What is a Tiki Bar?

Tiki bars are fun places where people go to drink. They have been around since the 1930s.

Tiki Bar on the patio of a riverfront bar

They are famous for their fancy drinks, especially drinks with rum like the Mai Tai and Zombie cocktails. Tiki bars are made to make people feel like they are in a tropical paradise. They have bamboo, wooden masks and carvings, thatched roofs, lava stones, hula girls, and other things that remind you of the Southern Pacific.

Tiki bars started after Prohibition ended in 1933. The first one was called Don’s Beachcomber and it was in Hollywood, California. It had a Polynesian theme. The popularity of tiki bars increased in the 1950s and 1960s because Americans were really interested in Polynesian culture.

Nowadays, there are tiki bars everywhere in the world, like Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s. They still draw in customers who want a special and unusual drinking adventure.

If you are someone who really loves tiki bars or if you are new to tiki bars, it can be more fun if you know about their history and how they are designed. Tiki bars are different from any other kind of bar because they have tropical plants, water features, and traditional Polynesian art and music. So, just relax and let the tropical vibes take you to a distant island paradise.

History of Tiki Bars

Tiki bars are a type of bar that originated in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s.

Morning view of an out of the way tiki bar in Waikiki

They are known for their tropical decor, rum-based cocktails, and Polynesian-inspired cuisine. This section will discuss the history of tiki bars, including their World War II influence, the creation of Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s, and the rise of modern tiki bars.

World War II Influence

During World War II, American soldiers stationed in the South Pacific were exposed to the culture and cuisine of Polynesia. When they returned home, they brought with them a fascination with all things tropical. This fascination was reflected in the popularity of tiki bars, which offered a taste of the exotic to American consumers.

Donn Beach and Don the Beachcomber

Donn Beach, whose real name was Ernest Gantt, is credited with creating the first tiki bar in the United States. In 1933, he opened a bar called Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood, California. The bar was decorated with Polynesian artifacts and served exotic rum drinks, such as the Sumatra Kula and Zombie cocktail. Later, it also served Cantonese food. Don the Beachcomber was a huge success and spawned imitators across the country.

Trader Vic’s and Victor Bergeron

Victor Bergeron, also known as Trader Vic, opened his first tiki bar in Oakland, California in 1937. Like Don the Beachcomber, Trader Vic’s was decorated with Polynesian artifacts and served rum-based cocktails. However, Trader Vic’s had a more upscale atmosphere and offered a wider variety of food. Bergeron also created his own signature cocktails, such as the Mai Tai, which became a tiki bar classic.

Modern Tiki Bars

Tiki bars experienced a decline in popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, but they have undergone a resurgence in recent years. Modern tiki bars often pay homage to the original tiki bars of the 1940s and 1950s, but they also incorporate contemporary elements.

For example, many modern tiki bars feature craft cocktails made with high-quality ingredients and innovative flavor combinations. They also often have a strong focus on sustainability, using eco-friendly materials and sourcing local, organic ingredients.

Design and Aesthetics of Tiki Bars

Tiki bars are known for their unique and distinctive design and aesthetics. They are designed to transport patrons to an exotic and tropical location, often featuring bamboo, thatched roofs, and tiki masks.

Hidden tiki bar in old Waikiki

In this section, we will explore the materials and tools used to create the design, the tiki mugs and garnishes used to serve drinks, and the lighting and ambiance that creates the rustic and dimly lit atmosphere.

Materials and Tools

The main materials used in the design of tiki bars are bamboo, rope, and thatched roofs. Bamboo is used for the bar, walls, and furniture. It is lightweight, durable, and easy to work with. Rope is used for decoration and to create a nautical atmosphere. Thatched roofs are used to create a tropical ambiance and are typically made from palm fronds or grass.

Tiki Mugs and Garnishes

Tiki mugs are an essential part of the tiki bar experience. These mugs are often designed to look like tiki gods or other tropical creatures. They are used to serve cocktails and other drinks and are often garnished with tropical fruits and umbrellas.

The garnishes used in tiki bars are often exotic and colorful, adding to the overall aesthetic of the bar. Pineapple, coconut, and other tropical fruits are commonly used, as well as flowers and other decorative elements.

Lighting and Ambience

Lighting is an important part of the tiki bar experience. Tiki bars are often dimly lit, with soft lighting that creates a warm and inviting atmosphere. Tiki torches, lanterns, and other decorative lighting elements are commonly used to create a rustic and tropical ambiance.

The tiki god is a common design element in tiki bars, with many bars featuring large tiki masks or statues. These gods are often used to create a sense of mystery and intrigue, adding to the overall atmosphere of the bar.

Tiki Cocktails

Tiki bars are known for their elaborate cocktails, especially rum-based mixed drinks such as the Mai Tai, Zombie, Blue Hawaii, and Suffering Bastard. These cocktails are fun, tropical, and often served in colorful tiki mugs.

Mai Tai

The Mai Tai is a classic tiki cocktail made with rum, lime juice, orange curaçao, and orgeat syrup.

traditional mai tai cocktail recipe at tiki bars

The origin of the Mai Tai is disputed, but it is widely believed to have been invented in the 1940s by Victor Bergeron, the founder of Trader Vic’s. The Mai Tai is typically garnished with a sprig of mint and a lime wedge.


The Zombie is a potent tiki cocktail made with several types of rum, citrus juices, and various syrups and bitters. The Zombie was invented by Donn Beach in the 1930s, and it quickly became one of the most popular tiki cocktails. The Zombie is typically garnished with a cherry and a sprig of mint.

Blue Hawaii

The Blue Hawaii is a tiki cocktail made with rum, blue curaçao, pineapple juice, and sweet and sour mix. The Blue Hawaii was invented in 1957 by Harry Yee, the head bartender at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki. The Blue Hawaii is typically garnished with a pineapple wedge and a cherry.

Suffering Bastard

The Suffering Bastard is a tiki cocktail made with gin, brandy, lime juice, ginger beer, and bitters. The Suffering Bastard was invented during World War II by Joe Scialom, a bartender at the Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo, Egypt. The Suffering Bastard is typically garnished with a sprig of mint and a slice of cucumber.

Tiki cocktails are known for their complex flavor profiles, which often include multiple types of rum, citrus, and various syrups and bitters. These cocktails are typically garnished with colorful and elaborate garnishes, such as fruit wedges, umbrellas, and tiki statues.

Please drink responsibly, be fully accountable with your alcohol consumption, and show others respect.

Written by Rocco

Rocco is a Florida State University alumnus with years of bartending and hospitality experience. From slinging hundreds of vodka sodas a night in jam-packed college bars to serving carefully crafted cocktails in upscale restaurants, there’s not much he hasn’t done behind a bar. Now, Rocco shares his knowledge and passion for all things alcohol-related here on My Bartender for bibulous readers everywhere to enjoy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

GIPHY App Key not set. Please check settings

glasses of white sangria and red sangria with fruit and ice

What is a Sangria?

Clamato with beer, tomato juice, shrimps, clam and lemon, mexican drink cocktail

What is Clamato?