The History of Tiki in the Mainland USA

Victor Bergeron in his San Francisco tiki restaurant in 1961 | San Francisco Public Library

Two people are credited with bringing all things Tiki to North America. They are Victor Bergeron and Ernest Gantt. Gantt later change his name to Donn Beach. It was rumored he wanted a more Pacific type of name. Don the Beachcomber started traveling the South Pacific, the Caribbean, and other tropical places to find anything Tiki. He became obsessed with artifacts and brought everything he could find back home to his restaurant in Hollywood, California. Locals and tourists alike loved the style and were thrilled by the colors and overall ambiance of the room.

Don the Beachcomber

Victor Bergeron (Trader Vic) was right behind Don the Beachcomber. He used artifacts in a string of restaurants in Northern California. It was Trader Vic who made the little umbrellas at the top of glasses famous, and drinks in coconut shells with a straw so popular for Tiki.

Don the Beachcomber Menu, Hollywood, California menu collection | California Historical Society

After WWII, people began to copy the original artifacts because the look was so popular. Many of the soldiers from the Pacific who returned home wanted to forget the pain of the war, but they did want to remember the warmth and good times of the South Pacific. Restaurants and Tiki bars spread throughout the country like wildfire, from California to the Atlantic. Existing bars and restaurants redecorated to combine the elements of Hawaii and the Pacific. They added bamboo, thatch, carved masks, Tiki statues, and bright colors. Lanterns and torches were also placed inside and out for special effects.

The Kalua restaurant and bar in the old Hotel Windsor at 6th and Union, Seattle, Washington, U.S., 1953 | Kalua Restaurant

In the more recent history of Tiki, there have been periods when the word “Tiki” has faded and Luau has taken over. Luau parties, Luau food, Luau dances, and Luau recipes. But at the root of it all, Tiki has been at the base. If a person is truly looking at Hawaiian or Polynesian tradition, Tiki is impossible to omit. Tiki is at the center of Hawaiian and the South Island cultures. This combined with the pop culture of the United states in the Post WWII era is what helped create the Tiki we see today.

A Few of Trader Vic’s Unique Tiki Mugs

Pineapple slices, cherries, coconut, and other tropical fruit remind us of Tiki food and drink. Big, bright flowers and large colorful parrots and toucan birds are also symbols of Tiki because of original artifacts and the many gazillions of copies made in their likenesses.

Clifton’s Pacific Seas Postcard |Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers Collection

The interesting fact about these copies of statues, cups, masks, and other items is that when they were made and featured in the restaurants in the 40s and 50s, they were sold as souvenirs. People made an evening out of going to these places because there was usually a floor show, food, drinks, and possibly dancing as well. The night life crowd treated these outings as little vacations and bought the coconuts they drank out of, and everything else they used and enjoyed. Hence, these “copies” are now considered post WWII artifacts and Tiki collectables. Some are quite valuable.

Postcard view of Bali Ha’i Restaurant, 1950s

Tiki in the Mainland, USA is here to stay. Thanks to our most tropical state, Hawaii, we have a Tiki culture to love and cherish among our many others in this country. Tiki is fun, bold, bright and beautiful. With newfound knowledge for the tradition behind Tiki, it’s easy to enjoy the fun, and also respect the ancient ways of the Island peoples.