It’s all about the tiki hospitality in Palm Springs, California’s capital of midcentury modernism.
The last few years of anxiety and Zoom screens have left many of us longing for escape. For me, the ideal getaway is a tropical one. I’m thrilled that I can get that island-vacation feeling just a road trip away — at the world-class tiki bars in Palm Springs.
While “tiki” is a Maori word that refers to something real — a carved image of a god or ancestor — tiki bars are an invention meant to represent an imaginary paradise. The concept was created in the 1930s by a man named Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, who later renamed himself Donn Beach.
After traveling around the world, Donn opened a restaurant in Hollywood in 1933 that came to be known as Don the Beachcomber. The place was a mashup, incorporating the cocktail culture of New Orleans, where he had worked as a bartender; the rum he’d enjoyed in the Caribbean; and décor inspired by the tropical environs of the South Pacific. The eatery became known for its complex cocktails that used fresh ingredients, and spices as well as citrus, and for providing a feeling of escape that was especially welcome in the dark years of the Depression. Across the country, a wave of tiki bars, including the Trader Vic’s chain, soon appeared.
The founders and faces of the tiki scene were all white men. But there have always been influential women and people of color behind the scenes, including Donn’s wife Sunny, who franchised the business, and Don the Beachcomber’s Filipino bartenders, who were integral to the success of its cocktails.
In recent years, the role of women and people of color in tiki is finally gaining recognition. In 2019, cocktail consultant and spirits educator Shannon Mustipher published her book Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails, becoming the first African American female to publish a cocktail book. In 2018, the group Ladies Who Tiki was formed to connect and celebrate women who work in the tiki scene — including luminaries like rum expert Suzanne Long and beverage director Marie King who created the drink menu for the North Hollywood and Palm Springs locations of the Tonga Hut.
Kevin Murphy, co-owner of the Tonga Hut, along with his wife Claudia, and partner Jeremy Fleener, tells me that he sees himself as “a tiki historical re-enactor. When you come in this bar, I want the music, the food, the atmosphere to make all your senses travel back in time.”
And as I climb the steps to the Tonga Hut’s space in central downtown Palm Springs, I do feel transported. The first sight that catches my eye is a wall of lava rock and a waterfall created with massive clam shells. Everywhere I look, there’s another treasure, from the outrigger sourced from an old Trader Vic’s, to the Bosko wood carving of a giant tiki holding a world map, to the glass displays of paraphernalia from Palm Springs tiki bars of days past.
Just when I think it can’t get any better, it does. In a hallway, I find a telephone booth. When pushed on its back wall, it creaks open, revealing a secret room that can be rented out for special occasions. I won’t tell you much about it — it’s secret! — except to say that entering the room feels like magic. (Tip: If the bar isn’t too busy, it’s worth asking to see it. Kevin tells me that when the room isn’t booked, they are willing to show it off.)
Back at the bar, I order a mai tai. This classic drink got a bad rap as, in the 1950s it transformed into an overly sweet pineapple juice-heavy drink. But this mai tai, based on the 1944 Trader Vic’s recipe, is a perfect mixture of tart and sweet. I follow up with a chai tai, which, with its mixture of rum, citrus, coconut and homemade chai syrup, doesn’t sound like it should work, but it does.
The bar is friendly and full of chatter. On one side of me is a couple telling tales of the many tiki bars they’ve visited. On the other is a local man who tells me that he comes in once a week. As I enjoy the drinks and atmosphere, along with a plate of pot stickers, I think how successful Kevin and his team are at what he explained as their mission: “Our job is just to keep you smiling. From the time you hit the door ’til the time you leave.”
Just a mile north of the Tonga Hut, in the Design District, is Bootlegger Tiki, housed in what used to be the waiting area of Don the Beachcomber’s Palm Springs location. When I arrived during happy hour, the host explained apologetically that they were full and suggested I come back in about 20 minutes.
I decided to explore the area and, right around the corner, came across a store called Iconic Atomic. Packed with vintage items, including tropics-themed clothes and tiki barware, it was the perfect place to browse pre-tiki drinks.
When I returned to the bar, I got a quick look at the dimly lit interior as I was ushered through to the patio. With four booths and seats at the bar, the space is decorated with black velvet paintings and puffer fish lights. Outside, the patio’s wallpaper, patterned with oversized leaves, complements the simple wooden tables.
Bootlegger’s drink menu includes both their spin on tiki classics and their own original creations. I ordered the Pod Thai, their take on the mai tai, inspired by Thai flavors and a Rum ’n’ Rye, which incorporated cinnamon and citrus.
That care that goes into Bootlegger’s freshly juiced cocktails shows. The drinks were beautifully presented, light and refreshing. Sitting on the patio didn’t give me the full tiki experience I was looking for — but sipping drinks and watching people strolling down North Palm Canyon Drive was still a pretty great way to spend the evening.
Proprietor Rory Snyder doesn’t call The Reef, located on the grounds of the Caliente Tropics hotel, a tiki bar, but “a tropical libation sanctuary.” From the display of a miniature Greg Brady doll dressed in an aloha shirt to the mounted (plastic) shark head, The Reef emanates a sense of fun and humor. Rory describes the bar’s aesthetic as “B movie,” explaining, “those old Hawaiian movies with their bad backdrops — I wanted to go for that.”
I ask Rory what he thinks makes a great tropical bar, and he easily replies, “Somewhere that doesn’t have a clock. It’s about enjoying the moment.” That’s simple to do at The Reef, where there’s nowhere else I’d rather be as I gaze at the property’s pool from a corner table, sitting underneath photos of iconic Hawaiian singer Don Ho kissing thrilled fans.
My coconut shrimp — sweet, salty and crunchy all in one bite — is what you want in a bar lunch. My first drink, the Palm Springs Punch, is described pretty accurately on the menu as a “delicious fruit punch that packs a punch.” My second cocktail, the Treasure of La Amadarita, gives the option of being ordered in a collectible diving helmet-shaped mug.
Last April, Rory’s new drinkery, Le Fern, opened up just steps away from The Reef. “Fern bars,” Rory tells me, came
about in the 1970s and catered to a female clientele, newly emboldened by the women’s movement to go out without men. Many of these establishments were created from tiki bars that had gone out of vogue. Their peacock chairs were whitewashed, and their drinks — now served in elegant barware — became sweeter (think: The Pink Squirrel, a concoction of heavy cream, almond-flavored liqueur and crème de cacao).
I visited The Reef in March, so Le Fern wasn’t yet open. But with Rory and his tiki sensibility at the helm, the one element I know it will share with all the bars I visited in Palm Springs is a sense of hospitality. Because what I learned is that the best thing about a great tiki bar isn’t just that you feel like you got away — but that the warmth so integral to tiki makes you feel like a treasured guest when you get there.