Does a Tiki Bar have to have a sign that says “Tiki Bar”?

Colleen at the Tiki Bar

There are many types of people in the Tiki community. Some are kind of “go with the flow”, anything-goes kind of cats who enjoy Tiki cocktails and the Poly-Pop/Tropical aesthetic for the sheer fun of it. Others are the keepers of the faith…the Tiki Purists, those who are committed to celebrating and preserving the original style of Tiki cocktails, decor, etc. that has its roots in mid-century America. And of course, there’s everyone in between.

Something that comes up now and then as a point of conversation between purists and revelers is: Does a Tiki Bar have to SAY it’s a Tiki Bar to be a Tiki Bar?

There are literally thousands of commercial and home bars that have a Tiki Sign hanging over them. A sign that says “Tiki Bar” is more common and used (or overused, depending on your point of view) than Tikis themselves across America. Beach bars up and down the coasts might be as simple as having a thatched roof, and have a sign that says “Tiki Bar”. But one thing is for sure: There are no mid-century style (whether original or new and inspired) bars, lounges, or restaurants that hang a sign that says “Tiki Bar” or has “Tiki Bar” in their name. (Disclaimer: Things change quickly in our world, so if there is one out there, let me know in the comments).

Tiki Terrace at Dennis Hotel, Atlantic City
The Tiki Terrace at the Hotel Dennis in Atlantic City, NJ, 1950s-70s. Note the sign. This outdoor lounge/restaurant boasted a Luau and a Hawaiian Hamburger. Some would call this a tacky bastardization of the original Tiki Aesthetic, but the truth is, this kind of bar was pretty common back in the day.
Tiki Terrace at Dennis Hotel, Atlantic City
Arial view of the Tiki Terrace. The Hotel Dennis still stands, but the Tiki Bar is long gone.

Is this because there were no bars in the 1940s-70s with a sign that said “Tiki Bar”, and so it’s not used, to be true to the original? Ah, probably not. In fact, if you sift through old photos of hotels, restaurants, and beach bars of the mid century, there’s no doubt you’ll find plenty of lounges with a sign hung on them.

Fort Lauderdale’s Mai Kai, arguably the most famous original mid-century Tiki style establishment in the world, does not say “Tiki Bar” anywhere on sight.

So then why do the purists say, “If it has to have a sign that says Tiki Bar, it’s not a Tiki Bar”? Well, the short answer is…they’re purists, and “pure” means adhering strictly to what the OT’s (Original Tiki) did, and that was to name their upscale establishments with wording that evoked an exotic, far away place…like the Mai Kai, or Trader Vic’s, The Hukilau, Don the Beachcomber, Hawaiian Cottage, etc. The perception is, the “Tiki Bar” sign was hung on cheaper, less exotic, and often tacky little places trying to cash in on the Polynesian Pop craze without putting in the work.

So is that true? Is it correct? “If it has to have a sign that says Tiki Bar, it’s not a Tiki Bar” Well, that’s simply a matter of opinion (and, no offense to the purists, but an elitists opinion at that). After all, there are very few of us still alive who were actually an adult during the mid-century, who would have first-hand knowledge of every bar in the country and whether it met the “is it a Tiki bar or not” criteria, AND who would remember it correctly. We have photos, we have books, and all of them should be taken into account.

We know for a fact that many non-Tiki themed restaurants and hotels had a separate lounge with a “Tiki Bar” sign on it…and many of those lounges were very much in sync with the Tiki aesthetic.

And we know that many bars that say “Tiki Bar” are just NOT. (Especially here in Florida, where you’ll see a bar decorated with brightly-painted surf boards, blow-up bottles of beer, plastic parrots and not a Tiki in sight that claim to be a Tiki Bar).

So I’ll take a stand. The official word from Tiki Lounge Talk: If your Tiki Bar has a sign that says Tiki bar but doesn’t have the elements that make a Tiki Bar, it’s not a Tiki Bar. If your bar has TIkis and thatch and fishnets and vintage elements and good rum and artwork that fits the aesthetic, and you want to hang a sign that says “Tiki Bar”, yeah, it’s a Tiki Bar.

Cheers everyone, drinks on the house!

-Tiki Chris P, reporting from the Tiki Bar on the Lanai with the sign that says “Tiki Bar”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *