“Tiki is completely imaginary — an example of escapism at its finest,” says Brad Smith, general manager and head bartender at Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29, located on St. Peter Street in New Orleans. The popular bar and eatery is owned by Jeff “The Beachbum” Berry, cocktail historian and author.
The Tiki trend was launched in California by Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt. In 1934, he called on Hollywood set designers to create a faux-exotic world for his new restaurant, Don the Beachcomber. The Polynesian-themed hotspot was the birthplace of exotic cocktails like the Scorpion and the Zombie, along with food innovations like the pu pu platter (an assortment of small meat and seafood appetizers). Trader Vic’s opened three years later and soon expanded, launching a nationwide fascination with all things Tiki.
Both restaurants claim to have invented the Mai Tai (“Maita’i” is the Tahitian word for “good”), a blend of rum, Orgeat syrup, Triple Sec and fresh lime juice.
Tiki in NOLA
“Jeff Berry singlehandedly saved Tiki from extinction,” Smith says. Berry’s Tiki-themed cocktail books were part of a mid-1990s revival of interest in Tiki culture. Now he’s branched out into a dining enterprise, and his flagship restaurant celebrates its third anniversary this year.
How was New Orleans chosen as the location? “It’s the birthplace of the cocktail and the epicenter of the universe when it comes to drinks,” Smith says. Berry has collected Tiki relics and Polynesian-Pop ephemera to decorate. The displays include rare mugs and bowls from now-defunct Polynesian restaurants, antique Kava figures from Easter Island and eight-foot Tiki poles purchased at auction from Trader Vic’s.
Tips from a Tiki master
For those considering designing a Tiki-themed cocktail or food menu, Smith suggests keeping things simple. “There are a lot of ingredients in some of the cocktails, so you want to narrow it down to three or four main themes to minimize waste. Then test your cocktails for balance and learn how they work with other ingredients,” he says. For food, Smith suggests a focus on the fruits and vegetables that thrive in Southeast Asia. “And adding some spiciness never hurts,” he says.
Finally, Smith reminds would-be Tikiphiles that this is one trend that doesn’t take itself too seriously. “Tiki is about taking a vacation from the real world, forgetting your troubles, and losing yourself in a delicious Mai Tai and a plate of rumaki.”
Restaurant Business article on ways to plan, batch, and produce complex Tiki cocktails
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