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From a time warp oasis to a Caribbean rum bar — Charleston is riding a tropical tidal wave

Paradise Found

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It smells like wet bamboo and tastes like a smoke machine run stale. It feels like three cans of cheap beer and two shots of whatever was left in the apartment. I don't know if I called it tiki, this annual Bahama themed party held in the depths of a fraternity's basement, but it certainly had all the elements: dark room, live fire, tropical foliage, boozy/fruity drinks. We wore bathing suits and sarongs and danced in kiddie pools. It was February and I was far from the beach, but it felt like another world.

The cult of tiki possesses a very specific milieu. I'm pretty sure that basement didn't count, but it imitated the theme to a T. Like the great steward of tiki dreams Donn Beach said, "if you can't get to paradise, I'll bring it to you."

The tiki trend — born in 1930s Hollywood with Don the Beachcomber, a tropical cafe that opened during the Depression — had its heyday through the early sixties, but has seen a resurgence in the past five years. Kara Newman writes in The Atlantic in June 2018, "half a century after the tropical craze of the 1960s, the modern age of escapism is taking cues — and inspiration for giant rum drinks — from the past."

Mai Kai Restaurant, founded in 1956 in Fort Lauderdale, is one of the og tiki bars - COURTESY NATIONAL HISTORIC REGISTER
  • Courtesy National Historic Register
  • Mai Kai Restaurant, founded in 1956 in Fort Lauderdale, is one of the og tiki bars

Modern escapism, of course, looks very different from the immersive practices of the '30s, '40s, and '50s. Those struggling through economic depression, world war, and red scares did not have push notifications — they could enter Don the Beachcomber, Trader Vic's, or Mai Kai and slip away to another world. Today, modern tiki bars make a point to build bamboo-laced walls blocking out harsh reality. Newman: "There are no TV screens inside the Polynesian, the giant new tiki bar that opened three stories above Times Square over Memorial Day weekend. That means no news crawl, no Fox & Friends, no jaw-gritting headlines — nothing to break the illusion of a rum-fueled tropical oasis."

At South Seas Oasis Tiki Lounge, the year-old tiki bar built in a retired train barn on Ann Street, there is nary a streaming sportsball game in sight. Hawaiian shirt clad bartenders shake up Scorpions and Zombies and Mai Tais while Exotica plays in the background. Tiki bibles — Smugglers Cove, The Book of Tiki, Beachbum Berry — are lined up behind the bar. Smuggler's Cove author Martin Cate writes about his first tiki experience, "What were these fearsome totems and enigmatic masks? What culture, what era did they come from?"

RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith

Cate's introduction at a Washington Hilton Trader Vic's led to a lifelong devotion to and study of the topic. South Seas general manager and beverage director Michael Leslie, like Cate, was bewitched by tiki from the moment he stumbled upon it.

Leslie acknowledges that the concept is far more nuanced than any layman seeking a fun night out on the town could even begin to consider. "People don't realize where it has come from and the history behind it and the fact that it disappeared," says Leslie. "It was relevant, iconic, as far as pop culture went, this huge trend. It was a style. It was so popular, and then just a light switch went off, times changed." Indeed, what culture, what era, did tiki come from? And where is it now?

 The cult of tiki

In Smuggler's Cove, Cate breaks down the styles of tiki into four points in time — Style I "tropical or pre-tiki," Style II "Beachcomber style," Style III "trader style," and Style IV "high tiki." In a comprehensive book of more than 300 pages, there is a lot of ground to cover, from decor (indoor waterfalls are a must) to music (lounge tunes if you know what's good for you) to achieving total darkness (no windows, ever). A great tikiphile knows this history — can recite it verbatim. But even the most casual tikiphile must know the genesis. So, here goes.

Meet Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, born in 1907 in Texas, or New Orleans, or maybe Jamaica. "He was a little loose with the facts of his youth," Cate writes. Gantt would travel to the Caribbean with his grandfather, then on to dozens of islands on his own until 1931, when he washed up in L.A. broke and taking odd jobs, regaling audiences with his tales of the tropics. He opened a ramshackle rum bar with drinks that drew crowds of curious Hollywood denizens. By 1937 he moved into bigger digs, dubbing his spot Don the Beachcomber — and changing his name to Donn Beach. Of course.

Mai Kai Restaurant, founded in 1956 in Fort Lauderdale, is one of the og tiki bars - COURTESY NATIONAL HISTORIC REGISTER
  • Courtesy National Historic Register
  • Mai Kai Restaurant, founded in 1956 in Fort Lauderdale, is one of the og tiki bars

Before Don the Beachcomber, the tropical or pre-tiki nightclub would be filled with bamboo, thatched roofs, and palms. These early clubs were inspired by the popularity of Hawaiian music sweeping across America in the early 20th century. They were as glamorous as could be, with diners dressing like celebrities and dancing beneath palms festooned with coconuts. The key distinction between this pre-tiki style and those that followed was one very important factor — the drinks. "No one had yet thought to match over-the-top drinks to the over-the-top decor," writes Cate.

The styles evolved from formal to eccentric and ramshackle (courtesy of Donn Beach, waltzing around in his cut-off pants and weathered linen suit); to a more industrious version with the "trader" style, utilizing design elements like barrels and shipping crates and nautical props; to the final level of elevated tiki, where "every design element that came before coalesces and amplifies," and is taken to the max — we're talking lush, live tropical foliage, macaws, alligators, shifting color murals, and tikis themselves becoming an integral component of the bar.

There are not alligators (yet) in South Seas, but other elements are blown out. "Especially in the lounge area, you lose time," says Leslie. "There's that escapism, that is where tiki came from. Tiki was supposed to be this Polynesian decor, but the drinks were totally contrived. It's not a Polynesian cocktail, it's juicy boozy rum drinks. And the food is Cantonese and Filipino. Part of it, the goal was to create nostalgia for the troops from World War II stationed in the Philippines and Hawaii. And they loved it. And it's so crazy how it just became cool. There was Elvis and Blue Hawaii. It was all made up."

Tiki bars are entirely American — real life amalgamations and fantastical renderings of the places Americans from California to Texas to New York dreamed about, and visited. As Newman writes, in the post-war years, "thanks to developments in commercial aviation, more Americans were able to visit the actual South Pacific. In particular, tourism to Hawaii thrived."

South Seas Oasis Tiki Lounge serves boozy rum drinks in a space filled with classic tiki ephemera - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • South Seas Oasis Tiki Lounge serves boozy rum drinks in a space filled with classic tiki ephemera

But then again, everyone and everything in America came from some other, older place. And while tiki is admittedly its own thing, it is not entirely immune to accusations of cultural appropriation. The word itself, according to Cate, originated in New Zealand and the Marquesas Islands, referring to the carving of a "first man, god, or symbol of procreation." Americans hawking the tiki theme used the word to describe any vaguely human-looking Polynesian carving. Using this ancient foundation, Americans also started carving their own idols, assigning random (perhaps irreverent, if we're keeping score) attributes to different carvings in the bar's gift shops: God of Romance, God of Adventure. Historian Sven Kirsten referred to these mainlanders possessing a "whimsical and naive attitude towards another people's extinct religion."

The operative word being whimsical — the goal of tiki was never to steal another people's way of life, it was to create something entirely new. "I tell our staff 'let's not take ourselves too seriously,'" says Leslie. The restaurant industry vet and former audio engineer says that South Seas often turns into a late night escape for hospitality workers. "It's like Cheers, like Tiki Cheers," laughs Leslie. "We've been here a year, we're a spot. We don't have to be the spot, just a spot for people. It warms my heart to have these people here."

The paradoxical allure of tiki — intimate and cozy, yet exotic and dangerous — is clearly at work in South Seas with paraphernalia fit to burst out of the tiny space, but it's also showing its face in smaller concepts around town. Before South Seas, Leslie's good friend Davey Jones was popping up at Faculty Lounge once a month for Tiki Monster. "It would be him and he'd bring in a guest bartender and just do tiki night," says Leslie. "That is what gave me hope, I saw how many people were into it."

Then there's Tattooed Senorita on Folly Road, decidedly not a tiki bar, that has started to host Tiki Night Sundays, with specials on rum punches and "tiki drinks" and of course, promises that everyone will "get leied." The Dewberry, a luxe hotel with its own midcentury vibes, has plans to open the Citrus Club, a "whimsical rooftop lounge," this fall. Early details promise "umbrellas in drinks ... citrus inspired cocktails and seasonal juices, plus fresh, lite bites for lunch and dinner." All-pro Charleston barkeep Ryan Casey will serve up the hotel's signature pina colada in addition to fruit-driven sips like the Melonballer and a Frozen Bananas Foster. And we cannot forget the circa 2005 Voodoo Tiki Bar & Lounge in Avondale, a mashup of tiki drinks and decor, late night crowds, and a hoppin' venue for everything from live music to drag queen bingo.

Perhaps the project that tikiphiles are most excited about, though, is the soon-to-open (slated for late September) Folly Beach behemoth, Wiki Wiki Sandbar. "We are going to blow it out, we're pretty excited," says Xan McLaughlin, Wiki Wiki's beverage director. A relative newcomer to this world, McLaughlin was sacrificed to the tiki gods, so to speak, when he attended the Hukilau convention this summer. Held annually for nearly 20 years at the famed circa 1956 Mai Kai Restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, Hukilau is proof that the cult of tiki is alive and well. It brings together dozens of bartenders, performers, bands, and presenters from around the world to celebrate the great tiki golden era of the '50s and '60s for four days.

Richard Oneslager, who now heads up the convention, says he got involved because he's been passionate about rum and cocktails for years.

"There are contemporary tiki bars opening up all over the country," says Oneslager. "Super quality bartenders are making amazing drinks, and exposing young people and new people to what a quality drink is all about. We're getting rid of that perception and bastardization of tiki bars from the '70s and '80s."

Leslie, McLaughlin, and Oneslager exist in a golden era, too, one in which words like "craft" and "artisanal" are not just descriptors — they're commandments. Leslie fully embraces the tiki vision, while also explicating the importance of the requisite over-the-top drinks. "[The resurgence of tiki] has been happening for the past five years, more so on the West Coast," says Leslie. "The cool thing about it is craft cocktail bartenders who do all these dry, spirit forward cocktails, tiki is the opposite. It's funky, juicy super rum forward. It's become cool again, I love that craft cocktail bartenders are bringing it back."

Every tiki bar is a rum bar, but not all rum bars are tiki bars

Cane Rhum Bar specializes in rare, strong, and delicious rum - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Cane Rhum Bar specializes in rare, strong, and delicious rum

The foundation of every good tiki cocktail is rum. And while tiki has its own convoluted history, rum's past is downright tumultuous.

Paul Yellin, owner of Cane Rhum Bar on East Bay Street, is a Barbados native and rum scholar. "From what we can tell through history and science, sugarcane was grown and cultivated in Papua New Guinea about six to 10,000 years ago," says Yellin. "From there it moved up into India — we know that because one of Alexander the Great's general's recorded a party in India where they got drunk on 'wine made from tall grass.'"

From India, sugarcane traveled to China, and on to the Persians, who were able to distill the fermented wine, making the alcohol content much higher. Yellin says that when Columbus made his second voyage to the New World in 1493, from Spain to the Canary Islands, there is a manifest from this trip that notes the explorer took sugarcane with him.

Cate also touches on the origins of rum in Smuggler's Cove, "The prime use of sugarcane originally was to satisfy the insatiable sweet tooth of Europeans. Sugar was the oil of its day — it was a hugely valuable commodity that powered world trade."

Cane Rhum Bar is not a tiki bar in any sense — it is Caribbean, with a heavy focus on strong, rare, and insanely smooth rum. But, as its proprietor sagely posits, "not all rum bars are tiki bars, but all tiki bars are rum bars."

Yellin says that he opened Cane because after a few years living in Charleston, "I almost stopped going out. Every menu, every bar looked the same to me. It's always interesting to see someone do something else, I didn't know what it would be."

RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith

What it turned out to be is the place for anyone who loves rum, or who thinks they've had a proper rum drink, to sit and sip a while. Chances are, even the most devout aficionados haven't seen the expansive collection Yellin stocks on his walls. Plus, it's not completely random that a native Barbadian would own a proper rum bar in Charleston.

Before the Revolutionary War, Yellin says that "tons of people were distilling rum in the colonies, here in Charleston people were distilling rum. It was a very big part of life." The sugarcane these colonists were importing came from sugar plantation systems established by European settlers in the Caribbean and Brazil. The harvesting of this plant required a large labor force. Cate writes, "it is estimated that two and a half million African slaves made the Atlantic crossing just on British ships between 1709 and 1807. In Barbados alone, the population of slaves outnumbered Europeans by more than two to one in the 18th century."

There is a very strong Barbados and Charleston connection, written about extensively in our pages, the Post and Courier, and even NPR. The Barbados and Carolinas Legacy Foundation, formed in 2012, works to "facilitate business, education, historical and cultural collaboration between Barbados and the Carolinas."

The foundation writes, "A second expedition [of Brits living in Barbados] reached Albemarle Point near what is now Charleston in 1670. That land is now the site of the Charles Towne Landing state park. The Barbadians brought with them indentured servants and enslaved persons to work the land."

After cutting ties with England, America, with no navy or access to the waters between our shores and the coveted sugarcane, instead turned to the Scots and Irishmen who were here. "The English said 'we aren't selling you rum,' so America turned to what was here, barley and corn, wheat, rye," says Yellin. "They started making whiskey, and 40 years after the war of independence, rum was out of style."

Yellin says that thanks in part to Prohibition — Bill McCoy was a rumrunner off Long Island, smuggling the good stuff from Barbados and Bermuda — and the influx of tiki bars, rum started to see a resurgence in the U.S. In his 1946 Book of Food and Drink, Trader Vic writes, "one of the main reasons for the past unpopularity of rum has been due to the lack of knowledge about the various types to be used, its various flavors and its proper use. No one bothers to explain that there is a rum for every purpose."

In Smuggler's Cove, one can find recipes for any occasion and every purpose. Among the more than 70 cocktail recipes in the book, there's hot buttered rum, "the most famous way to ward off the chill of a cold night;" Jamaican milk punch, described in 1873 as "the surest thing in the world to get drunk on, and so fearfully drunk, that you won't know whether you are a cow, yourself, or some other foolish thing;" and the Hurricane, "a perfect three-ingredient drink that captures exotic flavor in the simplest way."

Whether it's fresh and bright, cool and creamy, or boasting a proof that will burn your insides, the crafted cocktails and premium rums in Charleston's tropical bars are guaranteed to leave you feeling just a little bit lighter.

"It's not not reality," says Yellin. "But it is supposed to invoke an experience, I'm not just selling you a drink. It smells like suntan lotion in here, like coconut. There are no TVs — half of America doesn't know how to have a drink at a bar without looking at a TV. People have forgotten how to be social, and that's why I don't play the TV. You see people in here, they sort of slouch their shoulders with relief. Rum, for me, it's like Champagne. It's celebratory."

Serious fantasy

No TVs. Your phone forgotten in your bag. Your new friend sits a bit down the wrap-around bar. Lost time and gained perspective, perhaps? Smuggler's Cove says that to establish the "look and feel" of tiki, there are five critical elements at play: contrast, darkness, water, gemutlichkeit, and escape.

This means that you should feel that you're stepping from one world into another; the bar should be "enveloped in perpetual twilight;" install a fountain, waterfall, or aquarium to add "so much to the atmosphere;" aim to create the German word for tranquility, comfort, and lack of stress; and create an escape "from a barrage of communication and information — emails, texts, social media."

Critiki, a website that reviews tiki bars around the country, based on categories ranging from decor to drinks to "tikiness," rates South Seas at an impressive 8.4 overall. "One of the biggest aspects that we tried to accomplish here but we couldn't totally accomplish is that there are not supposed to be windows, it's supposed to be dark and hidden," says Leslie. "That's the vibe, not on the beach. People don't get that, they assume tiki is on the beach." We all have superficial ideas of tiki, from college basement parties to childhood visits to Rainforest Cafe — but they stray so far from reality that for tikiphiles, they're downright offensive.

RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith

"People inevitably use the word kitsch or tacky to describe tiki. Still, to this day. It pisses me off. Right away from the first article written about me in 1995 the headline had 'tiki tacky' in it. Tiki didn't become kitsch until the 1970s or 1980s, until it was over, then it was looked upon as kitsch in the past, as a retrospective sort of thing. It wasn't kitsch in the 1940s, '50s, '60s. The tiki bar was serious fantasy, " writes tiki revivalist Otto Von Stroheim.

South Seas creates their own fantasy with leis laying around for tipsy patrons to wrap around their smiling compatriots, hanging chairs in the lounge inviting one to float away, and boozy drinks so delicious, you may forget how many you've tossed back. "We do it to the nines," says Leslie. "And everyone is chill. We're getting people strong drinks, late nights. And there's never been a fight here. What are you gonna get in a fight about?"

McLaughlin says that with Wiki Wiki being located in the middle of Folly Beach, they're taking escapism to the next level. "It's hard to think about any worries when you're in that tiki world," he says. "And we definitely want to provide that kind of escape. The thing I love about Folly, you can go to Jack of Cups and it's this small place with delicious food, and then you can come see us for this huge, monstrous cocktail scene. You get to choose your own escape."

Born out of a need for mid-century Americans to escape for a bit from the confines of morality and conformity, the fear of the great unknown, tiki bars were carefully curated, ever-evolving experiments dedicated to achieving ultimate relaxation. Today, we harken back to those subterranean oases craving that moment of pause where everything feels alright.

And it doesn't have to be the spot, just a spot.

"Everyone has their own vision of paradise," Cate writes in Smuggler's Cove. "But for many American people in the middle of the twentieth century, there seemed to be a shared ideal. A space that was once inviting yet dangerous, cozy yet mysterious. The tiki bar."

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