The Ghost of Tiki Past
by Courtney Ferguson
IN POLYNESIAN MYTHOLOGY, "tiki" is the synonym for the first man. Nowadays, tiki is more likely to conjure up images of giggling lushes hunched over brimming bowls of rum. How did tiki go from a round-bellied dude to a locale where otherwise serious folks sit around getting deliriously girl-drink drunk? I like to imagine that right after Mr. Tiki was done sculpting the first woman out of mud, she promptly asked for a Mudslide, or Mud Grog, or anything with a tiny umbrella. Ah, evolution—you're a beautiful process!
Since the dawn of the first tiki bar (in the '30s), tired, thirsty people have been craving tropical holidays in a glass. It started with the end of Prohibition, when people wanted to get sauced, toot sweet! So a series of proto beach bums, one-legged businessmen, and womanizing B-movie actors (Don the Beachcomber, Trader Vic, and Stephen Crane, respectively) stepped up to give the people what they wanted—bars bursting with island kitsch and specializing in the day's cheap booze: rum. Riding the public's growing fascination with all things South Pacific after WWII soldiers returned from its bare-breasted beaches, the tiki fad went ballistic. In the '50s and then in its heyday in the mid-'60s, tiki bars sprouted up like the psychedelic mushrooms that would eventually kill the craze, as the Summer of Love maintained it just wasn't cool to tie one on like mom and dad. But boy howdy, the 'rentals used to get plastered in those palatial tiki halls—where there were waterfalls, volcanoes, blazing torches, rainstorms, sloe-eyed exotic dancers of questionable Polynesian descent, and enough booze to float the Kon-Tiki through the Sahara.
Before hippies ruined everything, the tiki bar filled a huge hole in the American popular zeitgeist. When the zipped-up '50s folks wanted to take a vacation from having sticks up their asses, they'd head down to the Puu-Puu Palace and look at the scantily clad floorshow, revel in the warm reclines of a bamboo grove, and sip sweet, sweet concoctions from the teat of a coconut. Once Hawaii joined the union in 1959, the level of tiki mania ratcheted, eventually inspiring a conflux of atomic-age style and island culture in far-flung motels, bowling alleys, and of course, watering holes. Even Portland saw the ninth Trader Vic's franchise in 1959, and Stephen Crane's international Kon-Tiki chain had an outpost by the Lloyd Center. Most of those boozy thatches were destroyed in the '80s, but the concept made a resurgence in popularity in the mid-'90s—around the time of lounge music's blip—and steadily continues today. Portland alone still has three healthy rum-soaked booze troughs filled with blowfish and pie-eyed tiki-heads.
But why is tiki still so cheeky? Probably because we've yet to evolve past enjoying a tropical vacation in our mouths. Hell, for 10 bucks you can take a face-warming holiday surrounded by all the requisite tropical trappings—try the zombie bowl and you'll be feeling the vacation for three days straight.
Tiki Present: Portland's Three Enchanted Tiki Rooms
by Alison Hallett and Courtney Ferguson
Hale Pele, 2733 NE Broadway, halepele.com
The humid interior of Hale Pele, AKA home of the goddess Pele, will have you peeling off your winter layers. They end their daily happy hour (5-6 pm) with a well-timed thunderstorm that echoes over the entrance bridge and the sunken bar. The drinks are stiff, and prettied up with flowers, swizzle sticks, and FIRE! The Lapu Lapu ($10) was particularly delicious, with a plethora of fruit, obscene levels of eye-crossing rum, and a goblet. (Note to bar: Please concoct a new drink called Harry Pele and the Goblet of Fire, and I will drink it in my finest Quidditch bikini.) Not much has changed since the tiki bar's days as Thatch—same awesome décor, same pufferfish light fixtures, same clandestine group booth seating in the back. Look out for the huge tiki in the bathroom—he likes to watch you pee.
The Alibi, 4024 N Interstate, alibiportland.com
Like an airport lounge or a dive bar in Newberg, the Alibi during off hours feels comfortably anonymous. If you drank six Bahama Mamas and disappeared into the night, all traces of your indiscretions would disappear with you. The Alibi serves up the sweetest, most low-rent tiki drinks in town—bartenders have a heavy hand with the flavored vodkas. While the daytime vibe is chill, the nighttime karaoke crowd doesn't know the meaning of "island time." The Alibi is a completely different beast when the patrons start warbling—it's BUSY, and hard to bust your way through the sea-shelled maze. But with all that tiki grog in your belly, it'll feel downright cozy.
Trader Vic's, 1203 NW Glisan, tradervicspdx.com
In resuscitating the local outpost of a long-dead chain, the owners of Portland's new Trader Vic's went big. LITERALLY! The Pearl District bar and restaurant is downright cavernous, though it was mostly empty on the night of our visit. The drinks are strong but balanced—you'll get drunk without noticing it's happening, if that's your goal. Try a fish bowl of something fruity, like the Peach Tree Punch, or opt for something with a commemorative garnish if you really want to get your money's worth. The $5 happy hour menu is actually pretty solid, but Trader Vic's is what it is: On the night of our visit, two ad guys were trying to impress a visibly bored table of what appeared to be models, which is such a Pearl District cliché that we couldn't make it up if we wanted to.
Tiki Bars... of the Future!
by Alison Hallett
Tiki has proven a surprisingly enduring trend in Portland, but it makes sense: What soggy resident of the Pacific Northwest doesn't occasionally fantasize about a sunnier, drier, better life? About whittling your torso down to the swimsuit body you just know is in there somewhere? About volleyball on the beach—you could learn to play volleyball—and living in some kind of shack, like a one-room deal with a leaf roof and vines for walls and it's rickety but it never seems to fall down?
Sitting in an overheated tiki bar, twirling a tiny umbrella, is the perfect setting for boozily cataloging those and other regrets. Forget stoically drinking microbrews—sometimes you just have to cut loose and get good and girl-drink drunk.
But as Portland continues to change, Portland's take on tiki will surely change too. Here are our predictions for the evolution of the genre.
Where tiki bars were once soundtracked by tropical thunderstorm sound effects, bars in the future will be able to create their own indoor weather systems. Tiny tropical storms will be summoned to your table at the push of a button, and miniature lightning bolts will zap you if you get too fresh with the help. Future science! It's a crazy thing.
The chemixology movement of the late 2020s makes the flaming tiki drinks of the past look like a cherry phosphate at the soda shoppe. Drinks erupt like tiny volcanoes when you drop in an ice cube. A Tequila Sunset dims to black if you don't drink it fast enough. Fog Cutters come shrouded in dense layers of actual fog so thick that tiny knives are provided for slicing through it.
North Portland activist groups protest the Menehune cocktail garnish found in Trader Vic's signature Menehune cocktail. "We've never been to Hawaii and we don't quite get the context, but we're pretty sure it's racist," reads the text of the website urging a boycott. The establishment responds by announcing that from now on, only locally foraged squirrel skulls will be used for garnish.
Once-popular tiki cocktail the Zombie is stricken from cocktail menus, because, like, we're all just kind of over the zombie thing, you know? I mean it was fun for a bit, but it got, like, really old.
The Alibi doesn't change a single goddamn bit.