46 Honolulu-born diva Bette Midler used to lead her concert audiences in a sing-along to the "Hawaiian War Chant," telling them, "This is real Polynesian, you understand...." The drum-heavy ditty, heard most often at Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room attraction, was about as Polynesian as Walt's wisecracking animatronic parrots. When Midler sang "Kamanawanalaya"—okay, her version was dirtier than Disney's—and passed it off as exotic island tongue, we knew darn well it wasn't real.
That's the attraction of all things tiki. Artifacts from a mythical paradise—Easter Island drink mugs, pineapple-shaped patio lights—are authentically inauthentic in their exoticism. Imagine Gilligan's Island with hard liquor and a slack guitar Martin Denny sound track and you've got the flavor of America's tiki culture.
These days, fruity but powerful drinks served in a South Seas setting are beguiling a new generation of retro-loving haole hepcats in bars like Waikiki Wally's (101 E. Second St., New York; 212/673-8908; www.waikikiwallys.com), where scene-makers sip Spiced Monkey martinis.
Let's call them the Rattan Pack. These hipsters are kindling sales of tiki tomes like Sven A. Kirsten's Book of Tiki (a definitive history) and James Teitelbaum's recently published Tiki Road Trip: A Guide to Tiki Culture in North America (bar reviews and recipes organized by state). They're springing for child-sized raffia-thatched huts from Pottery Barn Kids.And they're lapping up an entire tiki oeuvre being practiced by such artists as Shag and Bosko.
Fueled by rum and an appreciation for kitsch, this neo-tiki movement takes us back to a time when Frank, Sammy, and Dino defined masculinity, Trader Vic was Ian Schrager, and rumaki constituted chic eats.
Although today more kanes and wahines share this passion than at any time since tiki's heyday in the 1950's and 60's, some of the greatest tiki treasures—such as Columbus, Ohio's Kahiki, a spectacular A-frame restaurant with a two-story tiki-shaped fireplace—have gone to that great pig roast in the sky.
For those of us who've quietly spent the past 20 years scouring flea markets for ceramic mugs that once held drinks with names like the Missionary's Downfall—keeping the tiki torch burning in our rumpus rooms while others were knocking back appletinis in the swankest boîtes—the revival of Polynesian Pop was a long time coming. We knew the world would again realize that there's an awful lot of fun at the bottom of a Scorpion Bowl. To these new tiki fans, we raise our mugs and happily say, "Aloha."
Neo-tiki bars may be hotter than lava, but no kane-come-latelies can best these golden oldies.
47 Mai Kai Restaurant & Polynesian Revue Total-immersion tiki, with 57 tropical libations and a twice-nightly Polynesian Islanders Revue. 3599 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; 954/563-3272; www.maikai.com.
48 Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar at the Fairmont Hotel. Hawaiian heaven on Nob Hill—thatched-roof huts, a band floating on an indoor pool, and rainstorms twice an hour. 950 Mason St., San Francisco, Calif.; 415/772-5278; www.fairmont.com.
49 Hala Kahiki Everything that's not tiki is leopard print at this paradise in the Chicago suburbs. 2834 River Rd., River Grove, Ill.; 708/456-3222.
50 Trader Vic's at the Beverly Hilton. Same as it never was—faux Polynesian glamour, right down to the Cosmo Tidbits. 9876 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, Calif.; 310/276-6345; www.tradervics.com.