In Los Angeles, home to Tiki legends such as Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic as well as arguably the world’s first Mai Tai and Zombie cocktail, Tiki has never truly gone away. The torch has been held high by classic Tiki joints such as the loveable dive the Tonga Hut, local bars Tiki Ti and Tiki No, and the revived Trader Vic’s. And in neighboring Orange County, Tiki favorites such as Don the Beachcomber and Disneyland’s Trader Sam’s are still slinging their signature Tiki cocktails, using the same original recipes as when the drinks were first concocted.
But while these lovable, somewhat kitschy Tiki bars still exist to provide Angelenos their share of sugary, often aflame cocktails, these classic joints operate based off of nostalgia for the Tiki of the past. Yet in the city that birthed the first wave of Tiki, there has been a growing interest in all things Tiki and a number of non-Tiki restaurants and bars have begun incorporating elements of the Tiki culture into their culinary and beverage programs
The Rebirth of Tiki
Inspired by contemporary cocktail trends, mixologists throughout Los Angeles are beginning to incorporate classic Tiki cocktails into their beverage programs, albeit with contemporary twists. Globally inspired Acabar features a modern example of the Zombie on their cocktail list and both the 1886 Bar at the Raymond and Chinatown newcomer General Lee’s include a number of craft Tiki cocktails on their menus. Yet while many of the drink names may look familiar, these Tiki cocktails are definite upgrades from their traditional equivalents. These Tiki cocktails are inspired by modern mixology trends and utilize barrel aged rum, house made juices and syrups, and often are based on spirits other than rum. They also are incredibly more balanced than their classic counterparts and while still channeling the Tiki spirit, their use of fresh ingredients ensure you won’t be left with the sugar headache the next morning
Many culinary hot spots have also undergone a Tiki-fication. Sonny’s Hideaway restaurant in Highland Park, Cuban speakeasy La Descarga, and 320 Main in Seal Beach have each begun hosting weekly Tiki nights every Tuesday. Culver City’s A-Frame, once known for serving up contemporary, picnic style cuisine, was also recently re-modeled to a Hawaiian style eatery. While still helmed by Chef Roy Choi, the newly introduced “Aloha” concept now features a completely re-designed menu featuring Hawaiian favorites such as poke, musubi, and pupus. The beverage program features classic Tiki cocktails given a modern twist, such as the Zombie Isle which includes an Absinthe addition, alongside a number of classic cocktails given a Tiki twist, such as the Kona Old Fashioned, which can be enjoyed during the restaurant’s “Luau Hour.”
Yet of all the recent Tiki-fied establishments, it is LA’s newest pop-up, the Coconut Club, that has best encapsulated the spirit of Los Angeles’ Tiki revival.
A Modern Tiki Supper Club
The Coconut Club was conceptualized by Chef Andy Windak (Chef Wind Attack), MC Darren Herczeg, and mixologists Nathan Hazard and Elana Lepkowski with the aim of exploring “Tiki” in supper club form. Operating as a monthly pop-up dinner series, the Coconut Club is hosted in a variety of venues throughout the city. Yet unlike neighboring historic Tiki bars, the Coconut Club offers patrons the chance to experience this new wave of Los Angeles’ contemporary Tiki culture firsthand.
Cocktails are the cornerstone of any Tiki program and here is where the Coconut Club absolutely shines. Refusing to be bound by using only rum and fresh juices, the Coconut Club crafts cocktails utilizing a number of various spirits. Their signature Lava exhibits the smokiness of smoldering magma through an intriguing combination of Mezcal, Campari, hibiscus syrup and black lava salt. Cava, Pisco, gin, and brandy are featured just as prominently in the evening’s drink lineup as are Tiki classic ingredients like Velvet Falernum, Jamaican bitters, orgeat and a number of white, dark and spiced rums.
“We are in an incredible cocktail moment where the average patron knows more than ever about spirits and what makes a good drink,” says Hazard. “We use classic Tiki formulas as a jumping off point, but certainly imbue some new ideas to keep things fresh and entertaining.”
And unlike the sugar filled, "hangover in a coconut" concoctions of the past, these modern Tiki cocktails were expertly crafted and displayed a harmonious balance of alcohol with fresh juices, spices and syrups.
As Hazard explains, “many of the historical Tiki cocktail recipes and preparations do not live up to the current standards of freshness and balance, or get muddled along the way.” Yet with the Coconut Club, the emphasis is on making Tiki cocktails both innovative and relevant.
In addition to serving up a number of modern Tiki cocktails, the Coconut Club also offers contemporary Tiki cuisine. As Tiki bars of the past were often devoid of any enjoyable food options, Chef Windak explained that he wanted to create “a place that could have such fun and whimsical atmosphere and also serve thoughtful culinary cocktails and good food.”
“Tiki cuisine has always been a difficult thing to define,” says Chef Windak. “Generally it either falls into the school of Chinese food or the idea of Hawaiian food. For me, I’m interested in playing off both of these notions but also reject them.”
“I like to base dishes around exotic ingredients like coconuts or macadamia nuts or pineapple and put them in a familiar package,” Windak explains. Yet while the cuisine served is definitely Tiki inspired, it is also very Californian.
“We try to use a lot of fresh produce and that’s something that hasn’t traditionally been associated with Tiki food,” states Windak. After all, “LA is the birthplace of Tiki and the cornerstone of California Americana” says Hazard.
Examples of dishes served by the Coconut Club include traditional Polynesian options such as pupu platters featuring fried chicken wings and eggrolls, alongside more playful offerings such as a literal egg drop soup and the cocktail crossover coconut fried shrimp served over a Tiki-style Pisco Sour.
With MC Darren Herczeg hosting the dinners, the Coconut Club also features a number of theatrical elements allowing for diner engagement, an element so essential to the Tiki culture. “People…expect drama and theatrics and things on fire!” explains Windak. “Having Darren as the MC is a huge asset and helps create more fantasy and whim to the food and drinks. It’s about creating an excitement around the meal.”
In his role as MC, Herczeg leads diners through the meal by announcing the arrival of each course with a large gong while also explaining the history of Tiki lore and engaging guests in Tiki themed trivia challenges.
“Tiki is rooted in kitsch and camp,” Herczeg explains. “Theatricality is at its core. The drinks are bold and often housed in increasingly more elaborate mugs….We aim to create more than just phenomenal food and drinks, we aim to create an experience.”
While the Coconut Club definitely channels the Tiki spirit of both the kitschy theatrics and exotic allure of the past, the expertly crafted cocktails and playful, engaging cuisine serve to bring Tiki culture in line with the contemporary beverage and culinary trends of today. And for a culture that loves gimmicks as much as we do (Hello, molecular mixology!), the spread of both modern Tiki cocktails and dishes, as well as the elaborate garnishes and theatrics that accompany them, seem likely to begin popping up in more bars and restaurants nationwide.