The Feb. 22 birthday of Tiki bar pioneer Don the Beachcomber (1907-1989) is typically a red-letter day for many bartenders and home enthusiasts, who celebrate by mixing up classic tropical cocktails to toast the originator of such iconic drinks as the Zombie, Nui Nui, and Three Dots and a Dash. This custom has intensified recently with the announcement of new book and film projects that celebrate the life of times of the creator of what’s now known as Polynesian Pop, aka Tiki culture.
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Sneak peek: Renderings, video of the new location near Orlando
Bonus recipe below: Don’s Beach Planter cocktail
But the occasion gained special importance this year with the announcement that a Tampa-based hospitality company will begin rolling out a chain of new Tiki-themed restaurants featuring the Don the Beachcomber branding in 2023. According to a press release from 23 Restaurant Services, “there are currently two Don the Beachcomber restaurants and bars under development in Central Florida, with the first slated to open by the end of the year.”
The company’s president, Marc Brown, said in the release that he expects as many as 10 to 15 restaurants to be spread across the Southeast over the next several years, with plans to expand nationally. Brown’s company bought the rights to the Don the Beachcomber brand in 2021, aiming to incorporate it into its successful Tiki Docks concept in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area.
The birthday of Donn Beach, who legally changed his name from Ernest Raymond Gantt after the success of his Don the Beachcomber restaurants in the 1930s, seemed like a great time to announce the ambitious plan that 23 Restaurant Services calls “an expansive growth strategy.”
“Each of the restaurants will feature the eccentric, Polynesian-inspired design and flamboyant, rum-based drinks that have become synonymous with Don the Beachcomber locations for more than 90 years,” the press release says.
“Don the Beachcomber is the most iconic brand in Tiki history, so it’s impossible to overstate how excited we are about what lies ahead,” Brown said. “We look forward to leveraging our expertise in management and operational excellence to reintroduce the world to the legend that is Don the Beachcomber.”
To accomplish this, 23 Restaurant Services will be guided by an advisory board featuring some of the top artists, writers, and bartenders from the current Tiki scene:
* Tim “Swanky” Glazner, author of the upcoming book Searching for Don the Beachcomber as well as Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant.
* Martin Cate, author of Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum and the Cult of Tiki and owner of the award-winning San Francisco bar of the same name.
* John Mulder, a Florida-based artist and designer whose Eekum Bookum Tiki Mugs makes some of the most in-demand products on the market.
* Danny “Tiki Diablo” Gallardo, a California-based designer of carvings, mugs, and full bar interiors who has outfitted some of the world’s top Tiki establishments.
“Assembling this dynamic and legendary group of experts to serve as our advisory board was the first step in developing a plan to share and represent the history and life of Don the Beachcomber with the utmost authenticity,” Brown said. “We could not be more excited to share the work we are doing together to bring Don the Beachcomber back to life.”
In addition to the advisers, Brown has taken a huge first step in bringing back Don the Beachcomber’s classic cocktails by hiring Marie King, former beverage director and general manager of Tonga Hut in Los Angeles, as director of beverage for 23 Restaurant Services. King also served as beverage director of the last Don the Beachcomber restaurant in the continental U.S., located in Huntington Beach, Calif., from 2009 to 2018. Like 23 Restaurant Services, the owners of this location purchased the name and did not have any connection to the original company.
Currently, the only Don the Beachcomber branded venue is part of the Royal Kona Resort on the Big Island of Hawaii. It opened in 2005 after a the resort purchased the rights to the name in that state. In a complicated legal split, Donn Beach kept separate rights to his restaurants in Hawaii when he retired there. Elsewhere in the world, the Don the Beachcomber restaurant chain spread under corporate ownership with dozens of locations over the decades. The chain folded in 1990, one year after Beach’s death.
It was the original location in Hollywood, however, that became the subject of countless legends. Among them were Beach’s inspired invention of a new style of mixology, his vision of a South Seas paradise decorated with flotsam and jetsam picked up in his travels, and his close association with the movie industry’s movers and shakers. This all made Don the Beachcomber, which was originally named Don’s Beachcomber Cafe, the hottest spot in Hollywood.
Among the stars of the day who stopped by for a Missionary’s Downfall or Pearl Diver were Bing Crosby, Clark Gable, and Vivien Leigh. Frank Sinatra would pop into the Palm Springs location for his favorite, a Navy Grog. In all, Beach is said to have created 84 cocktails (aka “rum rhapsodies”) using multiple Caribbean spirits and spices, fresh juices, and unique syrups. Many remain mainstays at bars around the world.
Beach’s life story reads like a movie. He was a self-made adventurer, businessman, and decorated World War II veteran. After traveling through the South Pacific and the Caribbean, he formed his unique vision that became a global restaurant trend. This concept continues to thrive nearly a century later. The Donn of Tiki, an independent documentary film of his life, is in the works.
Renderings reveal plans for Don the Beachcomber in Central Florida
According to the press release, the first two Don the Beachcomber locations will open in Central Florida, where 23 Restaurant Services is already planning three new outposts of its popular Tiki Docks concept. We found details and artwork online that give us a sneak preview of the plans, which will combine both brands into a new waterfront concept.
The original Tiki Docks Bar and Grill locations opened in 2020 in Riverview (along the Alafia River near Tampa) and St. Petersburg (in the Maximo Marina), envisioned by Tampa’s SOL Design Studio. Both locations are a massive 15,000+ square feet and feature indoor and outdoor waterfront dining. The tropically-themed concept is known for its seafood, live music, and daily happy-hour specials. A third location, featuring access by boat, is under construction at Madeira Beach’s Cambria Hotel. It appears that this location will not be included in the Don the Beachcomber partnership.
A July 2021 story in Creative Loafing said 23 Restaurant Services is downsizing future locations, shooting for around 11,000 square feet split roughly equally between indoor and outdoor seating.
While touted as a “South Pacific tropical escape,” Tiki Docks doesn’t offer the authentic mid-century Tiki experience synonymous with the Don the Beachcomber name. The acquisition of the legendary brand appears to be a move to fill this void.
The first of these new combined restaurants scheduled to open appears to be the one planned for Viera, a master-planned community on the east coast in Brevard County, midway between Cocoa Beach and Melbourne. According to news reports in October, Tiki Docks Bar and Grill is set to open in 2023 in the Borrows West development, which touts waterfront dining as part of an ambitious mix of office, education, medical, retail, entertainment, hotel, and multi-family uses.
Brown, the 23 Restaurant Services president, told Hometown News Brevard that he was hopeful that construction would begin by the middle of 2023, with an opening in the fourth quarter possible in a best-case scenario. The restaurant will sit on a 2-acre property and include a 10,000-square-foot facility, Brown said.
We could find no other details on the Viera plans, but a search for news on the new Tiki Docks coming to the Orlando area yielded a treasure trove. Information and renderings confirm that Tiki Docks and Don the Beachcomber will join forces in a new waterfront concept in a small planned community near Walt Disney World.
Hamlin is an up-and-coming lakeside development in unincorporated southwest Orange County. Located inside the larger master-planned Horizon West, Hamlin is about 10 miles north of Disney World and 20 miles southwest of downtown Orlando.
On Jan. 26, Hamlin announced construction updates and a new partnership for a combined Tiki Docks and Don the Beachcomber along the shore of Lake Hancock. Renderings and video were posted on the website:
The Tiki Docks footprint will include more than 8,700 square feet for the restaurant and 3,700 square feet for an outdoor covered patio along the lake. Total capacity will be at least 300, according to the website post. The property faces the Hamlin Lake Boardwalk.
The location will allow guests “to take in the lake views and fireworks while enjoying the flavors of Tiki life,” the post says. The Atomic Grog was told last month by someone familiar with the overall plans that waterfront locations will be a priority, in keeping with the Tiki Docks theme.
The modern look of the Hamlin project is courtesy of Orlando-based Gravity Architecture and Design. The firm’s previous work includes Splitsville Luxury Lanes at Disney Springs and other high-profile clients, plus restraurants large and small.
Plans were submitted to Orange County, and construction is set to begin later this year, according to Hamlin’s website. “The restaurant will also be partnering with Don The Beachcomber as part of the brand, which will be reflected in the menu and experience that guests receive.”
Another source close to the project told us recently that the Don the Beachcomber experience inside Tiki Docks will be achieved via a vintage Tiki lounge, possible named “Dagger Bar” after Donn Beach’s watering hole in the International Marketplace in Waikiki. This is where you’ll get a full-blown vintage Tiki experience, including authentic cocktails. Other areas of Tiki Docks will have a more mainstream appeal, we were told.
23 Restaurant Services is also the parent company of Ford’s Garage (18 locactions in Florida, 24 in U.S.), and Yeoman’s Cask & Lion, a “British-inspired” pub with locations in Tampa and Kissimmee. There’s a Ford’s Garage – which specializes in beer, burgers and other comfort food – just down the street from the new Tiki Docks in Hamlin. A new Ford’s Garage is also planned for Borrows West in Viera.
No matter which new Tiki Docks location opens first, seeing the Don the Beachcomber legacy honored in Florida will be a welcome sight. It’s just a matter of time before we can enjoy the return of Donn Beach’s rum rhapsodies in their premiere performance before they head back out on the national stage.
BONUS COCKTAIL RECIPE
DON’S BEACH PLANTER
(By Don the Beachcomber / From Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari)
* 1 ounce aged Martinique rhum
* 1/4 ounce dark Jamaican rum
* 1/4 ounce cognac
* 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
* 1 ounce unsweetened pineapple juice
* 1/2 ounce passion fruit syrup
* 6 drops Pernod or Herbsaint
* 1 dash Angostura bitters
Blend with 4 ounces of crushed ice for no more than 5 seconds. Pour into a specialty glass or pilsner glass. Add more crushed ice to fill.
Also known as Don Beach, this cocktail was served at Don the Beachcomer in 1937 and gleaned from the personal notebook of maître d’ Dick Santiago by Tiki cocktail historian and author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. It remained a secret until the publication of Sippin’ Safari in 2007. Berry almost single-handedly revived the legend of Don the Beachcomer in his six books and app, spending years of research to crack the codes that Donn Beach used to keep his recipes secret.
I gave this drink 9 out of 10 stars on The Grogalizer when I first tasted it, and I stand by that rating. It’s an outstanding early example of Beach’s genius.
PLEASE DRINK RESPONSIBLY!
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