After the fire, Oakland’s love of tiki burns on
on November 15, 2010
Until it burned to the ground, Tiki Tom’s waterfront restaurant and bar, with its giant inflatable rooftop frog and bright yellow exterior, was a difficult place to miss. A red-and-white banner emblazoned across the amphibian’s midsection beckoned to commuters on the nearby Park Street Bridge to stop in and sip a $4 happy hour mai tai, or catch the latest televised sports game from beneath a canopy of surfboards and paper lanterns.
But on Thursday, October 7, at around 11 p.m., flames engulfed the restaurant’s bamboo-covered walls and red-and-yellow nautical smokestack, consuming the building in a three-alarm fire, which destroyed the property and ignited a boat docked behind the bar.
Black clouds of smoke billowed over the waters of the estuary, as firefighters battled for several hours to prevent the fire from spreading to the adjacent apartment buildings. “The entire structure was burning from stem to stern,” said Oakland Fire Department Lieutenant Scott Hellige.
Known for its live Hawaiian music on weekends, Tiki Tom’s had a reputation for drawing a rowdy crowd, and even garnered a few noise complaints from its neighbors. But on this particular night, Hellige says firefighters found the building locked and chained when they arrived. “I don’t know if it’s normal for a restaurant to be closed on a Thursday night,” said Hellige, “but at least we didn’t have to worry about there being customers inside.”
The cause of the fire remains under investigation. A receptionist for the property’s landlord, Richard Weinstein, said she could not comment, citing a confidentiality agreement with tenants. Multiple interview requests left for the Oakland Riviera Group, LLC, which is listed on the deedas the property’s tenant, were not returned.Oakland North was unable to locate contact information for Tom Davies, who according to employees and several news articlesis the bar’s owner, or to clarify his relationship to the Oakland Riviera Group, LLC.
For its regulars and employees, the loss of Tiki Tom’s in Oakland is a blow to the sugary-sweet escapism of their favorite watering hole, which was both the most recent and shortest-lived addition to the East Bay’s tiki bar scene. Two tiki bars remain in Oakland—the Conga Lounge in Rockridge, and the Kona Club on Piedmont Avenue. A second Tiki Tom’s (under different ownership) is located in Walnut Creek, and it’s a short commute to nationally-known tiki bars Trader Vic’s and Forbidden Island, located respectively in Emeryville and Alameda.
Many residents are just now becoming aware of tiki, a themed subculture characterized by mid-century tropical kitsch, complex rum-based cocktails, and named after Polynesian carved wooden idols, or “Tikis.” But Oakland has played a pivotal role the style’s development, starting with the opening of the city’s first tiki bar, Trader Vic’s, over 75 years ago.
Local fans of tiki are eager to tell outsiders that the Mai Tai, the quintessential tiki bar rum-based cocktail, was invented in Oakland by Trader Vic, and was officially declared the official drink of the city in 2009. There’s even a t-shirt, sported by some tiki bar patrons, that reads: “Oakland, home of the Mai Tai, not just the drive-by.”
Paul Vietzke, 50, has been a tiki bartender at the Conga Lounge in Rockridge since it opened seven years ago. His short brown hair is neatly parted to one side, and he wears a short-sleeved blue button-up shirt emblazoned with images of spears, carved wooden idols, and hibiscus blossoms. As he muddles mint into a mixture of tropical juices, rum, and almond syrup, a tiny television shows a movie scene where Elvis Presley karate chops his way through a luau bar fight. Vietzke garnishes the drink with a pink toothpick umbrella, a slice of pineapple, and a maraschino cherry. “It’s Mai Tai Tuesday,” he says with a wink.
Every square inch of wall space in the cozy lounge is plastered with tropical kitsch—fake parrots, wobbling hula girls, and 1960s exotica album covers compete for customers’ attention. A lone red and gold Mexican sombrero hangs in a corner of the bar. “Some people just hate that sombrero,” Vietzke says. “They say ‘That’s not tiki. It’s inauthentic.’ I say tiki is about escapism. If you look at its origins, you can see it’s the opposite of authentic.”
The roots of tiki go back to the World Wars, when American soldiers brought back souvenirs from their deployments in the South Pacific, sparking a national obsession with all things tropical. “People in the 40s and 50s interpreted Polynesian culture freely, and wished to recreate it bigger than what they experienced when they were actually stationed there,” says Sven Kirsten, the Los Angeles-based author the Book of Tiki, and self-proclaimed tiki anthropologist. “There is no Isle of Tiki out there. It’s a distinctly American creation.”
It’s true that tiki, with its over-the-top and sometimes politically incorrect imagery, has an only tangential relation to actual Polynesian culture, but that doesn’t bother the enthusiasts. “Yes, it’s supposed to be fun! It’s supposed to be kitsch! It’s supposed to be inauthentic,” says Kirsten. “It’s like a political caricature. You take a politician and you exaggerate his features, but he still has to be recognizable for it to be a good caricature. Otherwise, it’s just a silly drawing.”
As early as the 1930s, restaurants had begun to capitalize on tropical trendiness by using nautical themes in their décor. Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, later known as Donn Beach, helped to set the style’s standards at his Los Angeles-based restaurant chain Don the Beachcomber, where he incorporated fishing nets and sections of wrecked ships into the décor. But it was at a small saloon in Oakland called Hinky Dink’s that the finishing touches were put on the style of Polynesian pop that would come to be known as tiki.
Photos of the outside of Hinky Dink’s from when it first opened at 6500 San Pablo Avenue in 1934 reveal a humble birthplace for tiki culture, more reminiscent of an old barn than a bar. Rather than bamboo, wood paneling covered the outside of the building, which owner Vic Bergeron built using $700 of his life savings, carpentry help from his wife’s brothers, and his mother’s pot-bellied stove and oven. The décor inside of the restaurant was vaguely tropical, and menus were printed on wooden cigar boxes.
But after a trip to Hollywood, Bergeron decided that although he liked what he had seen in the nautical restaurants there, he could do better. Bergeron overhauled his menu, adding Cantonese cuisine and more complex tropical drinks. He incorporated fishing nets, glass Japanese boat float lanterns, and fishing traps like those he had seen at Don the Beachcomber into his design, before adding a few pieces of his own flair: spears, torches, and the soon-to-be-iconic carved traditional wooden Tiki idols. Lastly, he changed the name of the restaurant—in 1937 Hinky Dink’s became Trader Vic’s.
A 1940 article from the Oakland Tribune described the bar’s success even from its early days: “The trading post itself has attracted tourists from all parts of the world,” the Tribune reporter wrote. “Its unique design is of Samoan architecture. The ceiling and exterior are built of Samoan weavings, woven by a Samoan chief and his tribe specifically for Trader Vic’s establishment.” An accompanying advertisement shows a drawing of a topless Polynesian woman leaning against a palm tree, while bare-chested men roll barrels of rum toward Trader Vic’s restaurant in the background.
Although its original Oakland location closed in 1972, from the first Trader Vic’s would spring forth an international chain of tiki establishments that still exists today. At its restaurant in Emeryville, pictures of Bergeron and the original Hinky Dink’s are proudly displayed. Tiki idols stretching from floor to ceiling occupy select corners of the restaurant; a multi-tiered chandelier of seashells hangs in the foyer of a banquet hall.
The employees are infused with a strong sense of pride. “Trader Vic’s, we’re the original,” said Sergio Flores, Trader Vic’s corporate kitchen trainer, as he led a tour of the Emeryville restaurant’s back kitchen during a slow Wednesday night in mid-October. Only a few patrons, most in their late 40’s and 50’s lingered near the bar, or watched sports news from one of the flatscreen TVs near the main bar.
As he walked through the stainless steel industrial kitchen, Flores pointed out ingredients from a few of the items on the Trader Vic’s menu: chicken wings tossed in orange chili sauce, duck tacos in a sweet plum reduction, caramelized onions with Hawaiian-style pork chops. Tiki bar food is usually a flavor balance between sweet and sour, he said. “We serve foods that go with tropical drinks. We’re thought of as a drink place first, and a food place second, but the food is really good, too.”
Today Trader Vic’s has 25 tiki-themed restaurants all over the world, including the newest which opened in Saudi Arabia in 2009. “Without us, none of the other places probably would be here,” Flores said. “We invented the Mai Tai, so that symbolizes that we’re here to stay. But it all started in Oakland. [Tiki] all comes back to Oakland.”
Unlike Trader Vic’s, most of the East Bay’s tiki bars are independently owned neighborhood watering holes, started by local tiki enthusiasts or curious entrepreneurs.
When Michael Thanos and his three brothers opened Pizza Rustica on College Avenue over 20 years ago, they had no intention of putting in a tiki bar. However, when they acquired the second floor of the building in 1990s, discussion arose over what to do with the space.
“We tried using it as a banquet hall and a tapas bar, but nothing seemed to take,” said Thanos, pushing back the sleeves on his brown-and-white vintage Aloha shirt, while adjusting the bulb in a dried puffer fish lamp that has gone out. “I thought a themed bar could be fun, but I didn’t know what type. Then, when I was about to turn 30 in 1999 I came across a magazine article about how to throw a tiki-themed birthday party, and images came to me of Elvis in Blue Hawaii, torches, and idols, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is brilliant.”
After the success of his birthday party, Thanos and his wife quickly became “tiki converts,” collecting memorabilia and frequenting tiki bars like the Tonga Room in San Francisco. “To me, tiki was the ultimate in midcentury escapism,” said Thanos. “Businessmen in gray flannel suits changing into Aloha shirts—it’s such a uniquely American idealization of something completely different. I also loved that it had such a deep connection to Oakland, but I was sad that there were no tiki bars left in the city.”
Up until the mid-1960s, tiki had been at a fever pitch all over the country. Beyond tiki-themed bars, Polynesian art was incorporated into the architectural design of places like laundromats, bowling alleys, and apartments, although few of these buildings survive today. “Up until Vietnam, tiki was everywhere,” says author Sven Kirsten. “But then with the war and the counterculture movement, it wasn’t so cute to sit in a thatched hut and drink tropical cocktails anymore. It was a sign of the establishment, and all of a sudden, tiki places started disappearing.”
While a handful of bars and a few major chains, like Trader Vic’s, survived the 1970s and 80s, most of the establishments that were part of the initial cultural boom were forced to close their doors as customers lost interest. It was not until the mid 1990s that a renewed enthusiasm for tiki began to emerge, partially spurred by the rise of the Internet, where people began documenting related obsessions like tropical drink recipes and tiki mug collections.
“A few enthusiastic people kept tiki alive in their backyards, building their own bars,” says Kirsten, “but they weren’t connected to a movement. The Internet helped build that critical mass, and what we saw was a tiki revival. What was a subculture is not becoming mainstream again.”
In 2000, Kirsten published The Book of Tiki, considered by some enthusiasts to be the definitive resource on tiki culture. In the early 2000s, new tiki bars began popping up in major cultural hubs like New York City and San Francisco.
In 2003, Thanos convinced his brothers to turn the second story of Pizza Rustica into the Conga Lounge, marking the beginning of the Oakland Tiki Renaissance. Thanos decorated the walls with his own memorabilia, supplementing it with items from garage and estate sales and a few select auctions. After reading Sven Kirsten’s Book of Tiki, he imposed a set of ground rules: no windows, no sports, and no news. “What’s the point of going to an escapist place if you’re going to watch CNN?” Thanos said.
The happy hour special would feature Mai Tais and Mai Tais only, and drink recipes would have to be authentic to their original and complex 1950s recipes. “We were anthropologists. We had to research how to bring tiki back to life,” said Thanos. “We’re a time machine—not just in the sights, but in the sounds and the tastes.”
The success of the Conga Lounge inspired a new wave of tiki bars in the East Bay. In 2005, Douglas Miller, who also owns the nautically-themed pool hall Thalassa in Berkeley, converted the former King’s X (pronounced “King’s Cross”) pub on Piedmont Avenue into the Kona Club, where a perpetually hula-ing statue of a Polynesian woman and a behind-the-bar volcano keep customers coming back for more. (Say the word “Spam” and the bartenders will set off a smoke machine volcanic eruption.)
In 2006, Michael Thanos and his brother Mano opened Forbidden Island in Alameda, a tiki bar where dollar bills hang from the ceiling of the thatched bar—a callback to the days when sailors would leave them on the walls of their favorite South Seas bars, promising to buy themselves a drink when they returned.
Many patrons at Forbidden Island are regulars, not just of the bar itself, but of the tiki blogs and forums that enjoy a healthy online following. On CriTiki.com, for example enthusiasts can post pictures of their latest garage sale mug finds or share inspirational images of tiki mood lighting, like red-glowing papier-mâché volcanoes and net-enclosed Japanese fish float lanterns.
Customer Chad Martens has made it his mission to help confused-looking first-timers at Forbidden Island. “Do you need help deciding what drink to order? I’ve tried them all,” he offers. Martens is a tall, enthusiastic man with sandy-blonde hair, a big smile, and colorful tattoos running up both arms. He and his wife Jenny Martens, a friendly, calm woman with glasses and strawberry blonde hair, come to Forbidden Island every Wednesday, despite the fact that they have a tiki bar in their own backyard just a few blocks down the street.
“It’s a culture, kind of like a family,” said Chad Martens. “We’re actually not that into the scene, but we do enjoy tiki. You should come over, and I’ll make you a real Mai Tai.”
A few days later, Chad and Jenny Martens are standing in the living of their Alameda home, which is a veritable shrine to tiki kitsch. Clad in a bright orange and yellow Aloha shirt, Chad stands in his living room, smiling broadly and holding an 18-inch plastic Godzilla action figure wearing a red fez and holding a tiny Tiki mug—the Martens’ personal tiki mascot. “This is Fezzilla. He’s the original atomic tiki monster,” Chad says. “He’s got his own Facebook page and Facebook friends. Fezzie actually goes to the bar with us a lot.”
An aquarium in the corner makes a faint humming sound, as colorful fish swim by tiny underwater Tikis. A 1935 imperial Japanese officer’s sword hangs above a door frame. Sitting on a shelf is an army of approximately 150 tiki mugs, ranging in worth from garage sale items to a large $120 Forbidden Island volcano bowl, which is designed to hold tropical drinks for sharing.
As they walk through their kitchen toward the backyard, the Martens point out a few more items that they have collected, including a three-foot salad fork and spoon set with Tikis carved into handles. “Aren’t they great? These were really popular in the 1960’s,” says Jenny.
“Yeah, and sometimes we like to have a really big salad,” says Chad hammily.
Tiki torches illuminate the Martens’ backyard, where fruit trees line an immaculately manicured lawn. In the corner, leopard print barstools and “zombie crossing” signs decorate the bamboo walls of the bar the Martens’ have constructed themselves. Silk hibiscus flowers drape from the thatched ceiling, which overhangs some comfortably worn wicker chairs and a portable fireplace.
As Chad mixes a Mai Tai, a few sparks from the fire ignite a corner of the carpet, which Jenny quickly extinguishes. “Careful, we don’t want another Tiki Tom’s,” Chad says, laughing.
As Chad sips his drink, he and his wife discuss local bands, history, horror movies, and, of course, tiki. Although the Martens did not meet in a tiki bar, they agree that it is a commonly-made assumption. “We met through a mutual friend, and found that we had this in common,” Chad says. “We have normal lives too.” (In his non-free time, Chad works at a lawn and irrigation company in Berkeley; Jenny is an artist and works at a machine shop near the Park Street Bridge, close to Tiki Tom’s former site.) “We found each other, and then we found tiki,” says Jenny. “Not the other way around.”
“We’re actually considered fringers in the scene,” says Chad. “We’re not your hardcore tiki freaks. Yes, we have crap in our house. Yes, we have a bar. Yes, we like the clothes. But we don’t fly cross-country to visit every dive-y place that has a tiki sign in it, or go to every crappy bar that has some bamboo on the wall.”
“It’s special to us, and it’s special to Oakland,” continues Chad. “Tiki has really come full-circle here.”
On a night not too long after the fire, the moon is shining brightly over the burned-out remains of Tiki Tom’s. Inside the charred structure, a man wearing thick dirty gardening gloves scavenges pieces of scrap metal; Oakland police officers quickly show up and arrest him. An out-of-date red and white banner still hangs over the restaurant’s wooden entrance sign: “Now Open.”
Not much official information has been released about the ongoing investigation into the fire at Tiki Tom’s in the month since the restaurant burnt down, and most other tiki bar owners are reluctant to talk about the fire. Some news outlets erroneously reported that prior to the fire the bar had lost its liquor license. The bar was in the process of losing its zoning permit for live music, said Aubrey Rose, an employee at the Oakland City Planning Commission office, but records from the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control show that the restaurant’s liquor license was valid until 2011.
But although Oakland is minus one tiki bar, there are signs that tiki itself is about to get more mainstream. In November, Disney announced that it plans to film a movie roughly based on its Enchanted Tiki Room, an Adventureland attraction where animatronic tropical birds sing to visitors at its southern California theme park.
Locally, Oakland bartenders say that tiki still has universal appeal. “Tiki isn’t just about idols,” said bartender Paul Vietzke, during a lull in his shift at the Conga Lounge. “You see all kinds of people in tiki bars: couples on first dates, hipsters, older folks, a group of women on girls night out. Each bar is also a little different. There is ghetto tiki and classic tiki and everything in between. It really has something for everyone.”
“Tiki is not going anywhere,” said author Sven Kirsten. “The revival has been going on for over 20 years. In some places it has died down, but in other places it’s just being discovered. I think it has found its niche in the American pop culture, and there will always be people who are enchanted with it. It’s about escape, after all. Who can’t relate to that?”
Tune back in tomorrow, for the tale of the Sea Wolf, the fireboat that came chugging out of semi-storage to put out the Tiki Tom’s fire.
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