Fun Fact: Tiki bars – those tropical, Polynesian-themed bars filled with wooden Tiki masks and fruity, umbrella-laden cocktails – are a purely Hollywood invention. Beginning with Don the Beachcomber, which opened in 1934, the trend became a pop culture sensation in the 40's, as evidenced by the number of Tiki bars still surviving today. But unlike those spinoffs riding the Tiki tidal wave, Hollywood hole in the wall Tiki-Ti is just keeping it in the family.
When Ray Buhen opened Tiki-Ti in 1961, it was after a long career that started as one of Don the Beachcomber's original bartenders. When Ray finally decided to retire from the bartending business, the ownership of Tiki-Ti was passed down to his son, Mike, who currently shares his shares with sons Mike Jr. and Mark. In fact, the entire operation is family-owned and operated, a point confirmed by volunteer doorman Barnaby Chiong, who's worked there for three years, but doesn't really work there.
"I don't really work here," he said. And while the history is interesting, and the bar is a landmark, it isn't what the bar has done that makes it famous – it's what the bar does.
What Tiki-Ti does is draw huge crowds into a space roughly equivalent to an over-accessorized closet. It brings them from all corners of the US (and keeps them coming, as almost every patron I talked to was a regular). Miami native Denise Contreras said this bar alone is worth the trip she makes to Los Angeles every year.
"I love the Bloody Tiki!" Contreras said. "I like it because it's spicy – and bloody! I don't like a fruity drink. To me, this is the only place in LA where I feel like I'm on an island. I was like oh my God – I'm in the keys!"
No matter what your drink preference, Tiki-Ti's got your poison. Amid the lava lamps and palm fronds you'll find a menu boasting over 90 tropical cocktails to lei your tongue with. But one of the best bar-top surprises you'll find isn't a plethora of drinks, but the availability of ash trays. Because the entire staff of the bar also owns the bar, Tiki-Ti skirts the no smoking policy most California bars are forced to enforce. This is handy for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it actually FEELS like it's a post-war theme bar, and at the very least, it allows patrons to enjoy the simple pleasure of having a cigarette without vacating the premises.
Imer Vigil has been coming for three years. "It was close to my house before I moved. But I still come for the vibe, the smoke. Drinks are pricey, but they're not rippin you off. Everyone here is family. You don't find bars like this anymore."
In April, Tiki-Ti will have been creating this kind of allegience for 50 years, which is no small feat for a Hollywood bar. The secret, according to Mike Jr. isn't the insane drink list, it's family.
"It's a neighborhood bar," he says, "They come here for the drinks, but mostly it's the friendly atmosphere. I mean, I get moms comin in here for when their kids turn 21."