Today’s tiki experts—from Martin Cate to Sven Kirsten—on the most notable tiki bars across the globe.
To use the terminology “most important” when it comes to tiki bars seems like a paradox.
Tiki bars were never meant to be important. Born in America’s post-Prohibition era, these bars became wildly popular in the 1950s and ’60s for celebrating a romanticized notion of island life. Bamboo and waterfalls, torches and exotic carvings, pupu platters and, of course, boozy rum drinks served in ostentatious drinking vessels.
Yet, despite being predicated on a heavy dose of frivolity, tiki’s enduring legacy merits our respect, especially amid the genre’s modern revival.
“My focus has always been on tiki as an art form, not on tiki as mixology,” explains Sven Kirsten, setting a template for how we will best define the genre’s most important bars. A tiki archaeologist, designer and author of The Book of Tiki, Kirsten claims, “There are so few original bars left now that are great examples of the style, they need to be worshiped as temples of classic tiki design.”
The closing of many original midcentury tiki bars, like Don the Beachcomber, means that the few remaining old icons are utterly crucial to understanding quintessential tiki. And while the drinks at aging tiki dens like Trader Vic’s or even Tiki-Ti might not be up to snuff to a modern craft cocktail drinkers, the “realness” of their fabricated Polynesian aesthetic remains a significant cultural artifact.
“It is sad to see that the foodie community nowadays labels anything ‘tiki’ as long as it has some tiki drinks on the menu, and passes on places with tradition and historic context because their cocktails are not up to par,” says Kirsten. “This shows great ingratitude and ignorance to why the modern version exists at all.”
Nevertheless, there are modern tiki bars that don’t just accurately pay homage to tiki’s past, but also elevate its drinks, using fresh fruits and high-quality syrups as opposed to the commercial “mixes” that became synonymous with tiki during its darker days.
Tiki icons of yore and new-school trailblazers are both represented on the list below, which was compiled by polling some of today’s top tiki experts, including Kirsten; Martin Cate, James Beard award-winning owner of Smuggler’s Cove; Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, author of six books on tiki and owner of Latitude 29; Brian Miller, the so-called “pirate captain of all things tiki in New York City”; and “Tiki” Chris Osburn, a London-based travel writer.
Nearly half of our list comes from two hardly-tropical cities, London and Chicago. Meanwhile, Asia and Latin America were almost completely ignored by our experts—perhaps no surprise, as tiki is mostly an American art form that spread to other western, English-speaking locations, with a few notable exceptions.
Three Dots and a Dash
One of the country’s premiere modern tiki bars, Three Dots and a Dash is an underground tropical oasis with a fine-tuned focus on all things rum. The bar has become a beacon for the contemporary tiki movement—new and innovative, but still firmly rooted in the classics. A must-stop on the Chicago cocktail trail.