The Timeless Allure of LA’s Classic Tiki Bars

Photographer: Anne Fishbein

To most of the world, Los Angeles represents a glitzy land of opportunity and grandeur, and while it’s no longer sparkling in the Golden Age of Hollywood (and really it hardly sparkled then), people still flock here in search of that lifestyle. There are fresh iterations all over town working hard to continue the fantasy, but ironically, to taste that Golden Age, you need to dive into the weird subculture of tiki bars.

As an ex-avid rum drinker, Polynesian visitor, poolside lounger, and longtime Martin Denny listener (and pal of the beautiful woman who graced his album covers), I’m a tiki girl through and through. When I lived in Las Vegas, I spent most of my nights out at Frankie’s Tiki Room. Sure, I was into the atmosphere, as alluded to above, but through careful self-analysis, I realized I was there longing for my LA home.

The tiki bar was born here in Los Angeles in the 1930’s (see: Golden Age of Hollywood), where tropical clime culture was all the rage, and celebrities and wannabes alike could imbibe and vibe on the sticky sweetness of the joints around town, further fostering the era’s energy of being a fool’s paradise. The illusion of LA actually can be summarized by the tiki bar: languidly longing for the Seventh Wave, wrapped in dreamy delusion stirring your Bali Hai cocktail with a plastic palm tree swizzle stick.

It was all thanks to Donn Beach (born in Texas as Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt) that the tiki bar became a fixture. He started lying his way onto movie sets to make friends with stars in order to hustle higher-end clientele for his bar in Hollywood, Don the Beachcomber, the first tiki bar in the world. It didn’t take much, as his bar clearly had a fun aura and high-octane beverages… If the tropical tenor didn’t get you out of your bubble, the drinks certainly would. From there, tiki bars sprung up all over the city adding a thick layer to the LA mirage. 

Really since the 2016 election, there’s been a resurgence of interest in the Los Angeles tiki bar. We all needed an escape. (Funny that the man we’ve all been trying to escape shut down Trader Vic’s, declaring it, “tacky.”) In a sense, we’re craving the same things people did in the Golden Age. So why not venture into a world with flair through wild décor, with showmanship in drinking through a flaming scorpion bowl, and with flamboyant figures through conversations with someone who’s been sitting on the same barstool since the bar originally opened?

So the next time bae suggests you go to The Abbey (break up with them), then suggest something a little more flavorful, such as Tonga Hut in Burbank. It still feels like a hidden gem that hasn’t sold out like the trying-too-hard-to-be-cool Pacific Seas or the overly chic Lono Hollywood. With real punk music peppered in with traditional tiki jams, Tonga Hut is everything you could ask for and more. Plus, if you try all 78 drinks on their menu, you achieve the honor of being the newest member of the “Loyal Order of the Drooling Bastard,” which is most certainly an achievement to add to your resume.

Or Tiki-Ti, which, despite being firmly planted in Silver Lake and thus typically a busy bar, offers just about every drink that has ever been considered “tiki”. Don’t let the Yelp question of whether or not there’s a mechanical bull frighten you, as this place is far from being any sort of establishment that would accommodate such an atrocity. And although they unfortunately no longer allow smoking inside, which some readers may appreciate even through it greatly added to the atmosphere, it’s still a solid tiki institution.

And at Tiki No in North Hollywood, the cocktails are aesthetically beautiful and often on fire. (Just don’t go during karaoke Wednesdays or Saturdays… Unless you’re into that sort of thing, in which case, I suppose dive in!) But I mean, with a daily happy hour of 5pm-7pm, you can’t go wrong. Even without happy hour, the drinks are affordable, which encourages an environment for an exceedingly fun night out.

Sitting here with fires raging throughout our fair city, a virgin Zombie in the midst of the smoke and mirrors a tiki bar was designed to create sounds like the best thing a girl could ask for.

Cheers, baby.