The tiki family tradition
Every Wednesday night at the Tiki Ti in Silver Lake, owner Mike Buhen rings a bell above the bar’s fluorescent lava-rock waterfall and leads a toast to his father, Ray. “To my dad, the master ninja,” he says, or whatever else comes to mind around the 8 o’clock hour. Then he clinks glasses with any patron in reaching distance. His son and co-bartender, Mike Jr., does the same.
The toasts started after Ray Buhen, the Tiki Ti’s founder, died a few months shy of his 90th birthday in 1999. A regular customer suggested that Mike do something to honor his father, who continued to mix the bar’s famously potent tropical drinks until just a few months before his death. The son went a step further and halved the price of his father’s signature drink, Ray’s Mistake, on Wednesdays. He also hung a framed photo of a smiling, Hawaiian-shirted Ray high on the wall.
“This bar was his life,” said Mike Buhen, 57, who grew up in Silver Lake. “I helped him put the tapa cloth on the wall when I was in high school. He cut the bamboo for the ceiling himself.”
Call it following in dad’s footsteps, one Puka-Puka Punch order at a time. Since Ray died, Mike and his eldest son have carried on his legacy behind the tiny L-shaped bar. They not only make the drinks, they also mop the floors, prep the bar, answer the phone and good-naturedly refuse to divulge the ingredients of any of the menu’s 80 original libations.
Ray Buhen, who immigrated to Los Angeles from the Philippines in 1930, opened the 50-by-27-foot shack on Sunset Boulevard in 1961 after three decades of bartending at legendary local watering holes like Don the Beachcomber, the Seven Seas and Luau on Rodeo Drive. The Tiki, as regulars call it, soon became a popular hangout for workers at nearby Allied Artists (now KCET Studios). Actors Marlon Brando and Jack Palance also used to stop by.
The Tiki Ti arrived on the L.A. bar scene just as Polynesian culture was beginning to sweep Southern California in the form of Saturday night hula shows, rattan furniture and coconut-shell tumblers. Its tropical drink menu comes from recipes Ray dreamed up during his hourly wage bartending days.
“When my father started bartending, it was just after Prohibition and rum was the cheapest drink you could get. You either had a Cuba Libre [rum and coke] or you drank it neat,” Mike said.
Bored with convention, Ray Buhen and other bartenders began experimenting with fruit juices and grenadine, giving their creations names like Zombie, Fog Cutter and Missionary’s Downfall. The patrons loved it, his son recalled.
When Mike Sr. turned 21 and started helping out behind the bar, his father shared his drink recipes, carefully written in longhand. Two decades later, Mike taught his own son the tricks of the tropical drink trade.
“It took me about a year to learn the menu. My son picked it up a little faster,” he said.
Despite their longtime association with Polynesian culture, neither Buhen grew up expecting to run a tiki bar full time. Mike Sr. has a bachelor’s degree in marketing and worked as a station manager of a car-rental agency before joining his dad behind the bar in the early 1970s. Mike Jr., 29, was a couple of years out of Loyola Marymount when Ray showed signs of slowing down.
“When my grandfather got sick, I just started getting behind the bar. I knew my dad couldn’t do it by himself,” he said.
Both men try to keep a relaxed, anyone-is-welcome spirit to the windowless bar, which is covered in 40 years’ worth of blowfish lanterns, tiki carvings and license plates. When Drew Barrymore wanted to rent the place for a birthday party a couple of years ago, she was quickly shot down. “I told her assistant we don’t close for private parties,” Mike Sr. said.
On a recent Wednesday, following the toast to his father, Mike Sr. bantered with an off-duty bartender from the Dresden Room and other regulars while his son filled paper bowls with pretzels and popcorn. Someone hauled out a block of aged cheddar cheese, the product of a recent trip to Wisconsin, which was promptly sliced up and passed around the crowded bar.
As he chatted, Mike Sr. deftly filled two Ray’s Mistake orders and garnished the tall glasses with skewers of pineapple. When asked to explain the error behind the drink he’d just made, he laughed as if he were remembering the oft-told story for the first time.
The concoction was born, he said, after Ray grabbed the wrong mix to make a drink called Anting Anting for a regular customer named Gil.
“My father was getting ready to throw it out when Gil said, ‘Wait. Make me another one just like this.’ He started passing it down the bar and people asked what it was. He said, ‘I don’t know, but it’s Ray’s mistake.’ ”
Laura Randall can be contacted at email@example.com.
Where: 4427 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake
Hours: Wednesdays-Saturdays, 6 p.m.-
Info: (323) 669-9381 or www.tiki-ti.com