Tiki traditions live on locally
289 Alexander St.
A kid who bootlegged rum with his grandpa during Prohibition and then raveled the seas looking for adventure. A savvy Californian with an eye on trends and a missing leg he attributed to shark attack (it was tuberculosis). A carved idol roughly resembling a man with a garish grin who, on beaches long forgotten, loved the first woman. Tiki culture is America. Larger-than life patriarchs took a little from this culture, a little from that culture, ignored the truth in favor of the story, and got drunk doing it.
Why did America fall in love with this drink style and the pop culture surrounding it? Why have they fallen in love with it again, after a 30-year hiatus?
“America fell back in love with tiki for the same reason we originally fell in love with it—escapism,” says Patrick Stetzel, bartender at Swan Dive and tiki enthusiast. “It’s about leaving everything you know at the door and just kind of surrendering yourself.”
Don the Beachcomber, the great grandfather of the original tiki movement, said, “If you can’t get to paradise, I’ll bring it to you.” Most of us yearn for a place where we can drop every responsibility, every person and project demanding something of us, pick up a glass beaded with drops of cold condensation, dig our toes into white sand, and step into the incoming tide. And most of us can’t get there, at least not as often as we’d like.
In 1933, Donn Beach, and yeah, that was his name, after he changed it from Ernest Gantt, opened a little bar in Hollywood decked out with a ton of souvenirs from his travels in the Caribbean and South Seas. That in itself was nothing new—Americans have always wanted to get away for an evening to a tropical oasis. But while they were there, they drank Martinis and Old Fashioneds—just like everywhere else.
What made the place that would become Don the Beachcomber’s special was that the drinks matched the décor. Cocktails with curious names and flamboyant garnishes, illustrated in enticing detail on menus, appeared out of a window behind the bar. A lot of people tried to bribe their way into the inner circle of those who knew the recipes, the secret sauce of why tiki thrived for decades. Victor Bergeron, better known today as TraderVic, had a better way. He evolved what he soaked up after spending hours at Don the Beachcomber’s, put an industrious flair on top, and invented a place and persona that fit the rampant desire for a paradise that exists only in the imagination.
Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s were just two franchises of dozens that pushed the limit of the midcentury tiki palace. Almost none of them survived to see today’s resurgence, with contemporary establishments nodding to the nostalgia of the original wave while taking the style in new and exciting directions. Part of that is mixing up new drinks with new ingredients.
Stetzel says that while rum is often cited the garnish a little more bombastic, and a flavor profile challenges what you thought you knew about drinking. For Stetzel, these tenets came to life in a new tiki cocktail available this summer at Swan Dive. He wanted to make something that patrons could replicate at home, but still had a ton of flavor complexity. This led him to pandan, an herbaceous plant found in many Southeast-Asian dishes and drinks. He blended the leaf (available frozen at Ocean Garden Oriental on the corner of Clinton Avenue and Goodman Street)with a few other tropical flavors to make a syrup, added it to his booze and fruit juice, tasted it, and realized he had created the flavor profile of pho blended with Thai iced tea. Stetzel added some Thai basil and called it the Constitution Check.
In addition to Swan Dive, the Playhouse hosts an occasional tiki night, and Ox and Stone, Cure, and other cocktail bars have wonderful drinks on their menus in that vein. The Spirit Room has actually evolved an exciting take on tiki all their own, embracing classic beginnings with their own twists, intentionally weeding out cultural appropriation (one of tiki’s less savory holdovers) where they find it. Nevertheless, there really is no place in Rochester one could call a tiki bar— where sophisticated, challenging, vibrant drinks are melded with a complete sensory experience that allows patrons to depart for a few hours.
“In reality, there are two sides to it,” says Stetzel. “What happens inside the glass and what happens outside the glass.” During his tenure at the Revelry, he and his cronies hosted elaborate tiki parties, for which they spent up to nine hours decorating. The goal, as always, was to facilitate escape. In a town like Rochester, such a place would be a welcome addition to the ever growing list of excellent cocktail bars. This drinker is waiting eagerly, and I suspect I’m not alone.
Stetzel says water fixtures were key features of the classic tiki palaces. People across the country walked past these fountains and waterfalls (or, in the case of the original Don the Beachcomber’s, a garden hose splashing on the roof, encouraging patrons to order another round and wait out the rain). It was symbolic—a purification of whatever demons clawed at their backs on those particular days. We all need a place like that, and until Rochester has a tiki palace of its own, whatever we find in the glass will have to suffice. If nothing else, for an hour or two, we can catch a taste of paradise.
Pete Wayner is a food and beverage-centric content creator based in Rochester.