Southern California is the birthplace of the U.S. tiki bar scene, setting the standard for Polynesian Americana since Don the Beachcomber opened his first rum-soaked shack in Hollywood on McCadden Place in the 1930s. But kitschy island-themed thrills have been harder to come by recently in Los Angeles. More tiki bars have closed than opened over the last few decades, in stark contrast to cities such as London, where a tiki bar scene has grown in the last five years, or even New York, which boasts newly minted tikiphiles aplenty after the opening of tiki-influenced finds such as Painkiller and the Hurricane Club in 2010.
The term tiki originally referred to one of the key figures in Polynesian cosmology, but has since come to represent a tacky island mix of big sugary drinks and permanent luau vibe -- just right for franchising. Yes, Angelenos can still find a decent mai tai at the old L.A. standbys (Tiki-Ti, the Tonga Hut) and sanitized versions of California classics for the downtown convention set (Trader Vic’s), but L.A. tiki bars that strike a balance between dives and upscale chain restaurants are few and far between.
That all changed in November, when Jeffrey Best and his business partner decided to open Tiki No in North Hollywood.
“We needed something that was fun and lively,” the bar owner said via phone of his latest venture, which is named after its NoHo neighborhood. The well-known events planner and bar owner scrapped the dark lounge design of Match, the bar that previously occupied 4657 Lankershim Blvd., in favor of a tropical trading post.
“It’s still quite new to me,” Best said of the theme, “but we’re going make it more and more of a real tiki destination by adding a few things.”
Despite four flaming tiki torches that adorn the outside of the bar, Tiki No was initially slow to catch on. The dark rum den, which is jam-packed with island decor (think puffer fish hanging from the ceiling and booths with thatched roofs) was often empty on weeknights in November until blog posts and subsequent social media updates on the decor helped it find its sea legs. Curious bar fiends looking for the next great neighborhood find have been washing in steadily ever since.
“It’s a nice place to be able to come after work and forget about how hard your day has been,” Delara Adams of Studio City said inside the bar.
Tiki No isn’t just attracting happy-hour-minded Studio City and North Hollywood residents, but also night owls, from all over California.
Late last month, many Bay Area boosters of island exotica popped in while en route to the Waitiki Festival in Huntington Beach.
“Tiki bars are destinations, and they have a great location,” said San Francisco’s Otto Von Stroheim, founder of the Tiki News newsletter over a Quasimoto cocktail on a bustling Wednesday night. “I love the whole trader motif they have going on behind the bar.”
And Von Stroheim isn’t the only insider from the insular world of tiki enthusiasts to give the bar his stamp of approval. The man who literally wrote the book on tiki in Los Angeles, “The Book of Tiki,” Sven A. Kirsten, also gives it high marks for its design.
“It has a great atmosphere,” the 55-year-old German native said from his home in Silver Lake. “There used to be a lot of places like this around in L.A. Tiki No is as close as any bar when it comes to capturing how things used to be.”
And while most patrons seem impressed with designer Bamboo Ben’s low-key yet authentic tiki touches (mostly sourced from Whittier’s Oceanic Arts), many who dare to order a Scorpion end up less enthusiastic about the drinks.
“It’s just a bunch of lime juice and a little bit of rum,” Von Stroheim said while nursing a $5 mai tai. “I’m not feeling it,” he laughed as he shook his head, adding: “It’s not well-balanced.
“They have a great menu. If the drinks were executed properly, this bar would be top-notch,” the Los Angeles native continued, regarding the advertised-as-classics cocktails, many with claimed lineage to the original Don the Beachcomber, such as Tiki No’s Zombie.
“Things are generally a little too fruity or a little too tart here,” adds Von Stroheim.
Despite one critic’s opinion that the drinks need tweaking, business at the bar has been booming.
But does the success of Tiki No portend a tiki bar revival in Southern California?
Not necessarily, according to Kirsten. The region would seem primed, considering that interest in all things Polynesian has given rise to London’s newish hotspot Kanaloa, and persuaded San Franciscans to try to save their historic Tonga Room.
“It should happen here, but I’m not sure it will,” he said.
“Tiki has found its niche in pop culture. But my sense is that most Americans go into these bars and they don’t know where to place it. The whole surrounding culture is missing, so they don’t get the context,” says Kirsten.
It may be that most patrons are unaware of California’s historical escapist love affair with Polynesian pop, but locals seem happy that Best has opened his bar anyway.
“This is my first time here, but I kind of like it,” Toan To, 27, said last month while sipping a cocktail near the bar’s fire pit. “It has a bit of culture.”
Where: 4657 Lankershim Blvd.
When: Open nightly 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Price: No cover
Info: (818) 766-0116; www.tiki-no.com.