The return of the tiki bar, and a memory

08 Sep

It has been a good half-century or so since the tiki bar reigned in pop society drinking and dining circles. Led by the iconic Trader Vic’s, the fad swept eastward from the Pacific Coast and there wasn’t a home worth its sea salt that didn’t have a couple of souvenir tiki drink glasses on a shelf somewhere along with a few leftover paper umbrellas.

Well, return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. The New York Times has decreed that the tiki bar is back.

In the newspaper’s annual fall restaurant report, Florence Fabricant writes:

The tiki revival — a gust of nostalgia for a time when Trader meant Vic’s, not Joe’s — planted its paper umbrellas at a couple of New York bars this year. But soon it will go for the big time when the 250-seat Hurricane Club opens on Park Avenue South.

“I think we need some of the escapism, especially in an economic downturn,” said Michael Stillman, president of Fourth Wall Restaurants, which is opening the 13,000-square-foot bar and restaurant on September 13. “All that farm-to-table stuff is serious and exhausting and too earnest. We need to have some fun.” (Full story here.)

One of the upscale staples of the tiki bar was one version or another of the famous Mai Tai, a Polynesian-sounding cocktail actually invented in the U.S. It was whipped up in 1944 as the signature drink at Trader Vic’s in California by owner Victor Bergeron for his South Seas-style restaurant and bar.

Over the years, other Trader Vic’s were started all over the world, known for their South Pacific decor, elaborate drinks menus (the cover of the 1965 edition is shown at left) and live entertainment. Some eventually went off under non-Bergeron ownership and the credit for creating the Mai Tai was claimed by many other people.

In 1970, Bergeron, who died in 1984 at the age of 82, got fed up with people laying claim to his drink and wrote the following:

“Many have claimed credit. … This aggravates my ulcer completely. … In 1944, after success with several exotic rum drinks, I felt a new drink was needed. I thought about all the really successful drinks; martinis, Manhattans, daiquiris, all basically simple drinks.

“I was at the service bar in my Oakland restaurant. I took down a bottle of 17-year-old rum. It was J. Wray Nephew from Jamaica; surprisingly golden in color, medium bodied, but with the rich pungent flavor particular to the Jamaican blends. The flavor of this great rum wasn’t meant to be overpowered with heavy additions of fruit juices and flavorings. I took a fresh lime, added some orange curacao from Holland, a dash of rock candy syrup, and a dollop of French Orgeat, for its subtle almond flavor. A generous amount of shaved ice and vigorous shaking by hand produced the marriage I was after. Half the lime shell went in for color.

“I stuck in a branch of fresh mint and gave two of them to Ham and Carrie Guild, friends from Tahiti, who were there that night. Carrie took one sip and said, ‘Mai tai. Roa ae”. In Tahitian this means “Out of this world. The best.’ Well, that was that. I named the drink Mai Tai.”

Today, there are Trader Vic’s in places ranging from the U.S. to Dhubai. In the U.S. alone, they are in Scottsdale, AZ, Beverly Hills, Atlanta, San Francisco, Chicago, Houston and Las Vegas, among other places, and abroad they are in such locations as London, Berlin, Tokyo, Shanghai and Beirut. They are a fitting homage to the name Trader Vic’s, which has popped up in films, books and in such unexpected places as the lyrics for the late Warren Zevon’s song “Werewolves of London.”

To wit, “I saw a werewolf drinking a piña colada at Trader Vic’s. His hair was perfect.”

Check out my New York Drinks Events Calendar, the most comprehensive you’ll find anywhere.

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Posted by on September 8, 2010 in Bar/Tavern/Lounge, Cocktails, History


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