About Tiki

First things first: what, exactly, is a tiki?
A tiki carving

In the most basic terms, a tiki is a Polynesian god, or more commonly, a physical representation of a Polynesian ancestor figure, usually carved in wood or stone. The Polynesian islands are spread out over a whole lot of ocean, and there are many different Polynesian cultures, each with its own figures and mythology.

However, the tiki that Critiki is concerned with is a little different:
it's a shorthand reference to a mainland American phenomenon.

In the mid-20th century, Polynesia was a mysterious, exotic place — or at least it was to your everyday American. An idealized version of Polynesian culture was created on the mainland, featuring lush, over-the-top themed environments, just like stepping into a tropical vacation. Initially this was just in bars and restaurants, but eventually it spread to places like bowling alleys, minature golf courses, and ultimately the very homes & backyards of America. The country was recovering from a war and looking to build a bright, new future — and spending an evening exploring their “savage” side was how Americans handled the pressure that came along with that.

Hawaii Kai in New York
Hawaii Kai in New York

It is difficult to appreciate today just how popular tiki bars were in the 20th century. Every city in America had not just one tiki bar, but several. Many of them were deluxe restaurants — an upscale evening out, worthy of dressing up (unless you were wearing your very best aloha shirt). The food and drink presentations were elaborate... while the food usually looked better than it tasted (it was basically mediocre Chinese food, dressed up in pineapple), it was the tropical drinks that could make or break a tiki bar. The proper mixing of tropical cocktails is a complicated art that is a challenge to find today. These masterpieces were often served in a ceramic tiki mug you could take home with you — these mugs are now a huge area of collecting. The investment made in decorating the interiors was huge, sometimes featuring waterfalls, working volcanoes, massive tikis and dancing hula girls. One such restaurant, the Mauna Loa in Detroit, cost $1.6 million to build — and that's in 1967 dollars.

As time went by, and the next generation grew older and increasingly dissatisfied with their parents' ability to turn a blind eye to the problems of the day (especially the Vietnam War), tiki bars became a symbol of all that was wrong, and fell out of favor. The restaurants remodeled themselves as plain Chinese restaurants, or simply went out of business. A small handful of them still stand today, and a resurgence in interest in Polynesian Pop has led to a new crop of tiki bars and restaurants.

I'm just barely scratching the surface of Tiki & Polynesian Pop here, and I'm not doing it any justice. To learn more, I strongly urge you to look for the following:

  • The Book of Tiki - Sven Kirsten
    This is the tikiphile's bible, a beautiful reference to all that is tiki. Everyone should have at least one copy.
  • Tiki Central - Hanford Lemoore
    The tikiphile community is surprisingly large, and growing every day. It's a very social and diverse group. Tiki Central is our online gathering place, with many active discussions on every aspect of tiki. This is also the best place to get up-to-date information on tiki events.
  • Humu Kon Tiki - Humuhumu
    Humu Kon Tiki is my tiki news, information and commentary blog, a great way to keep an eye on the latest goings-on in the wonderful world of Polynesian Pop.
  • Ooga-Mooga - Humuhumu
    A paradise full of tiki mugs, where collectors can share the treasures they've amassed, and the curious can look, learn and drool.
  • The Tiki Bar Review Pages, and Tiki Road Trip - James Teitelbaum
    James Teitelbaum has been maintaining this list of reviews of tiki locations since 1994, and his book, Tiki Road Trip, was published in April 2003. This is another must-have reference... think of it as a portable expert version of Critiki!
  • Konakai - Kongtiki & Titi Amor
    A very handy directory of all things tiki, including stores, restaurants, home bars, and informational websites.
  • Tiki News - Otto Von Stroheim
    Sign up for the Tiki News newsletter, and get periodic emails about tiki happenings all over the world.
  • Tiki Quest - Duke & Amy Carter
    The Carters have catalogued their extensive collection of tiki mugs and other artifacts — this book is a great reference for the tiki collector.
Forbidden Island Tiki Lounge, Alameda
updated 7/29/14
Trader Vic's, Emeryville
updated 7/29/14
The Conga Lounge, Oakland
updated 7/29/14
Tonga Room, San Francisco
updated 7/29/14
Smuggler's Cove, San Francisco
updated 7/29/14
more...
Mai-Kai, Fort Lauderdale
Oceanic Arts, Whittier
The Enchanted Tiki Room, Anaheim
Hale Pele, Portland
Smuggler's Cove, San Francisco
more...
Peniamina on
Lakanuki, Mammoth Lakes
7/25/14 10:17PM
Dr. Coruba on
Solomons Island Tiki Bar, Solomons
7/19/14 7:52AM
Dr. Coruba on
Honolulu Restaurant, Alexandria
7/19/14 7:45AM
tabuzak on
Otto's Shrunken Head, New York
7/19/14 5:33AM
Peniamina on
Disney's Polynesian Resort, Orlando
7/16/14 10:01AM
more...