Island Time: How Tiki Bars Are Making Drinking Fun Again

The cocktail in my hand is a bright, almost fluorescent blue. In fact, it’s the colour of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s road uniforms. Not a hue typically found in nature, much less in a drink I’d openly admit to enjoying. And let’s be clear: I am enjoying the hell out of this sweet, boozy, pineapple-garnished concoction.

I’m able to unselfconsciously sip this tall glass of Blue Hawaii — what else would it be called? — because of context. The bar I’m sitting at is constructed mainly of bamboo. Rattan covers the walls, totem statues stand on most available surfaces, and palm thatches hang overhead, illuminated by lamps fashioned from actual blowfishes. And, before you ask, yes, there’s steel drum music playing.

But I’m not on vacation, not sunning myself on some remote island in the South Pacific accessible only by seaplane. I’m in Toronto, 10 minutes from my apartment. This little slice of paradise is called Shameful Tiki Room, and it’s at the kitschy forefront of a tiki revival in North American nightlife.

Right on time, tiki’s making a fitting and triumphant return after a decade devoted to dark, self-serious, hard-to-find speakeasies.

The original tiki movement began in the 1930s. It was the brainchild of restaurateur Donn Beach, whose Hollywood hotspot Don the Beachcomber combined over-the-top Polynesian décor with bastardized Cantonese cuisine (pupu platters, anyone?) and flamboyant rum-heavy cocktails. Between Beach’s eateries and those of his friendly rival Victor Bergeron (better known as Trader Vic), tiki culture spread across the continent in the ’40s and ’50s with post-Prohibition, postwar America hankering for a non- threatening taste of exotic escapism.

By the ’80s, tiki had fallen out of favour. Trader Vic’s long-standing location at the Plaza in New York was closed in 1989 by the hotel’s new owner Donald Trump, who, ironically, disparaged its theme as “tacky.” Trends, even in the world of booze, are cyclical. Right on time, tiki’s making a fitting and triumphant return after a decade devoted to dark, self-serious, hard-to-find speakeasies filled with brown liquor and bitter cocktails.

“So many times at the bar, someone will come in and be like, ‘Hey, I normally drink Old Fashioneds. What on your menu is like an Old Fashioned?’” says Alana Nogueda, who co-owns Toronto’s Shameful with Rod Moore, the tiki-obsessed proprietor of the bar’s original Vancouver location. “And the answer is: absolutely nothing.”

Instead, Shameful’s menu is laden with 38 classic tropical-tinged cocktails: from the iconic Mai Tai to the boozy Zombie to the much-maligned daiquiri, to say nothing of the three tiki drink bowls packed with secret ingredients, multiple straws for sharing and varying degrees of fire, which arrive at your table with the smashing of a gong and hokey theme music played over the stereo.

But Nogueda — who spent years tending bar at more run-of-the-mill establishments before opening Shameful in December — balks at the idea that any of these cocktails are all flash and no substance.

“People think of a daiquiri as being this ridiculously sweet drink that gives you a headache while on vacation,” she says, “but in a properly done tiki drink, the balance is incredible. They’re beautiful to look at, sure, but they’re also absolutely delicious: not overly sweet, not too tart, filled with fresh juices and spices and house-made syrups and a lot of booze. There’s an art to it.”

On that, I can certainly agree.

More Tiki Bars Worth Knowing

Le Mal Nécessaire, Montreal, QC

It’s a little difficult finding this under-the-radar basement bar in Montreal’s Chinatown, but the laidback vibes and shaved ice cocktails served in freshly carved pineapples make it well worth the trouble.

Miss Thing’s, Toronto, ON

Situated directly across the street from Shameful Tiki Room, the uber-hip Miss Thing’s possesses more of a loose tiki inflection than full-blown adherence to the theme. 

Three Dots and a Dash, Chicago, IL

Opened in 2012, this Chicago hotspot is often credited with kicking off the modern tiki revival. The highlight of its cocktail menu is a $385 treasure chest filled with aged Jamaican rum, strawberry, vanilla, passion fruit, pineapple, lemon, and a full bottle of Dom Perignon for good measure. 

Sip ‘n Dip Lounge, Great Falls, MT

For well over half a century, the legendary Sip ‘n Dip has bombarded its guests’ senses with fishbowl-sized cocktails, live piano performances and real-life mermaids that swim past a window behind the bar.