Tiki culture in the United States as we know it traces its roots back to 1934, the year after Prohibition was repealed. Two enterprising gentlemen, one a bootlegger named Ernest Gantt, the other a young entrepreneur named Victor Bergeron simultaneously, but independently, opened small bars in California that featured tropical décor and potent rum-based drinks with exotic names like mai tai (which, for your information, is Tahitian for "out of this world").
Bergeron’s place in Oakland, originally called "Hinky Dink’s," would be re-named "Trader Vic’s," and would expand rapidly through the United States in the and 1950s and 60s. Gantt’s place in Hollywood would soon be known as "Don the Beachcomber," and would be no less influential in the rise of tiki culture throughout the US.
Fast forward 24 years to 1958. The Dodgers had just left Brooklyn to inhabit Chavez Ravine, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s "South Pacific" was a bonafide hit, and two brothers named Ace and Ed Libby decided to ride the wave of popularity of the growing tiki movement by opening the Tonga Hut in North Hollywood.
For years, "The Hut" was the place to be for returned G.I.s and their wives looking for an exotic escape into tiny umbrellas, palm fronds, thatched huts, and dropped ceilings. In the 1980s, however, The Hut fell on hard times, due to partly to a decided backlash against tiki. The exoticizing of Polynesia was no longer an escape, but merely cheesy. The quality of drinks and service at the bar fell precipitously.
The Hut fell on hard times, due to partly to a decided backlash against tiki.
"Tonga Hut became known as Tonga Butt," said manager Marie King. The place was so bad that when a patron complained that a mai tai should have lime in it, the confused bartender unironically threw a whole lime, peel and all, into the blender with the drink. Tiki bars all over the country closed shop. Don the Beachcomber’s original location shuttered in 1985. The Trader Vic’s at the Beverly Hilton, which opened in 1955, eventually succumbed and closed its doors in 2007.
The Tonga Hut survived, and is now the oldest tiki bar in Los Angeles. Not only that, but it’s had a renaissance in the past few years, enjoying a remodel that has left the interior looking chic and mid-century modern while still distinctly tiki in character (they've even expanded to Palm Springs). Furniture is simple and democratic. Black velvet paintings of topless native women overlook the snug, curved booths on one side of the bar. On the other side is a larger, communal space where leather benches flank an inglenook-style chimney fireplace. A driftwood sculpture abuts the excellent jukebox (runs the gamut from Johnny Cash to Kiss to Hawaiian-themed exotica) and a large map of the Polynesian islands. The lighting is very dim, as it should be.
King is very much in charge – the owners Amy Boylan and former rap-metal guitarist Jeremy Fleener don’t deal much with day-to-day operations. With such autonomy, King has had free reign to re-make the drink menu and whip the bartending staff into shape. They now go through rigorous training: "If a bartender here makes you a Zombie and then a few days later you come back and a different person makes you a Zombie and it doesn’t taste the same? That’s not acceptable to me," King said.
A different person makes you a Zombie and it doesn’t taste the same? That’s not acceptable to me
The art of the craft cocktail is something King has been weaving into the fabric of the Tonga Hut’s long history. So far, it seems to be working. The drinks are good – some are downright fantastic. It helps that King is a wizard who makes dozens of syrups in house at the bar: hibiscus, tamarind chili, Earl Grey(!), ginger – she even makes her own allspice liqueur.
King is acutely aware of the most common problem that befalls most tiki drinks: they’re too sweet. "I follow this formula," King says, then she recites: "One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak." That balance ensures that mai tais don’t turn into the sugary garbage you get from a machine or on a Carnival cruise.
King’s own creation, the "Hawaiian Eye," contains two different rums, orange and lemon juices, passion fruit puree, a tiny bit of Pernod, and is a splendid mix of tart and sweet. The "Coconaut Re-Entry" is for those who – well, let’s face it, sometimes you just want something that’s on fire. The drink is, like many at the Tonga Hut, a deadly combination of delicious and ungodly strong. Seven ounces of Jamaican rum strong. It’s mixed with coconut cream and lime juice, all set ablaze on a pyre of Bacardi 151.
The Tonga Hut is, at its heart, a place for locals. "Sunday is our regulars day," King says, and smiles. "Lots of overweight guys in Hawaiian shirts. I say that endearingly." One particularly touching tribute is that during every weekday happy hour, they place a "Reserved" sign at one seat at the bar. That seat is for Dottie, who began attending weekday happy hours with her husband beginning in 1961. When her husband died in the 1980s, Dottie continued the tradition, settling into the same seat every day at 4pm for a scotch and soda until she passed away in 2010.
The Tonga Hut is, at its heart, a place for locals
Those looking to enshrine themselves forever into tiki immortality can accept the challenge of imbibing, over the course of one year, every drink in a book called "The Grog Log." There are 78 in total, and you get a piece of paper that the bartender initials every time you try a new drink. If you make it, you become an honorary member of the "Loyal Order of the Drooling Bastard," and your name, and probably your liver, go onto a wall display for all to envy and admire.
Tonga Hut is located at 12808 Victory Blvd in North Hollywood. (818) 769-0708 The Hut is open every day from 4 p.m. until 2 a.m. Happy hour is every day until 8 p.m.
Photos by Wonho Frank Lee