There was a time in this country when, despite your parents’ warnings, it was okay to play with your food. No, not that way, but to have fun and really enjoy what’s on your plate. During our childhood years, there was not a lot of that sort of thing, but remember the first time you went to a McDonald’s and maybe received a little toy, or purchased a box of Cracker Jack’s just to see what bit-of-nothing-really was in the box. The bubble gum in the pack of baseball cards was completely beside the point. And let’s not even mention the baby in every King Cake.
Having fun with your food was a fine thing. You could actually smile and eat, as if you were having a good time.
Here’s some welcome news: those days are ba-ack. Unfurrow that brow. Unclench those hands. Quit being so stern. Tiki has returned to New Orleans in a big, big way. And we are all the better for it.
What? You don’t know Tiki from Tai-Chi? That could be the difference between a fun meal with an amazing drink or a good nap. Either way, not so bad. The word “tiki” in South Sea culture actually means the first man. It’s what we in the western world call Adam of and-Eve fame.
But in the culinary and beverage sense, Tiki is a style of approach, culture and interior design that makes dining a blast. Think small plates. Think well-prepared exotic drinks with a heavy emphasis on rum. No down sides there.
Tiki was a brain-child of two American West Coast restaurateurs in the 1930’s. At the time, this country was just coming out of the Great Depression and finally putting the failed Noble Experiment – Prohibition – way behind us. The American people were ready to party. The gloom of a soon-to-appear World War was not yet in sight.
Ernest Gantt, a Hollywood boy who had spent some time growing up in the Caribbean and the South Seas, and a former bootlegger, opened Don’s Beachcomber Café in Hollywood in 1934. Gantt moved the restaurant a few years later due to its popularity and the need for a bigger place. He not only changed the name of the restaurant to Don the Beachcomber, he changed his name several times – Donn Beach-Comber, Don Beachcomber – and ended up with Donn Beach.
A few years later, a restaurateur, Victor Bergeron, from Oakland, California became enamored with the whole South Sea approach to dining, even though there was very little authenticity referring back to the far-from-America location, and Hinky-Dink’s evolved into Trader Vic’s, a worldwide chain of faux Polynesian culture and themed restaurants.
The interior of these places shared much in common, grass-cloth over the walls, Maori-style heads placed all over the joint, low-lighting, drinks served in porcelain bowls, and menus with small rib dishes, shrimp, crab, bits of beef warmed over sterno pots, heavy use of slender wooden spears instead of silverware, community drinks shared with long straws and odd names for dishes and drinks. “Yes, I would love a mai-tai, a pu-pu platter, along with an order of Shrimp Rangoon.”
The mai-tai became the signature drink of the Tiki Culture and its invention was claimed by both of the founders of the movement, Trader Vic’s and Don the Beachcomber.
But the real secret to Tiki is that the drinks were excellent; terrific and creative blends of citrus, sugars, rums and secret potions. They packed a pretty good punch (pun intended) and the names still resonate in mixology. Planter’s Punch. Navy Grog. Tahitian Rum Punch. Zombie.
To the best of my memory, always a shaky proposition, New Orleans was never blessed with either of the big chain Tiki restaurants, but we had the legendary Bali Ha’i, located at Pontchartrain Beach and still one of the greatest Tiki establishments I have ever visited. Thatched roof and all the trimmings, including the Beach, the amusement park and the Lake right out the back door.
And now, those Tiki days have returned to New Orleans, three-fold. A city does not get any more fortunate than that.
Cane & Table
1113 Decatur Street
From those wonderful folks who brought you Cure on Freret Street, Nick Detrich and company have put together another legendary watering hole. The décor is heavy with French Quarter decay, including a great courtyard especially perfect while waiting for a table-seating. Rum is center-stage with an amazing Boss Colada, Banana Manhattan, and even an homage to New Orleans home fermentation, a Cherry Bounce.
The food offerings are equally off-the-hook, a not-to-be-missed squash blossom cangrejitos, pork skins with jerk seasoning, crispy rum ribs, and a melt-in-your-mouth ceviche.
301 N. Peters, enter on Bienville
Second floor Felipe’s Mexican Taqueria
What a great concept, a mash-up of two cultures. Mexican downstairs. Tiki one flight up. Oh, Happy Day! The talented and creative Nathan Dalton is the dude behind the concept and it’s been awhile getting off the ground but now it’s up and running full out. Here you will be served from a Tiki hut, sit on a Tiki sofa, be surrounded by Tiki décor, and sip from a “genuine” Tiki porcelain Maori head cup. Whenever Nathan is involved in a project, you can bet the bar gang is fully up to speed on the proper way to make a drink while entertaining you with stories about how the culture came to be.
321 N. Peters
In the Bienville House Hotel
Now we come to the Tiki-est of all the Tiki restaurants in town. Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, the most celebrated author of Tiki books in the world, moved to New Orleans 3 years ago and this is his baby. Along with Anene, his charming wife, and a staff of truly talented and caring professionals, both behind the bar and in the kitchen (is there a better Tiki-chef name than Steve Yamada?), this group has constructed the ideal setting in which to enjoy superb cocktails and nosh on platters of delightfully tasty cuisine.
I have chided Beachbum about the name, since New Orleans is located closer to, if not right on, latitude 30, but he has the perfect response. “Our restaurant is not quite on latitude 30, and across the street is Engine Company 29 of the New Orleans Fire Department.” Can’t quibble with that logic.
Why don’t you, in the very near future, drop by any of these incredible manifestations of an ersatz and completely made-up culture? I can’t think of another city that can pull off Tiki with such authenticity than New Orleans.
Better than visiting just one, do them all in a sort of Tiki Trail progressive drinking and dining evening. You can walk between all of them, with a proper go cup, of course. I will likely see you along the way.