Tropicalia is undoubtedly trending across the U.S.—no surprise, since we could all use a little lighthearted, boozy escapism these days—and tiki is making waves across Texas for the first time in over fifty years. Dedicated bars are opening in most of the state’s major cities, while other spaces opt for seasonal or weekly tiki pop-ups and events. This week, Texas Tiki Week will bring a whirlwind of seminars and parties to bars across Austin, including classes led by tiki bartending legends like Boston’s Brother Cleve and San Francisco’s Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove notoriety.
Tikiphiles would say the rum-soaked revival is long overdue, considering the bar movement first emerged in California by way of Texas in 1933, right after the repeal of Prohibition. Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, Texan and former bootlegger, moved to Hollywood and opened Donn the Beachcomber, a tropical bar based on his travels throughout the Caribbean and South Pacific. He is said to be responsible for the creation of umbrella-topped rum-based cocktails like the Mai Tai, the Navy Grog, and the Zombie, as well as the innovation of over-the-top Polynesian-inspired interior design, now a hallmark of tiki bars everywhere.
While Gantt served in World War II, his wife Cora Irene “Sunny” Sund took over management of the bar and expanded it to sixteen locations nationwide. By the late 1960s, tiki had finally reached Houston and Dallas, with Donn the Beachcomber outposts plus bars like Trader Vic’s (owned by Gantt’s amicable rival Victor Bergeron) and Steve Crane’s Port of Call.
“The problem with tiki in Texas was it came too late,” says Russell Thoede, who owns Lei Low in Houston with his wife Liz. “Our liquor laws restricted a lot of them to carrying a private club license, requiring guests to pay for a locker or BYOB. We didn’t get unrestricted liquor by the glass until the seventies. By then, tiki was past its prime. Commercialized versions came to Texas and quickly shuttered after no one was interested. We had our own well-established family joints here—Tex-Mex places that had their own escape vibe.”
While tiki culture in California stood the test of time (with classics like Oakland’s Trader Vic’s and L.A.’s Tiki Ti still holding strong), it only started picking up again throughout the rest of the country in the early 2000s, with the opening of now-instrumental bars like Hele Pele in Portland (2012) and Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago (2013). When Thoede opened Lei Low in 2014, it was the only tiki bar in Texas. In 2016, Howie’s Tiki opened in nearby Spring and Daiquiri Time Out launched in downtown Galveston, bringing craft rum cocktails to the beach city for the first time. This February, Levi Tatum opened High & Dry, a tiki-inspired rum bar, in downtown Houston, and full-fledged tiki bar Kanaloa launched their soft opening last week.
The Dallas-Fort Worth area is also in the midst of a lively tiki revival. Though the local outpost of Trader Vic’s shuttered in 2010, tiki enthusiasts (like Angelica Navarro, creator of the Adventures in Tiki blog) helped keep the local culture alive while area bartenders spread the good word by creating inspired cocktails and hosting tiki nights. One of those bartenders is Brad Bowden, now bar manager of 4 Kahunas, which just opened in Arlington at the start of this summer.
“My love of tiki is what got us started, and that’s been a forty-odd year obsession,” says co-owner Chris Powell. “As a young child, my Grandpa George would tell me stories of weekly dinners with my Grandma Kaye at San Francisco’s Tonga Hut. He’d visited once while in the Navy and training for duty in World War II, then they were regulars in the 1950s. He always told me of this amazing lounge with a lagoon in the middle, thunderstorms throughout the night, and the band floating on a stage in the middle of the water.”
Before opening their own, Powell and his three partners (the eponymous “four kahunas”) visited over fifty tiki bars, from Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room to Dirty Dick in Paris, and went “an-tiki-ing” on the weekends to fill the space with décor, from lanterns to fishing nets to a mermaid-adorned ship prow. He said the owners of both Lei Low and Howie’s Tiki acted as resources as they prepared to open.
“Besides being fun, inventive bars on their own, the owners and staff could not have been more supportive of the work we were doing,” says Powell. “We even have pictures of both bars above one of our booths, so visitors know where to find more great Texas tiki.”
Nearby in Fort Worth, tiki culture has been quietly thriving for years, since The Usual started Tiki Tuesdays around five years ago. More recently, bars like The Lazy Moose have followed suit by offering tikified cocktails in a dedicated space one night a week. Proper’s weekly tiki night, started two years ago, has now grown to a three-month-long patio pop-up called Gigi’s Tiki Tiki Lounge. Meanwhile, the owners of The Boiled Owl Tavern are preparing to open Tarantula Tiki Lounge in Near Southside early next year, becoming the city’s first full-fledged tiki bar.
“I’ve been thinking of discontinuing it after they’re open, but I really like doing this,” says Proper owner Lisa Little-Adams about the weekly tradition. “We’ve put a lot into it. Maybe Fort Worth could stand two tiki lounges. Who knows?”
Bar owners across Texas are continuing to dip their toes into tropical waters by experimenting with pop-up concepts. Newly opened Local Traveler in East Dallas built an outdoor tiki bar this summer, and The Modernist in San Antonio recently launched Tiki Trailer Thursdays, where they serve tropical drinks from a 1960s trailer. Though that’s the only organized tiki operation in San Antonio at the moment, talent from bars like The Brooklynite and Hot Joy have helped to kindle tiki culture with their own creative takes.
The same is true in Austin, where bars like Roosevelt Room, Ah Sing Den, Pool Burger, Whisler’s, drink.well and Nickel City embrace tiki drinks year-round. This past spring, Craftsman opened a thatched-roof tiki bar in their backyard and, just last month, both Last Straw and She’s Not Here opened their doors, serving tiki-inspired drinks in vivid, tropical — but decidedly not tikified — settings. Later this year, the team behind Ramen Tatsu-ya and Kemuri Tatsu-ya will open the highly anticipated Tiki Tatsu-ya, the city’s first full-fledged tiki bar since the shuttering of a waterfront spot called Steak Island some years ago.
Despite the lack of a dedicated space, tiki culture has been alive and well in Austin for some time, stoked by the bar community. The United States Bartenders Guild (USBG) Austin chapter has been hosting Texas Tiki Week since 2012, when then-president David Alan and then-secretary Jessica Sanders founded it as a way to educate both bartenders and cocktail lovers on tiki history and craft. Over the past seven years, the event has grown exponentially in attendance, as the USBG brings on more well-known tiki experts like Rebecca and Martin Cate (from Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco), Steve Yamada (Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 in New Orleans) and Kevin Beary (Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago).
“I think there has been a real industry movement towards tiki,” says USBG secretary Rebecca Harris. “We’d done pre-Prohibition cocktails for several years, we’d done speakeasy cocktails, so tiki was an easy next step to move forward in 20th-century cocktails—and it’s fun! Tiki bars are coming back and people are doing it in a craft way.”
Beyond the bar community, a passionate group of Texas tiki enthusiasts has been keeping the island spirit alive since well before the trend resurfaced. Texas Tikiphiles, nearly 1,000 members strong, is one of the Facebook communities where they share articles, recipes and events.
“Austin is behind the curve on tiki, but it never went away in the tiki community,” says Texas Tiki Week co-chair Caroline Roe, garnishing a Navy grog with a custom-made swizzle stick behind her home bar, as a corner TV plays Elvis crooning on the beach in Paradise Hawaiian Style. “Commercial establishments weren’t here but we kept it alive until all of y’all thought it was worth prime time. But we always knew it was worth prime time.”