream come true.

And while you still could never pay me to live there again, I’m incredibly happy that many new Tiki bars are located in of all places, Texas—my previous home. Nice to know I can escape the big hair, big egos, shitty drivers, and awful politics in the comfort of a fabulous nearby Tiki bar.

Swizzle in Dallas, Tarantula Tiki in Ft. Worth, and Hugman’s Oasis in San Antonio have all opened within the last 18 months. And on the horizon is the VERY long-awaited Tiki Tatsu-Ya in Austin, scheduled to open in early October. How cool is this place going to be, you ask? As co-owner Tatsu Aikawa said to the Austin American-Statesman, “I’m not building a restaurant-bar this time. I’m building Disneyland.”

That’s how you do it, folks.

Just one small section inside Tiki Tatsu-Ya (photo by Mark Matson for Austin American-Statesman)

How Tiki Weathered the Storm

It amazes me how many of Tiki’s dearly-loved locations have stood the test of time despite challenges ranging from pandemic closures to labor/supply shortages and of course, the weather.

The mighty Mai-Kai, despite closing their kitchen due to structural problems, is still chugging along, offering drinks to go and even putting on a Tiki marketplace to keep that Aloha spirit alive. They recently announced they will be able to reopen after securing investors who can provide the financial backing they needed to rebuild.

I know many of us want to see the Mai-Kai’s magnificent floor show again. (Photo by me)

An ongoing global shortage of supplies, labor, and common sense (I’ll let you guess which one is more prevalent) is hampering the hospitality & restaurant/bar industry, and many Tiki bars have had to pare down or change their menus depending on what they’re able to get. Some have to adjust their hours or put expansion plans on hold because of lack of staff. But it’s great to see they’re still open despite the challenges.

Think about some of the most popular Tiki bars we know that experienced pandemic-related closures and have since reopened: Latitude 29, Inferno Room, Max’s South Seas Hideaway, Lei Low, Tonga Hut, Tiki-Ti, Trader Sam’s, Trader Vic’s…the list is quite long! We get to still enjoy these incredible places, and I think it’s a testament to Tiki still being relevant, especially now.

The Return of Tiki-Themed Events

As someone who really looked forward to flying out for Tiki events when I lived in Texas, going to Tiki events is one thing I’m really excited about getting back to doing.

This year, Tiki Oasis in both San Diego and Scottsdale made a comeback, and in October, Tiki Caliente will be back after an 18-month hiatus. There are also smaller-scale events like Makahiki, Inuhele, and Tiki Fever that have happened or will happen this year. The events still generate a lot of buzz and excitement, and although travel restrictions prevent some regulars from attending (for now), I feel events will still be just as popular, and we may even see more of them.

I can’t wait for the next vaxxed and relaxed Tiki Caliente! (photo by Caliente Tropics)

One of the neatest things about Tiki events is the art. Carvings, mugs, illustrations…all of these are still very much alive and well. Our beloved Tiki artisans saw events, a major source of income, taken away during the pandemic, but they’re still making art and still lining our walls and shelves with beautiful creations.

Preventing a New Tiki De-Evolution

Most of us who truly love Tiki know keeping its unique aesthetic authentic in its original inauthenticity is key to preventing it from turning into the hot mess it became in the 80s (Hello, day-glo colors and Mai Tais made with grenadine). It’s up to us to lift up and celebrate the places and people that are carrying that torch. So far, I think we’re doing a pretty good job.

In addition, it’s been really nice to see that Tiki is more accessible than it used to be. I love seeing people from all walks of life feeling much more welcome in our community and comfortable being their authentic selves, and that definitely needs to continue. But it should happen organically and out of true sincerity. “White guilt” is definitely a thing, and it often results in temporary, insincere attempts to elevate DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion), similar to what I see in the corporate world right now. Virtue signaling has become a bit trendy, but it’s not a good look, and as a POC (person of color), I find it more patronizing than helpful.

Tiki is also going to have its persistent detractors who will bash you up and down for things like drinking out of a mug with an actual Tiki on it. I don’t think anything will change their minds, so why bother? The fact I love Tiki doesn’t make me bad, misguided, ignorant, or racist. If people don’t agree, that’s their problem. They don’t owe me niceness when discussing this issue, and that’s fine, too. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar, but that’s just my opinion.

The last 18 months have been an emotional ass-kicking for me and for many of you, I’m sure. I’m trying to remain optimistic, so I’m focusing on things I enjoy, which is one reason I unfollowed nearly all the Facebook groups. I recommend all of you focus on the Tiki things you enjoy, too—remember, Tiki was born out a desire to escape, and if there was ever a time to escape, it’s now!

No question, it may be slightly adjusting for modern times and modern minds, but Tiki is definitely not canceled. And that’s a very good thing.

tiki bar closed due to covid-19 pandemic

Helping Tiki Bars Survive the Pandemic

“We rise by lifting others.”

-Robert G. Ingersoll

As we near the 9th month of the novel coronavirus pandemic, we’re reaching a very pivotal point. There’s been a lot of ebb and flow since life as we knew it changed completely, and the news about the direction we’re headed (not a very good one) has me thinking about a few things I feel I need to share.

Although my household has been fortunate to work from home, there are so many people who simply aren’t able to do that. Many of these people we know work in the hospitality and service industry, or are stakeholders in local restaurants and bars we frequented pre-pandemic.

Over the last 9 months, I’ve seen story after story about places here in SoCal, back home in Dallas, and all over the country that permanently closed because of the pandemic’s devastating economic impact. It’s especially jarring when they’re places that were around a long time and considered historic, local treasures.

A Precarious Time for Tiki Bars

Talk to anyone in the Tiki community, and they’ll probably have a Tiki bar they frequent that’s like their version of “Cheers”—everyone knows your name, and every visit involves imbibing in a drink or two, with a little friendly banter on the side.

Tiki-Ti in Los Feliz, CA
The Tiki-Ti, my personal “Cheers” (photo by Elizabeth Daniels)

True Tiki bars are a labor of love. They’re typically owned and managed by people who care, not corporations, which is why they’re successful in building a real following among their patrons and standing the test of time. They also require a very high level of commitment by owners who want to build relationships as well as business.

It’s scary when I think about how many of our beloved Tiki establishments are suffering right now and trying hard to stay open, if they’re allowed to even be open at all. Between ever-changing local health regulations and trying to keep staff safe, it’s got to be a fucking nightmare to even operate.

Every time I’ve had a conversation about this with a bar owner, I learn more about how hard it is. Staff concerns, layoffs, takeout and dine-in rules, enhanced cleaning procedures, paying bills…the list is endless.

Worrying Signs and Frustration

Martin and Rebecca Cate of Smugglers Cove in San Francisco laid their frustrations bare for an SFGate article back in July, which was heartbreaking to read. And Ed Rudisell of Inferno Room fame in Indianapolis also echoed similar sentiments in an interview for Indianapolis Monthly. Both are hanging on, but just barely, and assistance funds only go so far.

Then came the news that Max’s South Seas Hideaway, arguably one of the most impressive Tiki establishments to open in recent years, filed for bankruptcy, less than one full year after its opening. I know many of us haven’t been able to visit yet, which is a tragedy, given how much work Mark put into it.

Max’s South Seas Hideaway (photo from website)

Some, like SoCal favorites the Tiki-Ti and the Tonga Hut, have remained closed since the start of the pandemic. Others, like False Idol, Latitude 29, 4 Kahunas, and Trader Vic’s Atlanta have either only recently opened, or have opened and been forced to close once again after case spikes. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have the outdoor space to serve, and even when you do, if you don’t serve food, you often get shafted.

A Rallying Cry for Tikiphiles

More than ever, our Tiki establishments depend on us to help them survive. Unfortunately, I don’t think the pandemic will ever really stop being an issue until there’s a vaccine and accessible treatment options. Sadly, wearing masks and distancing have been politicized to the point of no return, so if we want our beloved places to survive, we need to help where we can.

Some things you can do:

  • If your favorite bars have merch, buy it. For some that are closed, it’s the only money they might have coming in for a while.
  • If they have takeout or delivery, order from them when you’re able, but PLEASE don’t use third party delivery apps like Doordash or GrubHub (these kill small businesses).
  • Donate to their staff fundraisers if they have them.
  • If they’re open and you feel comfortable, visit them and tip well.

Oh, and don’t be that guy (or girl or whatever) who pitches a fit about their mask policies. You might not care if you get sick, but the staff has a right to not be put at risk. One industry friend told me this past weekend that a recent group of out-of-towners balked at their mask policies, saying, “We didn’t have to wear them at the last place we went to.” Um, are you fucking kidding me?

With the holidays fast approaching, now is the time to be generous if you’re in the position to be so. One of the things I love about our Tiki community is how much we care about one another and lift our friends up when they need us. If you’re not in the position to financially support, share their social posts. We must support our local haunts in any way we can, or they may not be around much longer.

Tonga Hut interior
C’mon…do it for Big Mo. (photo by Christina Champlin)