Tiki bar revival
Time Out hoicks up its hula and embraces the trend for all things South Pacific
‘It’s about the aloha ethos – hospitality – that’s the best thing about the Polynesian culture,’ says Michael Butt as he shakes me up a sweet and fruity mai tai from behind the bar at new Mayfair joint Mahiki. It’s just one of a number of rum-sodden cocktails reinvented by Butt – tart lime juice daiquiris, zinging zombies, and the rich coconut-milk based piña colada – bringing some South Pacific sunshine to London’s winter gloom.
‘It’s all about lots of fresh fruit juices, and really excellent rum,’ says Butt, ‘but I’ve also toned down the sweetness a bit to give a more modern take on the tiki style.’
Inspired by the tiki tradition for unusual vessels – carved totem heads, divers’ helmets and treasure chests among them – Butt has also created some more theatrical options, such as the Krakatoa, served in a volcano-shaped vessel and spewing a flaming mix of rum and Cognac, topped off with sparks created by scattering caster sugar and cinnamon over the flames. ‘We want people to have fun, and to experiment,’ says Butt, adding, before I ask, that the place has been fully fireproofed.
‘Rum is so versatile,’ says Señor Pedro, manager of riotous tiki joint South London Pacific in Kennington. ‘People are increasingly realising that you can do more with it than just have it with coke. But tiki is not just about drinks, it’s about decor, food, everything – for some tiki fans it’s almost like a religion.’
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Certainly tiki had a mystical start, as the Polynesian name for the first man on Earth, as well as Polynesian gods of various incarnations. The modern tiki culture of Hawaiian shirts and hula girls didn’t really take shape until after WWII, when GIs returned home from the South Pacific with exotic memories of beach shacks, rum and beautiful women. Soon legendary barmen such as Don the Beachcomber and Victor ‘Trader Vic’ Bergeron started opening up tiki-themed bars in the US and UK, providing a welcome escape from the drabness of postwar life. In London they reached the height of fashion in the 1960s – The Beachcomber bar at the Mayfair Hotel was a popular celebrity haunt – before falling from favour with all but the most staunch tiki fans.
Now, it seems the rise in rum drinking is putting tiki back on the radar – kitsch basement bar Trailer Happiness has been a hit in Notting Hill, while South London Pacific is teaching Kennington to embrace the Hawaiian shirt. Mahiki is cosy rather than kitsch. Spread over two floors, this riot of bamboo, rum and hibiscus flowers is the antithesis of the uptight London style bar. Using two miles of black bamboo (a sustainably produced material), designer CheekyTiki has created a low-lit, luxurious beach-hut feel that’s surprisingly seductive. Top-quality spirits and fresh fruit juices and syrups made on-site also mean that however silly your drink may look, it will taste seriously good.
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Much-celebrated cocktail bar and steak restaurant Hawksmoor has also been dabbling in tiki, with a list of updated classic rum cocktails and flamboyant tiki glassware designed to encourage sharing. ‘We felt that drinking at the top end of the bar scene had slightly lost its raison d’être,’ says Hawksmoor founder Will Beckett.
‘Drinking should be fun. The pre-prohibition drinks were the drugs that fuelled endless parties, and when the party stopped fun-lovers sought excitement drinking in bars in places like Paris and Havana – and we’ve got drinks from those again. Tiki is the continuation of that theme: really well-made drinks that remind you that you’re supposed to be enjoying yourself!’