James Teitelbaum: Escape to the Isle of Tiki

Travel Interviews: "Tiki Road Trip" offers a guide to North America's greatest tiki sights. Jim Benning asks its author about the enduring allure of mai tais, beachcomber flotsam and all things "Polynesian pop."

08.03.07 | 10:35 AM ET

imageThere was a time when “tiki” merely described Pacific island stone or wood carvings. Then ships and jets made island travel available to the masses, World War II GIs returned from the South Pacific, Hawaii became a U.S. state and Thor Heyerdahl published Kon-Tiki. Americans became fascinated with the Pacific, theme bars and restaurants popped up and tiki came to define something much broader. In James Teitelbaum’s words: “a design aesthetic that symbolizes an idealized way of life” and conjures “romantic fantasies of tropical islands, exotic cultures, and easy living on a far-off Polynesian island.”

It’s hard not to love tiki. Teitelbaum got the bug years ago, but he didn’t simply pack his Aloha shirt and head for Fiji. While touring North America as a keyboardist with the bands Pigface, Ministry and Royal Crown Review over the years, he visited and documented countless tiki bars, tiki restaurants and other forms of “Polynesian pop” he stumbled across. The result? He created a Web site that’s no longer updated, The Tiki Bar Review Pages, and wrote Tiki Road Trip: A Guide to Tiki Culture in North America. An updated second edition was just issued. I had to know more, so I e-mailed Teitelbaum. He replied from Chicago.

World Hum: What is it about tiki that appeals to so many people?

Tiki is about escapism. It is about hanging up your hang-ups and forgetting your worries. We all want to believe that no matter how good or bad our lives are, there is something even better out there. Virtually everyone would agree that verdant tropical islands with cool breezes blowing across the beach near crystal blue waters is a pretty good place to be. In real life, these places are not without their own problems, but on the isle of tiki, everything is perfect. If we can’t go there for real, then the gods of tiki will bring us there for a few hours on a Wednesday night after a hard day.

When was the golden age of tiki?

imagePhoto by Amy Aiello.

Tiki began in the early 1930s, and the concept developed right through the era of World War II. The golden age was into the 1950s and through the 1960s. By the late 1960s, there was a new generation who thought that tiki was square, that is was a part of the older generation. By the late 1960s, it was all rock ‘n’ roll, hippies and pot, instead of Arthur Lyman, lounge lizards and Zombie cocktails. There was also a lot of unrest then, with Kennedy and King being killed, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and then Nixon and Watergate. Maybe people needed tiki more than ever at that time, but the time had passed. And, maybe, people were just tired of it after four decades.

Tiki seems to be making a comeback. Why do you think that is? And has anything been lost along the way?

In California, tiki never really went away. But for the rest of the country, the tiki revival began in the early 1990s as various people discovered tiki on their own. Some of these people had been interested in it even longer, but it was in the 1990s that they began to meet. Finally by 2000 or so, it began to break through as a mainstream phenomenon again, after being largely dormant and forgotten for the better part of 30 years.

Tiki needed to come back for several reasons. The first and simplest reason is because everything that was cool in the 1940s to 1960s can and will eventually make a comeback. Most of the stuff from those eras has already been mined and revived; tiki was inevitable. More importantly, I think that these troubling times we live in are putting a lot of people under a lot of stress. We need the escape that tiki provides. Whether it is a night at the legendary Mai Kai in Florida, or a major tiki event with 1,000 goofballs in Aloha shirts, or just a backyard party with cheap party store decorations, no one is sad in Tikiland.

A lot has been lost, but that is unavoidable. The zeitgeist of 2007 is different from 1957. People want to party these days, and the idea of a quiet, elegant tropical lounge isn’t appealing to most people anymore. They want to get crazy, not to chill out. The earthy colors of wood and forest and sea and sand aren’t hyper enough, so we have horrid day-glo tikis, distracting televisions and bad techno music in our tiki bars these days. I don’t care for this much, but there isn’t anything I can do about it! Times change, and I guess that the important thing is that people are having a good time.

What qualities do you look for in a good tiki bar, restaurant or other site? And, on a related note, can you tell us about the term you coined, “TiPSY factor”?

TiPSY Factor is Tikis Per Square Yard. It basically means how successful the atmosphere is in transporting you away from your normal reality. The thing that makes a tiki bar a tiki bar, per se, is tikis of course. So we need lots of those. Otherwise, what’s the difference between the tiki bar and any other bar? But that’s just a starting point. Basic construction material must be bamboo, lauhala matting and palm fronds. Running water. Beachcomber flotsam is key too: pufferfish, nets, lobster traps, starfish and glass floats. Dim lighting. No televisions, gambling machines or video games. Windows only if they overlook a rain forest or large body of water. The exterior should look like a hut or a small village.

Music should set a mellow mood. The staff should dig the vibe—so many are embarrassed by it. Drinks should be amazing. Almost all modern bartenders are indifferent to the art of making drinks. They are there to make tips, so drinks are something to be delivered as quickly as possible. As a result, few people have opportunities to experience a tropical drink (or any classic cocktail) as it should be made. Ninety seven percent of the bars out there make drinks that are the liquid equivalent of McDonald’s food. I don’t want crappy McCocktails. Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic made great drinks. Tiki Ti in Los Angeles still makes great drinks, Mai Kai makes great drinks. If we move away from tiki drinks a little, Audrey Saunders in New York and Adam Seger in Chicago are rocking right now, designing new drinks for the places they own or manage. They are carrying on the tradition.

So what, exactly, makes for an amazing tiki drink?

The best tropical drinks may be fruit-based and often garnished with a paper umbrella, but when made properly, they are never too sweet, and are definitely not “girlie.” Top shelf booze definitely does matter, all juices must be fresh-squeezed, measurements must be precise (some ingredients call for quantities such as a 1/8 teaspoon, and it really does make a difference).

There are recipes in the new edition of “Tiki Road Trip” for some drinks that people have heard of but have never really experienced properly, such as the mai tai, the Zombie, and the Scorpion. I also like a few of the more obscure ones such as Tortuga, Suffering Bastard, Missionary’s Downfall and my own creation, Aku Hall Sour, based on the popular pisco sour.

Are there any tiki bars or restaurants still around that you consider must-sees for aspiring tiki connoisseurs? Say, three or four that you’d recommend?

Mai Kai in Fort Lauderdale.
Tiki Ti in Los Angeles.
Hala Kahiki in River Grove (near Chicago), Illinois.
And any Trader Vic’s, particularly Atlanta, Georgia and Emeryville, California.



We asked “Tiki Road Trip” author James Teitelbaum to share his favorite tiki-related books. Here’s what he said.

How did you become interested in tiki culture?

As a kid I became interested in art, and tribal art in particular. As a teen, I got into 1940s and 1950s pop culture. As an adult I got into rum, and then travel. When I discovered a tiki bar during a 1991 trip to Florida, I recognized it as an artifact from the 1940s that was full of (fake) tribal art… and they served rum drinks. There were girls there. I was sold. The history in the place was palpable, and the drinks were strong. Somehow, I had an immediate intuition that there must be more places like this, and that I had discovered the very tip of a gigantic, lost, phenomenon. It was as if the whole history of tiki had been instantly downloaded into my brain. I just GOT IT.

From 1994 to 2006 I toured with rock and jazz bands for a living, and this gave me the opportunity to travel all over the world. On rare nights off from the touring, I’d find myself in various cities, and I’d go out looking for the remaining elements of mid-century culture, and tiki in particular.

My research was spun into a Web page in December of 1994, and then the first edition of “Tiki Road Trip” in 2003. The book was a smash success, so my publisher, Santa Monica Press, asked me to revise, update and expand it for 2007.

You write in the book, “It is important to remember that Polynesian Pop is not meant to be disrespectful to the peoples of the Pacific.” Have some Pacific Islanders found popular tiki representations to be offensive? What do you say to them?

No one has confronted me with this directly. But I do know that there are Pacific Islanders who are trying to reclaim their old traditions in various ways, and trying to cling to the things that make their cultures special. I am very supportive of this. Some of these people despise Polynesian pop, and while I understand why, I think they are over-reacting.

There is a fine line between having fun with this imagery, and making fun of this imagery. Many of the islanders see it as a cool way to remind the world that they’re out there, in the middle of the ocean. Maybe that’s a better attitude, since they certainly can’t undo a gigantic phenomenon that has been around for close to a century. Many people are also drawn into learning about the real cultures after becoming exposed to them via tiki.

You note in the book that there is no Isle of tiki where a real-life tiki paradise exists. But I’m curious about your own travels around the Pacific. Have you come across any places that, in your mind, come close?

There are at least 20,000 islands in the Pacific Ocean, and yet, there is no paradise on Earth. Even the most beautiful islands have problems. Famine, lack of fresh water, pollution, rising sea levels, disease, typhoons and tsunamis, etc. Not to mention the populations being exploited and even enslaved by Europeans and Americans in past centuries. Missionaries did endless irreparable harm, destroying cultures, languages and systems of belief that had stood for centuries. The modern islanders also have their own wars, political problems and all of the same things we deal with: “my kids won’t behave,” “she loves him and not me,” “my roof leaks.”

All of that said… seeing turtles under the sea off of Hawaii, hiking among the Moai on Easter Island, getting Maori (New Zealand) tattoos and watching authentic Tahitian dancing are experiences that last forever, and having a room full of tiki carvings in my house brings me right back there, every single day.

9 Comments for James Teitelbaum: Escape to the Isle of Tiki

TambourineMan 08.03.07 | 1:02 PM ET

It’s only 9am here in LA, but this interview makes me want to drive up to Tiki Ti right now and order a “Ray’s Mistake.”  Several of them, actually.

Jim Benning 08.03.07 | 1:52 PM ET

Glad you enjoyed it, TambourineMan. The Tiki Ti in Los Angeles is such a great place.

To James Teitelbaum’s credit, there’s a full page devoted to it in “Tiki Road Trip.”

james teitelbaum 08.03.07 | 1:53 PM ET

Signed and personalized copies of Tiki Road Trip 2 are available directly from the author at this link:


Aloha everyone!

-James T.

mike 08.03.07 | 6:14 PM ET

That’s the tiki attitude, TambourineMan. It’s always tiki time somewhere.

What’s in Ray’s Mistake?

TambourineMan 08.04.07 | 6:06 PM ET

Ray’s Mistake is their signature drink, invented by Tiki Ti founder, Ray Buhen. According to the website, here’s what’s in it:

“our own Super Secret Flavor, Botanic Liqueurs, Passion Fruit and floated with Dark Corub Rum.”

A few of these babies…and it’s lights out.

By the way, the website also says they now have an on-site ATM. As fans know, the bar is cash only. 

Thanks for the interview. I’ll have to get the book once I get paid. That is if I don’t blow my check at Tiki Ti first.

Tiki Lion 08.05.07 | 11:25 PM ET

Hey Jim, if you’re still reading this thread (and of course Mike, Mike and Mark Buhen, the high priests of Tiki-Ti):

after reading this article I did some research and we took a (first-time) drive to Tiki-Ti. We got there latish, and the tiny place was packed with the coolest cats, who nonetheless welcomed two more furry souls to the party. I was magically transported to Tiki within a few moments of entering, and assured a glorious visit thanks to our hosts devotions.

I say “Foo!” to anyone who doesn’t believe in the island of Tiki! Stop by the Ti (check their website to be sure they’re open), experience it first hand.

No, I’ve got no commercial interest in the place or the Tiki movement; I’m just a reverent congregant.

Oh, and just one more thing: make sure you have a safe way to get back home!

Jim Benning 08.06.07 | 12:50 PM ET

Hey Tiki Lion,

Great note. So glad you discovered Tiki Ti. It’s an L.A. institution, and to anyone who doubts it, Foo! indeed.

If you find yourself in San Diego one of these days—you, too TambourineMan—check out Bali Hai on Shelter Island, which dates from the ‘50s. Inpsired by the book, I made a trip there last weekend. It’s a tiki restaurant and bar with an amazing view of San Diego Bay. Great place. I had the mai tai. Talk about “lights out”—it was, by far, the strongest mai tai I’ve ever had.

TambourineMan 08.09.07 | 5:03 PM ET

Aloha, SoCal worldhummers.

Today’s LAT features a review of Puka Bar, a new tiki lounge in Long Beach. It’s on Willow St, near the 710 freeway. Sounds promising.

Jim, I’ve driven past Bali Hai before (stayed at Humphrey’s one night), but didn’t get a chance to try it. Next time for sure.

Cheers, all.

Michael Yessis 08.09.07 | 6:08 PM ET

Wow, if the island of tiki can be created beside the 710, it can be done anywhere.

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