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They're carrying a torch for tiki

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If the words "tiki culture" conjure images of rum drinks the color of windshield wiper fluid, dusty tribal masks and low-rent bamboo-backed bars, hold on to your paper parasol because there's a new trade wind blowing. What was once dismissed as "tacky tiki" is going upscale. The result? South Seas-tinged art, music, runway clothes and even a high-end restaurant in Beverly Hills, all with price tags a notch or three above the budget of your standard-issue aloha shirt-wearing tiki geek. Call it Polynesian pop, call it tiki 2.0, but the new incarnation is kicking the kitsch and ushering in an era of luxe on the lanai.

After weathering years of shuttered Trader Vic's outposts around the country and the high-profile flop of a tiki-themed nightclub at the Venetian in Las Vegas, the tiki tribe is once more on the march. A tiki-adorned Tonga Lei Room can be found inside the recently opened Beachcomber Cafe on the Malibu Pier. An L.A. outpost of Trader Vic's, complete with live Polynesian-themed entertainment, is coming to the L.A. Live development across from Staples Center early next year. And tiki outfitters and art galleries are seeing a boom in big-ticket items.

Now, Andrew Hewitt is betting with his new Luau restaurant that the sort of boldface names that flock to Il Sole, the West Hollywood eatery he co-owns, are ready to duck into booths lighted by puffer fish lamps and dine on seared tuna over an edamame-wasabi purée while sipping rum drinks served in lopped-off pineapples.

The retro tide has raised the prices of paintings by Orange County-based artist Shag -- who depicts midcentury cocktail culture and all things tiki -- from a few hundred dollars apiece a decade ago to as much as $20,000.

Dutch label Viktor & Rolf has incorporated the grinning visage of the totemic tiki into its spring/summer 2009 men's runway collection, where tiki-festooned ties and Hawaiian-style button fronts and sweaters joined hibiscus prints and suit jackets draped with leis. (Designer Rolf Snoeren saw the motif as a way of telegraphing the exuberance and optimism of the late 1950s, signified by America's newly minted 50th state -- and nodding to the birthplace of Democratic presidential contender Sen. Barack Obama.)

Although the tiki aesthetic is not exactly antique, it has been around long enough that the earliest pieces of ephemera -- mugs, matchbooks and restaurant menus dating to the early 1930s -- have become sought-after collectibles, and hand-carved Witco tiki bars from the '60s fetch as much as $5,000.

High-end return

Today's tiki nouveau is actually a return to the lifestyle's high-end roots. Don the Beachcomber, a Hollywood restaurant that opened in the 1930s, was the Spago of its day, attracting a clientele that included Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles, and displaying celebrity chopsticks in a glass case. Then came Victor Bergeron, inventor of the mai tai and founder of the Trader Vic’s chain, who capitalized on the '50s and '60s fascination with the South Seas, propelled by soldiers returning from the Pacific theater of World War II. Thanks to the efforts of Hollywood set builders, those establishments evolved into elaborate exercises in escapism, complete with waterfalls, torches and miles of bamboo, carefully crafted to magically transport customers to a faraway island.

The golden age of tiki had a long life, finally succumbing to the '80s fern-bar, wine-spritzer culture. As the first wave receded, it deposited a glacial moraine of tiki mugs, Martin Denny exotica albums, carved figures and decorations at swap meets and thrift stores. It was here, says Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, author of several books on Polynesian drinks and a lifelong tikiphile, that "urban archaeologists" discovered tiki anew in the mid '90s.

"It was basically twentysomething thrift-store hipsters," he said. "And mostly people who hadn't experienced tiki in its full flower. It was part of the alternative underground interests that focused on the kitsch factor and included rockabilly music, hot-rod culture and lowbrow art."

Tiki's new presence at the high end reflects the same co-opting of subculture that turned the swing-dance underground at Los Feliz's Derby into a worldwide craze for $22 martinis and transformed Kustom Kar culture into a launch pad for $50 Von Dutch trucker caps.

As that cadre of tiki-smitten hipsters grew up and got disposable incomes, the early years of tiki receded further and further into the past, and what was kitsch became covetable cool. Which is why, 10 years into the renaissance, Disneyland can get $40 for a limited-edition tiki drink bowl, Oceanic Arts in Whittier has seen a spike in the number of freshly carved $960 outrigger canoes that paddle out of the shop, and Shag's latest painting, "In Search of Tiki," is worth a cool $15,000.

"When something is expensive, people give it respect," says Shag (the nom de brush of artist Josh Agle). "I took these kitschy tiki paintings and brought them into legitimate galleries." Shag's brightly colored, cartoon-like paintings are pure escapist time travel. Chock-full of overflowing tiki mugs, curvaceous women and retro swagger -- achieving in two dimensions what the tiki bar does in three -- they take you to a happier place and time.

That seems to be part of the motivation for Hewitt's ambitious re-imagining of the storied Luau. When asked why he decided to open a tiki bar in Beverly Hills' pricey Golden Triangle, the first thing he does is disavow the "T" word. "It's not tiki," he says emphatically. "I call it Polynesian panache."

But immediately, he breaks into a beatific smile. "I had my birthday party at Steve Crane's original Luau when I was a kid," he explains in a hushed, almost reverent tone. "I went to Trader Vic's . . . Don the Beachcomber. I want people to feel that kind of happiness and wonderment I did when I went to these places as a kid."

Determined to give his clientele that feeling -- updated for the 21st century (the original, run by Lana Turner's ex-husband Crane, opened in 1953 and closed in 1978) -- Hewitt tracked down the tiki revival's tribal elders to help turn his vision into a reality. He tapped "Bamboo Ben" Bassham, grandson of Eli Hedley, who had outfitted the original Luau, to appoint the interior with all manner of bamboo, puffer fish lamps, coiled rope and thatched awnings. He recruited author, mixologist and drink sleuth "Beachbum" Berry to painstakingly re-create drinks from the original menu. Exotic libations from that menu, including the Navy Grog, the Jet Pilot and the Pearl Diver, are joining newer ones such as the Bo-Lo (served in a hollowed-out pineapple) and the Bahia (served in a whole shelled coconut).

But that's where the similarities to a traditional tiki bar end. Chef Makoto "Mako" Tanaka's Asian fusion menu includes Wagyu meatball skewers and a 3 1/2 -pound deep-fried whole red snapper with jalapeños, ginger and cilantro. And Hewitt worked with high-end jewelry designer Loree Rodkin to graft a Zen-Balinese vibe onto the tiki rootstock. Huge bronze Buddha lotus hands flank the bar, which is covered in strips of cracked glass imported from Italy, illuminated by hanging Turkish lanterns.

In fact, the only actual tikis in the place are a canvas photo print near the bar of a salt shaker from the original Luau and a carved version standing guard in the back of the dining room.

Hard-core fans -- the type who can tell you when the Tiki-Ti's latest shipment of passion fruit juice is the wrong color -- have been watching the progress of the space on a Web forum called Tiki Central, and they've expressed doubts. ("It doesn't sound very tiki and will probably just be a haunt for pseudocelebs to drink $18 cinnamon infused-rum coladas," snipes one post.)

It may not slavishly follow the dictates of tiki circa the '60s, but Hewitt's version, with the trilling tropical birds and tribal beats of Denny piped through the walls of crushed young bamboo, provides as much an escape from the city outside its doors as any tiki bar traditionalist could hope for.

And whether it takes the form of a $15 coconut full of rum, a $620Viktor & Rolf tiki-head sweater or a $15,000 Shag painting, tiki still has the power to instantly transport us to a place where waterfalls gurgle, puffer fish lamps glow and rum flows into lopped-off pineapples.

With an economy that seems destined to limp along well into next year, that's an enviable trick -- and it may finally give the tiki revival its mainstream moment in the (tropical) sun.

Tschorn is a Times staff writer.

adam.tschorn@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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