The Return of the Parasol-Topped
Tiki Bars Make a Comeback, Cockatoos and All.
By HELENE STAPINSKI
FISHERMAN came from California with his vibes and a dream to play
his Polynesian-tinged exotica lounge music in a New York City tiki
"I would say tiki, and people would say, 'What's that?"
said Mr. Fisherman, scratching his goatee, his eyes wide behind
rectangular glasses. "Nobody had ever heard of it. I was sad."
Little did he know when he arrived 14 months ago, New York had been
a tiki-free zone for nearly a decade. In the late 80's, the Hawaii
Kai staged its last hula floor show. Trader Vic's at the Plaza Hotel,
a favorite haunt of both Richard Nixon and Salvador Dali, closed
in 1993. Its replacement, the Polynesian-themed restaurant Gauguin,
lasted just over a year.
When Mr. Fisherman arrived on the East Coast, the only place in
town with a bamboo hut booth and a drink topped by a little paper
parasol was the Jade Island restaurant in a strip mall on the Jersey
side of Staten Island.
Things have changed. The tiki gods are finally smiling on New York.
As if rising from the mist like mythical Bali Hai, a wave of new
tiki bars has suddenly appeared at half a dozen places around the
city; three opened in the last year. The mai tai, a rum drink invented
by Trader Vic in 1944, is making a comeback, served by waiters in
Hawaiian-print shirts, watched over by hand-carved wooden tiki heads.
Tiki, a West Coast creation, took off after Americans returned home
from the South Pacific after World War II with fond memories of
grass huts, white sandy beaches and tropical flora.
"It was the flip side of World War II and the horrors of war,"
said Michael Batterberry, editor and publisher of Food Arts magazine.
"Tiki was fantasy land."
Today, the stress brought on by attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the
subsequent military action against terrorists, fear of travel and
need for emotional escape help explain tiki's return, especially
in New York.
"Traveling to a place like Bali is out of the question for
most people nowadays," said Sven Kirsten, the author of "The
Book of Tiki" (Taschen, 2000), a coffee table book considered
a bible by tiki enthusiasts. "The terrorists have nothing better
to do than blow up a surfers' club in a beautiful, peace-loving,
open-hearted tropical paradise. So now you go to your neighborhood
tiki bar. The great social escape is tiki. You can enter the bar
and leave the world outside."
On a recent night at Waikiki Wally's at Second Street and First
Avenue in the East Village, paradise lay just beyond the tiki-guarded
front door. A cluster of tropical birds, including a cockatoo named
Wally, greeted an assortment of guests that this evening included
a couple with a baby, a single man ordering a rum-filled zombie
and eight young women from Connecticut at a bachelorette party.
"I've been to tiki places in the Bahamas and in Hawaii,"
said Lisa Kontomerkos, the bachelorette, lei around her neck, tiara
on her head. "But never in New York."
The owner, Hayne Suthon, who also runs the drag-queen supper club
Lucky Cheng's, was a little disappointed to hear that New York had
other tiki bars. "I didn't want to be part of a trend,"
Décor includes a huge mural of a beach scene, silk coconut
palm trees, a bar with a thatched roof, South Seas dioramas that
look like something out of the Museum of Natural History and a waterfall
gurgling with tiny bubbles. Ms. Suthon even had Don Ho sing for
opening night in September, and every Monday night, Wally's is host
to the Tiny Bubble Band.
Only one thing is missing: the pu pu platter. In place of the traditional
torch-lit, rotating wooden tray of shrimp toast and spare ribs,
Ms. Suthon offers more sophisticated fare, like ponzu-marinated
sesame salmon and Asian pear salad.
The main attraction, though, is Mi Cheng, Ms. Suthon's diminutive
partner (and Lucky Cheng's namesake), who struts around in a grass
skirt and Hawaiian shirt with a lei on his head. "He created
his own persona," Ms. Suthon said. "He looks as if he
was spewed out of a volcano."
Typically, tiki bars reflect their neighborhood. At 22nd Street
and Fifth Avenue is Tiki Room, a Silicon Alley minimalist take on
tiki created by Nancy Mah, the designer of Lotus bar and restaurant.
There's not a palm tree or thatched roof in sight. Instead, flat-screen
television monitors show beach images and the bar's Web site to
the singles crowd. A burlap menu offers drinks like the Causeway
Spray and the Burning Bush, plus pan-Asian fare with touches of
coconut and pineapple. There's even a V.I.P. section.
contrast, Otto's Shrunken Head at 14th Street and Avenue A serves
drinks out of skull mugs while a D.J. spins the Clash. Richard Nixon
would not have been comfortable here. At the opening last month,
a fellow with a Mohawk greeted neo-punks at the door, while the
bartender, wearing black eyeliner and a rhinestone dog collar, taught
another bartender how to cut a pineapple.
WITH its Playboy pinball machine and faux leopard-print fabrics,
Otto's is more tacky than tiki. But there's a bamboo bar, a tiki
drink menu scratched on the wall and puffer fish lamps floating
Until last year, Steve Pang, Otto's owner, ran a music rehearsal
studio on the Lower East Side, but his dream was a bar that was
sort of rock club meets tiki. "I didn't want to serve cosmopolitans
and martinis," he said. "I was sick of that whole exposed-brick
wall, open-space thing."
Since 9/11 and the economic downturn, bar and restaurant owners
in New York have been making their surroundings more comforting
"Everything is warming up," Mr. Batterberry said. "Even
the pu pu platter has something very atavistic about it. Sitting
around and grilling your food in the cave — there's this sense
Despite the recent spurt of enthusiasm, New York was late in coming
to the tiki table. For years, tiki "didn't seem to suit New
York's mentality and consciousness," Mr. Kirsten said.
That is why, he believes, he had a hard time finding an American
publisher for "The Book of Tiki." Most publishing houses
are based in New York, he pointed out, and publishers would :
"Tiki? What is this guy talking about?"
After a decade shopping around "The Book of Tiki," Mr.
Kirsten found a German publisher to release it in the United States.
The book is in its second printing and is to appear in paperback
"The beautiful thing about tiki," he said, "is that
it functions well in tropical climates, like in Florida and California,
but it works just as well in the snow or in a harsh urban climate
like New York. In the concrete jungle, you need some relief."
Tiki also stirs powerful, atavistic memories among many New Yorkers.
Somewhere deep in the memory banks of many people in their 20's
and 30's is a recollection og a coconut- and pineapple-flavored
family dinner at a place like the Hawaii Kai.
Mr. Pang, a native New Yorker, remembers walking past the Hawaii
Kai when he was a kid. "I remember the midget outside yelling
at people to come in," he said with a laugh.
The tiki renaissance is not limited to Manhattan. Across the East
River, the Zombie Hut bar has been attracting Brooklyn's youthful
Smith Street crowd ever since it opened in August. The owner, Tod
Bullen, and his partner, Renee McClure, have brought in comfortable
couches, drinks like the Gilligan and custom-made skateboard cocktail
By contrast, Otto's, in the East Village, is adolescence distilled,
with album covers on the walls and a giant, blue-eyed tiki head
that blows smoke from its nostrils. One night the machine went haywire
and filled the room with noxious smoke, but no one seemed to mind.
Mr. Fisherman, who was soaking in the tiki vibe at the bar before
going on stage, beamed. "All these places opening up at the
same time," he said. "It's a dream come true for me, baby."
Helene Stapinski is the author of "FiveFinger
Discount: A Crooked Family History," published last year by
Photographs by Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times