Like many recent years, 2023 was defined by loss, from a deadly natural disaster to the passing of a beloved artist. But there are two other words that better sum up 2023: Aspiration and revival. Among the year’s highlights are the return of three historic restaurants, the resurrection of a legendary rum, a groundbreaking cocktail book that looks ahead by honoring the past, plus an overall renewed appreciation for Tiki culture and cocktails. If nothing else, it gives us hope for an eventful 2024.
Related: The Year in Tiki 2023: A look back at the top events in photos, video
Bonus recipes below: Beachcomber Punch | Ray’s Mystique
1. TRAGEDY IN MAUI: Lahaina devastated by wildfires
Wildfires swept across the island of Maui on Aug. 8, killing at least 100 people in one of the nation’s deadliest disasters. The fires destroyed most of Lahaina – the original capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom – on the northwest coast. Residents fled as the blazes incinerated thousands of structures, causing more than $5 billion in damage.
Among the historic structures lost were the Old Lahaina Courthouse, Waiola Church, Pioneer Inn, and Kimo’s restaurant. Lahaina’s famous banyan tree, planted in 1873, had most of its foliage charred, though was still standing after the wildfires.
Before the fires, the Lahaina Historic District was a bustling tourist destination with stores and restaurants attracting many visitors. The district included 60 historic sites with Front Street ranked one of the “Top Ten Greatest Streets” by the American Planning Association. Lahaina was also a popular whale-watching site. It has a long history as a shipping and whaling town.
The wildfires were attributed to dry, gusty conditions created by a strong high-pressure area north of Hawaii, and Hurricane Dora to the south. The death toll is the largest for a wildfire in the United States since the Cloquet Fire of 1918 in northern Minnesota, which claimed 453 lives.
President Biden ordered the mobilization of “all available federal assets” to respond to the wildfires, including the Navy, Coast Guard, National Guard, and FEMA. Other countries pledged aid, and fund-raising efforts across the U.S. raised $30 million within 10 days. The Maui Strong Fund, which provides financial resources to support the immediate and long-term recovery needs for the people and places affected by the wildfires, has raised more than $177 million to date and awarded grants totaling more than $86 million.
The disaster was also a call to action for many in the Tiki community, which united for fund-raisers and other special events. From bars and restaurants, to concerts and special events, supporters rallied to help in any way they could. Mark Riddle donated profits from the sale of his Lahaina Sunset album, which was inspired by a trip to Maui.
In mid-December, the heart of Lahaina reopened to residents and business owners as the historic banyan tree began sprouting new leaves. As of late December, Lahaina opened its remaining schools and welcomed tourists back to areas unaffected by the fires. Maui county officials say rebuilding the burned structures won’t begin for another 18-24 months, and big-picture plans are hazy. Rebuilding completely, including replacing all of the lost structures, will cost an estimated $5.5 billion.
With the exception of Lahaina, Maui is open and there is plenty to see and experience, according to the GoHawaii.com website. Guests are urged to “visit with aloha, compassion and empathy,” and to support local businesses. The MauiNuiFirst.com website offers many other suggestions.
2. DON THE BEACHCOMBER: Anticipation for new restaurant chain, film and book reaches fever pitch
While slowly building for years, interest in the founding father of the 20th century Polynesian restaurant explosion went through the roof in 2023 as three major projects neared the finish line. By the end of the year, a new Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Southwest Florida was hiring staff and putting the final touches on construction. The Donn of Tiki documentary was 99 percent complete as the filmmakers finished up the end credits and licensing rights. Meanwhile, the manuscript for Tim “Swanky” Glazner’s book, Searching for Don the Beachcomber, was nearing the design and editing stages. After several years of non-stop work, these projects are now poised for a major splash in the new year and beyond.
The revival of the Don the Beachcomber brand took center stage after the announcement in February that Florida-based 23 Restaurant Services would be reviving the restaurant chain nationwide, beginning with multiple locations in the Sunshine State expected to open in the next several years. Skeptics were quickly assured of the legitimacy of the project when veteran bar manager Marie King was plucked from the venerable Tonga Hut to become director of beverage. In addition to leading the oldest Tiki bar in Los Angeles, King had previously built the cocktail program at the last Don the Beachcomber restaurant in the continental U.S., which closed in Huntington Beach, Calif., in 2018. The design of the new restaurants is in the capable hands of artist Daniel “Tiki Diablo” Gallardo, long admired for his expertise and craftsmanship in building traditional Tiki bar spaces.
After purchasing the brand, 23 Restaurant Services head honcho Marc Brown reached out to the filmmakers and Glazner, who helped him put together an advisory board to guide him and his team. It includes many movers and shakers in the modern Tiki community. Joining Glazner and Gallardo are author and historian Sven Kirsten, bar owner and author Martin Cate, artist and Tiki mug artist John “Eekum Bookum” Mulder, and podcaster and vlogger Adrian Eustaquio.
In August, Brown brought his whole team to Tiki Oasis in San Diego, where they launched an ambitious line of merchandise, including mugs, glassware, apparel, matchbooks, and lots more. King served up her modern spin on Donn Beach’s vintage cocktails while Gallardo joined creative director Justin Peterson in revealing artwork, renderings and plans for the upcoming locations.
Everyone came together during the sold-out presentation, The Legend Returns: Don the Beachcomber, on Aug. 4. Eustaquio hosted the event, which included segments by Glazner and The Donn of Tiki co-director Max Well. Guests saw a new trailer for the film, which was previewed in its entirety later that month at Tiki in Waikiki in Hawaii.
Backed by an outpouring of Kickstarter support, the project raised just shy of $200,000, far exceeding the $50,000 goal. Tax-deductible donations can still be made via the International Documentary Association. Zombie glasses, pins and posters are also for sale in the film’s online store.
After getting feedback, Well and co-director Alex Lamb from Surf Monkey Films made some tweaks and finished recording the score with exotica band The Hilo Hi-Flyers. The film’s music was overseen by Holly Amber Church, an Emmy nominated composer. It’s being produced by Taryn Roraback, with Glazer serving as associate producer. Plans for 2024 include submitting the finished documentary to key film festivals around the world.
Also in 2023, a book that details the early years of Don the Beachcomber was published by Karen Sund, daughter of Donn Beach’s first wife. Sunny Sund: The Woman Behind Don the Beachcomber, Inc.: A Hollywood Story explores Sund’s crucial role in establishing and expanding the restaurant empire built on Beach’s groundbreaking vision of a Polynesian paradise.
Meanwhile, Glazer said he hopes Searching for Don the Beachcomber will be published before the end of the year via Korero Press in the U.S., Europe and Australia. He has several other related projects in the works, including a limited-edition mug. Glazner also reached an agreement with the Bishop Museum in Honolulu to make his Donn Beach archive a permanent part of the collection. The archive came to him from Beach’s widow, Phoebe. Born in 1907 in Texas, Beach died June 7, 1989, in Honolulu.
The first of the new Don the Beachcomber restaurants is expected to open in February inside the Cambria Hotel in Madeira Beach. Plans call for more locations in Florida in 2025 and beyond.
This promises to be the most exciting year for Don the Beachcomber since the heyday of Donn himself.
NEW: Revived Don the Beachcomber brand opens first location in southwest Florida
The historic Polynesian-themed restaurant and bar concept re-launches in Madeira Beach, the first of several locations planned for Florida over the next several years.
>>> PREVIEW THE MENU, MORE INFO ON THE OPENING
See recipe below: Beachcomber Punch
* Don the Beachcomber restaurants: Official website | Online store | Facebook | Instagram
* The Donn of Tiki: Official website | Instagram | Facebook
* Searching for Don the Beachcomber: Official website | Instagram | Facebook
Sunshine State emerges as epicenter of Tiki revival in 2024
Florida will quickly become a must-visit destination with the addition of Tiki-a-Go-Go, the return of The Mai-Kai, and the revival of the Don the Beachcomber brand.
3. ROLLY CRUMP (1930-2023): Eccentric Disney artist left mark on pop culture
Rolly Crump, a Disney animator and Imagineer for more than 40 years, died on March 12 at age 93. Best known for his work on the Haunted Mansion, Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, and the Adventureland Bazaar, Crump left a legacy of quirky and whimsical designs that continue to entertain generations. He was a key member of the teams that designed early Disneyland and Disney World attractions, as well as Disney’s contributions to the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair.
Roland Fargo Crump was an irreverent, free-thinking young artist when he joined the Walt Disney Studio in 1952 at age 22. The animator was moved to the Imagineering department in 1959 after he caught the eye of Walt himself with his oddball displays of spinning objects. Crump’s little whirligigs later became the inspiration for the Tower of the Four Winds, an iconic element outside It’s a Small World when the attraction made its debut at the World’s Fair. He designed the centerpiece animated clock facade when It’s a Small World moved to Disneyland.
Also catching Walt Disney’s eye was Crump’s surrealistic Museum of the Weird concept. While the attraction was never built, many of his concepts ended up in the Haunted Mansion. In 1963, Crump was among the Imagineers tasked by Walt to create a restaurant with South Seas décor. As Crump sculpted Tiki gods and his co-workers created birds that talked and sang, the concept soon took on a life of its own and became the original Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland, the world’s first Audio-Animatronic attraction.
Crump’s designs – such as fire goddess Pele and mistress of rain Hina Kaluua – are Enchanted Tiki Room staples and seminal influences on modern Polynesian Pop art. His influence continues to be felt in the Tiki world, from the Trader Sam’s Tiki bars at Disneyland and Disney World to modern Tiki mug designs. Crump was said to be a fierce believer in theme parks as places of living art, insisting that they belonged to the artists who designed them rather than the companies that owned them.
Crump, who left Disney several times to launch his own company and work on projects around the world, retired in 1996 but continued to consult on creative projects. He was named a Disney Legend in 2004. His autobiography, It’s Kind of a Cute Story, was published in 2012. After the positive reception to the book, he continued to share his life story and thoughts on Disney and his art at many events (including Tiki Oasis 2014) and video shows over the years.
- Obituaries, remembrances: The Walt Disney Company | Walt Disney Family Museum | The Hollywood Reporter | Variety | Los Angeles Times
- Share condolences on Legacy.com
4. THE MAI-KAI: Historic restaurant’s renovation heads for home stretch
The ongoing reimagination of The Mai-Kai in South Florida may be stuck at No. 4 on this annual list of top Tiki stories for the second straight year. But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been significant progress on the multi-year, multimillion-dollar project. Quite the contrary. As our detailed coverage all year shows, not a month has gone by that a major job hasn’t advanced at the 2.7-acre property, which is registered as both a local and national historic landmark.
The first major milestones came in January, but not on the construction site. The city of Oakland Park’s Historic Preservation Board unanimously approved the ambitious project, which will not only restore the interior guest spaces to their vintage glory, but also allow for the construction of a new back-of-house kitchen and bar, plus a new A-frame building to house special events. The event space and full kitchen were later pushed to phase 2, but approval of the overall plan was crucial. We were privileged to present details of the project at Inuhele in Atlanta.
Later in January, approval by the city’s Development Review Committee was the last bureaucratic hurdle, funneling the plans into the appropriate departments. Final approval of all the major permits finally came in March, clearing the way for the new infrastructure and the removal of a long-dormant, stand-alone building that stood in the way of the transformation of the parking lot and entry experience. Meanwhile, fellow Florida artist Scott “Flounder” Scheidly joined creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller’s team, creating a dynamic duo that continues to meticulously restore seemingly every square inch of the 23,582-square-foot space.
The Bora Bora Room building, added just a few years after the 1956 opening but heavily damaged and unused since a 2005 hurricane, came down in April. Meanwhile, the design crew starting ticking projects off their list, from the 150-capacity Molokai bar to several of The Mai-Kai’s eight themed dining areas. Painters, woodworkers and even a local tattoo artist lent their talents to the detailed restoration. The massive job of upgrading the 50-year-old electrical and air-conditioning systems progressed, albeit slowly. But once done, these modern enhancements will allow The Mai-Kai to operate like a well-oiled machine.
It should also be noted that in the midst this massive project, manager Kern Mattei (with PR director Pia Dahlquist) continued to crank out to-go cocktails and merchandise on designated dates throughout the year. The entire Mai-Kai team had a presence at The Hukilau weekender in June, which included a reunion of Molokai servers. Work expanded during the summer to include the creative replication of vintage decor by Conrad Teheiura Itchener, a craftsman and former musician in the house band. Meanwhile, Allsmiller and Scheidly plowed through dozens and dozens of restorations and replications of The Mai-Kai’s nearly 200 vintage hanging lamps.
Allsmiller and Mattei joined The Atomic Grog at Tiki Oasis in San Diego August, showing The Mai-Kai plans at a special presentation and enjoying the appreciation of Tiki enthusiasts on the West Coast. The respite was brief, however, as a major refurbishment of the porte-cochère enveloped the team for the next several months. By September, Allsmiller’s artistic vision for the space began to appear with newly designed beams and faux bamboo poles joining classic restored elements such as 1950s-era lighted panels.
City, county and state approvals finally allowed the massive parking lot project to begin in September, starting with the removal and replacement of the entire drainage system. By the end of the year, a new 8-foot privacy wall stretched across the rear of the property while crews tore up all of the old asphalt, including the porte-cochère. In addition to a new traffic flow and roundabout to handle incoming cars, the plans include turning the porte-cochère into an outdoor seating area with a new bar.
In the waning months of the year, multiple milestones were reached. A new air-conditioning system became fully operational, cooling the building for the first time since the October 2020 closing precipitated by a roof collapse over the kitchen. The porte-cochère was transformed as the design team moved on to restoring The Mai-Kai’s signature showroom, which sits under the 67-year-old, 40-foot A-frame and hosts the Polynesian Islander Revue, the oldest continually-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States (including Hawaii).
It’s still unclear exactly when we’ll once again be able to enjoy the show. We do know that it will continue to be directed by Mireille Thornton, an original performer from the 1962 show and matriarch of the founding Thornton family. If all goes according to plan, we’ll be toasting The Mai-Kai’s return from inside The Molokai bar not too long before mid-2024. Follow the progress this year in our exclusive guide.
5. APPLETON ESTATE LEGEND 17: Jamaican distillery recreates iconic rum used in original Mai Tai
It’s hard to imagine a rum with more reverence and lore than J. Wray & Nephew 17-year-old, the iconic bottle that Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron famously pulled off the shelf in 1944 to make what’s purported to be the original Mai Tai. We won’t get into the arguments about the drink’s origin and possible link to earlier cocktails by Don the Beachcomber. That’s another rabbit hole entirely. Check out UltimateMaiTai.com for more history and deep dives.
What’s indisputable is that Bergeron’s version eventually became a classic, even more so after the modern cocktail revival rescued the drink from its descent into second-rate knockoffs. While the dark days of the cocktail turned the Mai Tai into a generic boat drink featuring any number of ingredients, today’s craft and Tiki scene has put it on a pedestal and treats the recipe with a great deal of respect. This includes, of course, the rum(s) that can make or break a Mai Tai.
Bergeron is said of have created his Mai Tai specifically to showcase the 17-year-old rum from Jamaica. “The flavor of this great rum wasn’t meant to be overpowered with heavy additions of fruit juices and flavorings,” Bergeron is quoted as saying. Unfortunately, 17-year-old J. Wray & Nephew rum didn’t last long. Soon after the cocktail’s debut, the supply of the rare pot-still rum ran low, and Bergeron replaced it with a 15-year-old Wray & Nephew rum. This, too, was short lived. The burgeoning Trader Vic’s restaurant empire turned to a blend of Jamaican and Martinique rums as the standard.
The subject of which particular rums should and/or could be used in the classic recipe has been an endless source of debate. At least one rum was created specifically for this purpose, while many of the world’s top bars and mixologists swear by a particular blend. The genius of the Mai Tai is that it allows for this endless experimentation with different rums. But inevitably, discussion would always circle back to Wray & Nephew 17, which acquired holy grail status. Bottles have reportedly been sold at auction for close to $50,000.
Wray & Nephew 15 also attained cult status. Bars lucky enough to have a vintage bottle of either rum in their vaults have offered an ultra-premium Mai Tai, most recently at The Bamboo Room in Chicago (Why Does This Mai Tai From a Famed Chicago Tiki Bar Cost $800?). This was the climate in the rum and cocktail world last year when Jamaica’s Appleton Estate, the flagship distillery and rum brand owned by Wray & Nephew, dropped its bombshell in April.
The new limited edition-rum, Appleton Estate Legend 17, is intended as a re-creation of the legendary 17-year-old rum crafted by J. Wray & Nephew in the 1940s. Distilled in 2005 and bottled in 2022, this one-time release was limited to 1,500 bottles of the 98-proof, 100 percent pot-still rum (the same specs as the original). On May 17, full details were revealed, including Appleton’s use of four rare distillates that come as close as possible to replicating the 1940s-era rum.
The rum was crafted by Joy Spence, Appleton’s legendary master blender since 1997. She learned her craft from her predecessor, Owen Tulloch, who held onto a copy of the 17-year-old rum’s formula. Using that formula, Spence and her team were able to revive the four special marques in the blend. The process was extremely difficult, and one of the marques is unlike anything used today, leading to the limited production run.
After 17 years in Appleton Estate’s aging warehouse in ex-American oak barrels, just 10 full barrels of rum remained. That’s enough for the 1,500 bottles (with a suggested retail price of $500 for 750 ml) but no more, possibly creating a future generation’s holy grail. Appleton Estate Legend 17 was released worldwide in June.
After an initial sale via NFTs (a type of cryptocurrency), criticized by some as being exclusionary, there were plenty of bottles available through normal channels at retail and hospitality accounts. It wasn’t unusual to see rum fans on social media touting their purchase at a local store. Bars and restaurants were also getting in on the action, hosting tasting events that made sampling this rare release more affordable for many.
Beyond the expected criticism of the price and limited quantity, the reaction was universally positive. After tasting Legend 17 in a Mai Tai at Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, Kevin Crossman declared on The Search for the Ultimate Mai Tai blog that the cocktail was much more flavorful than the bar’s previous world-class version. “It lingers so long on the palette and it’s a taste that is simply unlike any rum or blend I’ve ever tried,” Crossman said. Not surprisingly, it ended the year as No. 1 on his list of best Mai Tais. Is it the best ever? That’s for history to decide.
- More news, reviews: The Drinks Business | Rum Wonk | The Rumcast | Paste Magazine | The Educated Barfly | Drinkhacker
- Related: Mai Tai recipes on The Atomic Grog
6. TIKI-TI: Beloved tropical cocktail haven honored at Tales of the Cocktail
The craft cocktail intelligentsia has long pooh-poohed tropical mixology and the influence of classic Tiki barmen. Sure, modern-day establishments have drawn acclaim, and the Tiki cocktail revival’s biggest influences (Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, Martin Cate, et al.) have earned their seat at the bar. But if you were truly old school, forget about it. That all changed in July during the 17th annual Spirited Awards at the Tales of the Cocktail event in New Orleans. That’s when the beloved Tiki-Ti, the Los Angeles bastion of mid-century tropical drinks and a direct link back to Don the Beachcomber, finally got its due.
The 62-year-old landmark was honored by the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation with the Timeless U.S. Award, given to legacy establishments open at least 30 years and making an indelible mark on the community. Mike Buhen Jr. – grandson of founder Ray Buhen (1909-1999) and son of longtime owner Mike Buhen Sr. – accepted the award with the same nonchalant manner that makes “The Ti” so endearing for generations for guests. His family runs the cozy, 12-stool bar hand-built by grandpa Ray in 1961 like the unpretentious neighborhood joint that it is.
But Hollywood is no ordinary neighborhood, and the Tiki-Ti is no ordinary watering hole. Its influence exceeds its footprint ten-fold. “The Tiki-Ti is not only a beloved local institution, it’s a neighborhood bar with a global reputation,” said Berry, a Tiki-Ti patron since 1980, in presenting the award. After accepting, Buhen simply proposed a toast: “On behalf of the Buhen family and our extended Tiki-Ti family, here’s to another 62 years.” Click here or below to see the presentation.
The elder Buhen was born in the Philippines, emigrating to the United States at age 21. Like other influential Filipino bartenders, he learned his craft at the original Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood in the 1930s. He then took his talents to a who’s who of Southern California establishments that sprung up during the Polynesian craze: the Seven Seas, Christian’s Hut, Sugie’s Tropics, The Luau, et al.
His wife convinced him to open the Tiki-Ti instead of a bartending school in her father’s old violin-repair shop on Sunset Boulevard. The rest is history. Buhen’s loyal regulars were soon joined by stragglers from the movie studio down the street. The studio later closed, but stars (Marlon Brando, Burt Reynolds, Nicolas Cage, Quentin Tarantino, et al.) continued to flock to the Tiki-Ti, rubbing elbows with regulars and tourists smitten by the one-of-a-kind cocktails. The menu boasts more than 90 drinks, a mix of Ray Buhen’s originals and his own take on tropical classics. The bar famously serves these drinks exclusively. No beer, no wine.
Before Ray retired at age 88, his son Mike Buhen Sr. took over the business, not only keeping his father’s spirit alive but also the secret recipes and the undeniable camaraderie that comes along with a visit to the Tiki-Ti. Mike Buhen Jr. is now firmly established as the third generation, and the Tiki-Ti has even hired the first non-Buhen to sling its signature drinks. But it remains very much a family affair, a rare and – recognized by Tales of the Cocktail – timeless achievement.
See recipe below: Ray’s Mystique, the Tropical Standard tribute to the Tiki-Ti’s Ray’s Mistake
* Official sites: Tiki-Ti.com | Instagram | Facebook
* Tiki-Ti history, reviews: Discover Los Angeles | Scoundrel’s Field Guide | Tiki With Ray | My Tiki Life
7. ROYAL HAWAIIAN: Historic Southern California restaurant restored to vintage glory
It’s hard to find a better location for an immersive restaurant with South Seas flair than Southern California’s Pacific Coast Highway. That’s apparently what World War II veterans Francis Cabang and Harold “Hal” Hanna thought when they opened the Royal Hawaiian in Laguna Beach in 1947 in a building that dates back to 1919. Miraculously, the original version of the restaurant survived under Cabang’s watch until it closed in 2006.
New owners took over, unfortunately changing the interior decor dramatically (for the worse if you’re a fan of classic Tiki style). The Royal Hawaiian closed again in 2012. It changed hands two more times with the new owners adding, then taking away, Polynesian-style theming. After an alleged dispute with the property landlords, the chef owner sold out in the fall of 2022 to Los Angeles-based Boulevard Hospitality Group.
Considering the restaurant’s recent rocky history, this was seemingly not a good sign. Tikiphiles rejoiced, however, when it was announced that the new owners planned to restore the Royal Hawaiian’s legacy of vintage South Seas decor, food, and cocktails. Notch Gonzalez (Top Notch Kustoms) and his design team rebuilt both the interior and exterior with TLC, incorporating artifacts (a blowfish from 1949, the original liquor license and deed) into the restoration. Gonzalez is an acclaimed designer with past credits that include Smuggler’s Cove (San Francisco), Inside Passage (Seattle), Dr. Funk (San Jose), and False Idol (San Diego).
“When I design a space it’s important that everything is custom and hand-made, that nothing is ordered from a catalog,” Gonzalez was quoted as saying. “This customization gives the build a one-of-a-kind look and feel that can’t be duplicated anywhere else.” Distinctive features of the old Royal Hawaiian included large outdoor carvings created in the 1960s by noted California artist Andreas Bumatay. Gonzalez tasked carver Vic Hernandez with duplicating the originals. “Vic ended up carving over nine additional tikis inside, including a 14-foot Hawaiian Ku tiki that looks over the front door,” Gonzalez said.
The 115-seat space also features carvings from the original Royal Hawaiian by the late LeRoy Schmaltz of Oceanic Arts, plus the work of contemporary artists including Woody Greenwood, Anders Anderson, and Gecko. Author Sven Kirsten (The Book of Tiki, Tiki Pop) happily reports that the restaurant “has finally returned to its roots of complete exotic immersion. From first stepping inside, you enter a bamboo paradise and are surrounded by natural textures and intriguing South Seas artifacts.”
Boulevard Hospitality tapped Chef JaeHee Lee to create an eclectic menu that includes not only Hawaiian dishes but also Korean, Filipino, Chamorro, Japanese, and other island cultures. The menu also features nods to the past, such as Huli Huli Inasal – barbecue chicken smoked on a traditional charcoal broiler as they did in 1947. The chef made sure to bring back the homey Hawaiian food that made the restaurant a classic, including Loco Moco, Royal Ribs, and the original Royal Hawaiian salad dressing.
The bar program was revived by New York City veteran Dushan Zaric (Employees Only, Macao Trading Co.), who not only brought back the original Lapu Lapu and Bali Bali, but also created an approachable menu of tropical libations both classic and modern. The restored and rejuvenated Royal Hawaiian opened on June 10 and has received glowing reviews in the months since. “With a giant clamshell bench in the lobby, jade tiles, colored lights, thatched elements and a 45-foot bar with stunning lit shelves, the interior is a sight to behold – and so are the cocktails,” according to Laguna Beach Magazine.
- Official sites: RoyalHawaiianOC.com | Instagram | Facebook
- Royal Hawaiian history, reviews: The Best of Laguna Beach | Laguna Beach Magazine | Eater | My Tiki Life
8. TIKI BARS: Openings, closings, sales mark busy year
There seems to be no slowing down the Tiki train as new bar openings continue to be at least a monthly occurrence, if not more. Sure, there’s always an unfortunate closing here and there, but the rapid increase over the past few years shows no signs of waning. There may be a few reasons for this.
Traditionalists may scoff, but one of the key factors driving the proliferation of what most people would call “Tiki bars” in recent years is the genre’s newfound malleability. In the modern bar scene, it can be risky to adhere to a rigid concept, especially in certain markets. Luckily, “Tiki” as a broad concept offers the best of both worlds. If done right, there’s nothing like a classic Tiki bar, a pure escapist experience with a relaxing atmosphere and world-class cocktails. For some operators, however, veering off into a “Tiki adjacent” concept may be the better option.
As the knowledge and quality of tropical cocktails reaches more and more markets, an increasing number of savvy bar operators are wisely embracing the genre. Their knowledge of the craft and its history has increased, fortunately. No longer do we see embarrassing attempts at a Polynesian theme. More often, we’re seeing a similar exotic experience but with a slightly less traditional angle. The current hot trends are nautical and/or pirates, along with interactive special effects..
The notable openings this year show that freewheeling spirit: Permanent Vacation in Central Florida, Stray Pirate in Las Vegas, and Paradise Lost in New York City. Luckily, many of today’s new bars show an appreciation for classic Tiki style and try to keep as much as possible. Here, then, is a recap of last year’s activity at bars and restaurants around the world that caught our attention, roughly in chronological order …
OPENINGS: Honi Honi Tiki Lounge in Edmonton (Canada); Kapu Bar in Petaluma, Calif.; Tiki Hideaway and Tiki Bao in Liverpool (UK); Paradise Lost in Sheffield (UK); Dead Lagoon in Detroit (pop-up); Golden Monkey in Las Vegas; Tiki Tock in New Orleans; Pufferfish in Milwaukee; Kiki’s Tiki Bar in Honolulu; Permanent Vacation in Maitland, Fla.; The Daytrader in Seaside, Fla.; Stowaway (new location) in Tustin, Calif.; Duke’s Hideaway in Atlanta; Shipwrecked Tiki Bar in Davis, Calif.; ShipWreck 7th in Fort Worth, Texas; Tiki Taps in Darwen (UK); Stray Pirate in Las Vegas; The Barbary in Oakland, Calif.; Anchor Drops in Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Paradise Lost in New York City; Tiki Tiki on Whyte in Edmonton (Canada); Paradise Grotto in Toronto (Canada); Tucana Tiki Bar in Birmingham, Ala.; Boo Loo Lounge in Orinda, Calif.; and The Friki Tiki in New York City.
CHANGES: Owner Rod Moore sold The Shameful Tiki Room (Vancouver and Toronto) to the Tribe Called Zest Hospitality Group. Restaurant group Gorilla Cinema sold Tiki Tiki Bang Bang (Cincinnati) to longtime manager Michael Stelzner and his partners.
CLOSINGS: Lost River in Detroit; Archipelago in Washington, D.C.; Fuchsia Tiki Bar in New Paltz, N.Y.; The Kon-Tiki Room in Oakland, Calif.; and The Liars Club in Manchester in the United Kingdom. Trad’r Sam in San Francisco – considered to be the country’s oldest Tiki bar – briefly closed over a family ownership dispute, but later reopened.
9. TIKI EVENTS: Tiki Kon says farewell, new gatherings proliferate
It’s official. After three years of cancellations, postponements and reorganizing caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the 2023 calendar included not only the return of nearly every major event, but also the addition of smaller regional one- and multi-day festivals and Tiki-inspired happenings. New events included Exotikon in Los Angeles, Resort-O-Rama in Santa Rosa, Calif.; Louisiana Tiki Fest in Baton Rouge; Lei Away in Kansas City; plus more Tiki-adjacent activities centered on music, cocktails and rum.
It wasn’t too long ago that an annual calendar of Tiki events would include just a handful of dates, including torch-bearers like Tiki Kon. Change is inevitable, unfortunately, and the Portland event that began 20 years ago as a home bar crawl hosted its final weekend bash in July 2023. Fortunately, that’s the exception and not the rule. With COVID restrictions a thing of the past and enthusiasm for TIki culture continuing to gain new followers, a plethora of new events are springing up around the globe.
In announcing the Tiki Kon 2023 theme as “the final voyage,” organizers Greg Clapp and Justin DuPré sadly admitted that the event they had organized for the past 10 years would be sailing into the sunset. Started in 2002 as the Northwest Tiki Crawl, the gathering evolved into a full weekend festival “celebrating exotic tropical destinations and the Tiki bars, cocktails, art, music and fashions they inspire.” In the wake of the 20th anniversary event, the official website touts the return of the home bar tour in 2024, plus more modest events in the Pacific Northwest under the Tiki Kon banner.
While the trend seems to be toward smaller regional and niche events, the retirement of Tiki Kon seems to be an outlier as all the major Tiki weekenders continue to thrive. These include Inuhele in Atlanta in January, Arizona Tiki Oasis in Scottsdale in April, Tiki Caliente in Palm Springs in May, The Hukilau in South Florida and Ohana: Luau At The Lake in upstate New York in June, Tiki Oasis in San Diego in July/August, and Tiki in Waikiki in Honolulu in August.
In 2024, you can add to this list the first annual Tiki-a-Go-Go (April 5-7 in Orlando) plus the return of Exotikon (June 8-9) and plenty of medium sized-sized events (Makahiki in Indianapolis and Tiki Fever in Sarasota, to name a few). There’s truly an event for everyone in most parts of the country. But if not, just do what so many are doing these days and organize your own Tiki party. There’s no shortage of entertainers and bands, expert speakers, bartenders and – most importantly – enthusiastic guests to go around.
10. TROPICAL STANDARD: Book pushes the envelope of creativity, technique
The tropical cocktail genre features many tried-and-true conventions, traditions and practices that have enabled it to climb back from the oblivion of the 1970s and ’80s de-evolution and become one of the most engaging bar trends of the 21st century. But often a staid culture and attitude can stifle creativity and growth, leading to stagnation. Sometimes, a little revolution may be just what’s needed.
Who better to lead a revolution of tropical cocktail mixology than Garret Richard? This quiet and unassuming New York City bartender has a deep appreciation for Tiki culture and its classic canon. But for much of his career, he’s been immersed in the latest modern techniques and forward-thinking cocktail concepts. These worlds collide in Tropical Standard, an ambitious book co-written with Ben Schaffer and released May 16 to an audience thirsty for new ideas.
In preparation for this role, Richard learned from the best in the business, most notably Dave Arnold (author of Liquid Intelligence) at Existing Conditions. Along the way, he also developed an iron-clad reverence for the history and importance of classic Tiki. That’s what makes Tropical Standard so significant. It’s definitely not just another cocktail book. Tropical Standard treads new ground with its emphasis on technique and modern methods such as acid- and sugar-adjusting, citrus clarification, and adding salt to cocktails.
To prove their meddle, Richard and Schaffer hit the road for book signings and pop-up events across the United States featuring cocktails from the book, often crafted by Richard himself. We caught the pair at the tail end of their journey at Esotico Miami in October, an event that featured a flight of reinvented classics. These are the cocktails that get us excited. The best drinks we’ve made from the book so far are Richard’s thoughtful reinventions of such seemingly sacrosanct recipes as Don’s Special Daiquiri, The Mai-Kai’s Black Magic, and Ray’s Mistake from the Tiki-Ti (see recipe below).
Richard also revives the maligned blender by employing common-sense methods, plus a special technique using the thickening agent xanthan gum (see video above, or click here). He reinvented The Mai-Kai’s frozen Derby Daiquiri as a standard Daiquiri with orange syrup, inspiring our new tribute recipe. He also takes on such new concepts as savory and stirred tropical drinks.
There’s no shortage of “ah-ha moments” in Tropical Standard, from the tips on shaking and flash blending with ice, to making syrups and cordials. The book is written clearly, concisely and with enough humor to keep it from becoming too dry and “textbooky.” The layout is also clear and easy to use. While I’d prefer to see the book filled with traditional Tiki design and glassware, I understand the stylistic choice they needed to make in order to achieve mass commercial acceptance.
Tropical Standard goes deep down many rabbit holes in regards to technique and barware, but the basic requirements are simple and easy purchases if you don’t have them already. Above all, what the book really requires from the reader is an open and creative mind.
- Official sites: TropicalStandard.com | Instagram | Facebook
- Buy the book on Amazon (Atomic Grog affiliate link)
- Tropical Standard news, reviews: Alcohol Professor | The Search for the Ultimate Mai Tai | Spirits and Cocktail Community
- Podcasts, vlogs: The Educated Barfly | Radio Imbibe | Music and Booze With Mo | The Speakeasy | TuneInTiki
- Garret Richard with Hurricane Hayward on Spike’s Breezeway
BONUS COCKTAIL RECIPES
It’s fitting that we toast 2023 with cocktails from the master (Donn Beach) and the young apprentice (Garret Richard). As detailed above, the Don the Beachcomber legacy is finally getting a much-needed reboot. Meanwhile, Richard is taking inspiration from Beach and other pioneers to shape his groundbreaking new approach to tropical mixology.
We’ll start with an obscure Don the Beachcomber recipe that was published in the newly released book on Donn Beach’s first wife, Sunny Sund. The biography was written by Karen Sund, Sunny’s daughter from her second marriage, along with author Cindi Neisinger.
(By Don the Beachcomber)
From Sunny Sund: The Woman Behind Don the Beachcomber, Inc.: A Hollywood Story
- 1/2 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
- 1/2 ounce rich simple syrup (2 parts sugar, 1 part water)
- 1 ounce dark Jamaican rum
- 1 ounce dark Puerto Rican rum
- 1/2 teaspoon grenadine
- 1/2 teaspoon falernum
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- 1 dash Pernod (or absinthe)
Pulse blend for 5 seconds with a heaping cup of crushed ice. Pour unstrained into a tall glass containing one cup of crushed ice. Garnish with a swizzle stick. Feel free to add some fresh mint, plus a speared pineapple and cherry.
A complex Planters Punch riff with signature Don the Beachcomber flavors. The rich rum and spices are tempered by the lime and deft use of syrups, resulting in a bold and refreshing classic.
The recipes in the Sunny Sund book are generally from the early days of Don the Beachcomber, so this version likely pre-dates the version in Hawai’i – Tropical Rum Drinks & Cuisine (2001) by Donn’s widow, Phoebe Beach. Beachcomber’s Punch (note the possessive punctuation) features the same eight ingredients, plus honey cream mix. We find this older verison superior – bigger, bolder and more balanced.
Balance is the key, so we took some liberties with the published recipe and fine-tuned the measurements. The book calls for “a splash” of each of the final four ingredients (Phoebe Beach’s book calls for dashes), which is too vague for our tastes. If our more exact measures above don’t work for you, feel free to adjust.
A side note: There’s another authentic Beachcomber’s Punch recipe, published by Beachbum Berry in Grog Log and Remixed and dated 1937. It’s a fine cocktail, but it features only four of the same ingredients, adding grapefruit juice, brandy and a different rum. Beach was known to tinker with his drinks ad nauseam, so it’s definitely possible that all of these are correct.
Ingredient notes: Fresh lime and high-quality syrups will give you a solid foundation. Fee Brothers makes falernum and grenadine in a similar style to what Don the Beachcomber would have used back in the day. They need to be rich to hold up to the rums, anise and bitters. Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 Formula Falernum from Orgeat Works is another good option.
The rums: Combining dark Jamaican and dark Puerto Rican rums is a throwback to Donn Beach’s days, when there were more rich (often pot-still) Puerto Rican mixing rums. One of the most effective examples of this combo is The Mai-Kai’s Black Magic. We typically recommend Bacardi Black as the best option for dark Puerto Rican rum in cocktails like these. But there are other brands on the market, such as Ron Carlos Black and Ron Corina Black.
We felt this cocktail needed a big and boozy flavor boost from the Jamaican rum, so we went with the 114-proof Smith & Cross, a funky pot-still flavor bomb that has enough firepower to make itself known with just 1 ounce. Beach most likely would have used 97-proof Dagger or another high-octane rum of the day. Luckily, we now have some comparable options, so employ your favorite and enjoy.
More on The Atomic Grog
* More than 40 Don the Beachcomber cocktail recipes
- 5 drops salt solution
- 6 drops BIttermens Orange Cream Citrate Bitters
- 1/4 ounce passion fruit puree or syrup
- 3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
- 1/4 ounce vanilla syrup
- 3/4 ounce pineapple syrup
- 1 1/2 ounces London dry gin
- 1 1/2 ounces soda water
- 1/2 ounce Coruba dark Jamaican rum
Combine all but Coruba in a mixing tin with 8 ounces of crushed ice. Flash blend for 5 seconds and pour unstrained into a chilled Collins or Zombie glass (15 ounces) containing 4 ounces of crushed ice. Float the rum. Garnish with a pineapple wedge speared with a cherry.
Tasting notes: Refreshing and unique. It’s hard to find a flaw with this pefectly balanced tribute to the Tiki-Ti classic. It has a rich mouthfeel, yet it’s also very drinkable with a light and citrusy profile. If you’ve never been to the Tiki-Ti, this will explain the popularity of this signature drink that has inspired not just one, but two paintings by the artist Shag.
The backstory: Ray’s Mistake was accidentally created in 1968 when Tiki-Ti founder Ray Buhen mixed up the ingredients when making an Anting Anting cocktail for a customer. Rather than have Ray pour it out, the customer insisted on drinking it and loved it. Ray’s Mistake was soon added to the menu and eventually became the bar’s most beloved drink.
Buhen passed away in 1999, but his son Mike Buhen Sr. and grandson Mike Buhen Jr. keep his spirit alive with more than 90 tropical cocktails, many still using the original secret recipes. Every Wednesday features the Ray’s Mistake on special and a toast to Ray, the “Master Ninja,” at 9 p.m. See more history above in top story No. 6 about the Tiki-Ti’s award at Tales of the Cocktail 2023.
The cocktail: While the Tiki-Ti keeps its recipes a closely guarded secret, a 2020 menu included drink descriptions for the first time. Ray’s Mistake was touted as featuring “passion, lime, gin, dark Jamaican rum float, and our secret flavoring which has a hint of vanilla.” Many have also pointed out the flavor of pineapple and identified the rum float as the distinctive Coruba.
But even that information is not enough to craft a world-class cocktail. Enter Tropical Standard, the book by New York City mixologist Garret Richard and cocktail writer Ben Schaffer that puts a modern spin on many revered classics, including Ray’s Mistake. For more on the book, see top story No. 10 above. “The Ti is a rare opportunity not only to enjoy midcentury tropicals made right, but to study their making,” the authors write in the book.
The ingredients: Richard is very exacting about many key cocktail components, and for good reason. His reverence for classic recipes is matched only by his adaptations using modern techniques. Don’t skip the salt. It’s key in uniting all the diverse flavors into a coherent (and tasty) whole. Richard’s standard solution is 20 grams of salt to 80 grams of water.
BIttermens Orange Cream Citrate Bitters is also essential. It’s sweeter than standard orange bitters, with creamy sour and tart notes. It combines with the passion fruit, vanilla and pineapple to create a unique flavor that gives this cocktail its mysterious edge. Richard speculates that the Tiki Ti uses a gold fassionola. He might not be wrong.
Tropical Standard calls specifically for unsweetened passion fruit puree and the book’s proprietary vanilla-sandalwood and pineapple gum syrups. While we wholeheartedly encourge you to follow the recipe exactly, we were more than happy with a version of this cocktail featuring our homemade passion fruit syrup (made from puree) along with bottled vanilla (BG Reynolds) and pineapple (Real) syrups.
Strained lime juice is also encouraged, but we didn’t find it necessary. Just make sure the juice is fresh squeezed. Ford’s Gin is called for by name, but any quality London dry gin should work well. At first sip, you immediately taste the juniper notes along with the pineapple. Coruba is a classic dark Jamaican rum, not too funky or aggressive but full of rich flavor. If you can’t find a bottle, I would opt for another 80-proof rum in the same style, such as Myers’s or Blackwell.
Even in modified form, this is a true classic in our book. It’s the perfect example of the genius of both Ray Buhen and Garret Richard.
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