Tiki 101

The lowdown on San Diego tiki culture


Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably noticed that tiki is quite the thing in San Diego. With the rise in popularity of such bars at False Idol, The Grass Skirt, Miss B’s Coconut Club, Fairweather, Cat Eye Club (closing September 28!) and the OG Bali Hai, locals are escaping to a tropical world of rum drinks, exotic wood carvings, and bamboo/grass skirt décor. But what is tiki, anyway? Hint: It isn’t just Mai Tais, mugs and paper umbrellas. Here’s the lowdown.

Where did tiki originate?

The culture of tiki has its roots back in ancient Polynesia, where the wood carvings were representative of gods in South Pacific mythology. The word tiki is seen in Maori mythology, and it represents the first man created. The tiki is also a wood or stone carving of a human-like subject. The concept of tiki is seen throughout Pacific cultures (tiʻi in Tahitian, and kiʻi in Hawaiian, for example). In the 1930s in California, the idea of an idealized tropical South Pacific took hold, particularly the areas of Hawaii, Polynesia and Oceania, based on Hollywood filming and traveling to the paradisiacal locales.

Who opened the first tiki restaurant/bar?

The 1933 opening of Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood kicked off the tiki culture phenomenon with exotic rum-based cocktails and punches, flower leis, flaming torches and vibrant décor. His drinks featured fresh fruit juices, syrups and rum served in pineapples, coconuts and specialty glassware. Movies about the South Pacific were also fanning the flames of tiki obsession with titles like Hei Tiki (1935), Waikiki Wedding (1937), Jungle Love (1938), and the famous musical South Pacific (1949). After visiting Don the Beachcomber in 1936, Victor Bergeron changed his restaurant name to Trader Vic’s and the tiki culture grew major sea legs.

Who invented the Mai Tai?

The owner of Don the Beachcomber, Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt (aka Donn Beach), is credited with inventing classic tiki cocktails like the Zombie, Cobra’s Fang and Pearl Diver, while Trader Vic’s Bergeron is known for creating the Mai Tai and Scorpion Bowl.

What happened to tiki culture?

Tiki culture remained popular into the 1960s and 70s with music, apparel and TV shows all channeling the tropical vibes of the Pacific, but eventually faded by the late 1970s, with many local tiki bars and restaurants closing around the country. Tiki has enjoyed a revival in California with the opening of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco in 2009, and more recently the launching of several tiki-themed locales in San Diego.

Where to go find Tiki now:

Tiki Bash 2019: Don’t miss this special event on Tuesday, August 6, with Cutwater Spirits and the San Diego Food Bank. Held from 6 to 9 p.m. at Cutwater, this outdoor event features specialty tiki cocktails, live music from Jason Lee and the R.I.P.tides and Alvino and the Dwells, and outdoor games. Guests can win an original artwork by Norm Daniels, who will be painting live at Tiki Bash, with the lucky raffle ticket, which comes with admission. In addition, a mere 100 tiki mugs designed by tiki artist Thor “THOR” Thordarson and produced by Muntiki will be released that evening for purchase.

When asked about why Cutwater and San Diegans love tiki, Yuseff Cherney, founder and lead distiller at Cutwater Spirits, replied: “From our Bali Hai Tiki Rum line to our custom designed mugs, we have a wee bit of an obsession with all things tiki. The tropical flavors, the music, art and lifestyle all allow for an escape from the mundane, and provide a portal to party. It’s a community that’s fun, vibrant, ready to celebrate life, and imbibe in a Mai Tai (or two). I think that really speaks to the free-spirited, up-for-anything culture here, which has driven this revitalization of all things tiki in the paradise we call home in San Diego.”

Tiki Bash 2019

When: 6-9 p.m., Aug. 6
Where: 9750 Distribution Ave., 858.672.3848
Tickets: $10-$15,

Other local tiki-inspired restaurants and bars:

Bali Hai (over 2.6 million Mai Tais sold!): 2230 Shelter Island Dr., 619.222.1181,
False Idol: 675 W. Beech St.,
The Grass Skirt: 910 Grand Ave., 858.412.5237,
Fairweather: 793 J St., 619.578.2392,
Miss B’s Coconut Club: 3704 Mission Blvd., 858.381.0855,
Cat Eye Club: 370 Seventh Ave., 619.330.9509,