While California may still be king of the hill with its abundance of classic and modern Tiki bars, constant events and confluence of Polynesian Pop’s movers and shakers, another sunny state on the opposite side of the country is quickly becoming a must-visit destination for more than its beaches and theme parks.
This weekend’s return of Tiki Fever in Sarasota reminds us of all the things that make Florida a hot spot for seekers of a vintage experience. The event takes place at a classic retro resort and the state’s oldest Tiki bar (Bahi Hut). It includes four days of revelry featuring top bands, presenters, vendors, and more. It’s a relatively new event, celebrating its third gathering Thursday-Sunday, Oct. 5-8.
But next year is when it really heats up. A promising new weekender, Tiki-a-Go-Go, will debut in April in Orlando. The state’s vanguard Tiki event, The Hukilau, will return to southeast Florida in June.
Early 2024 should also mark the return of perhaps the state’s No. 1 destination for fans of classic Tiki, the revered Mai-Kai Restaurant and Polynesian Show. If that’s not enough, Florida is ground zero for the resurrection of the Don the Beachcomber restaurant brand. The Florida-based parent company plans to open as many as five new locations in the state between now and the end of next year.
Sure, we’re still home to the ubiquitous “Florida Man,” often oppressive humidity, and increasingly questionable politics. But for all the reasons above, and more outlined below, Florida deserves to become a must-visit destination for fans of classic Tiki as well as the modern revival.
Here’s a preview of the state’s three major weekenders, plus a roundup of other events of interest. (Florida-based artists, musicians and businesses are highlighted throughout the rest of this story with links.)
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.
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:
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.