There are a few deciding factors that define a true tiki bar: It has to be a dive. There must be ample umbrellas in your cocktail. And the kitsch factor should be through the (bamboo thatched) roof. Sadly, the originators of this tropical trend that started in Los Angeles in the 1930s have been shuttering, despite the trend being on the rise—and yet, there are still a couple spots left, and a few newer spots worthy of taking up the mantel. We counted down the top L.A.-area tiki bars that will transport you to the South Pacific.
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Does El Segundo conjure up images of low-flying planes and plumes of smoke coming from the Scattergood electric plant? It should. There’s a heavy industrial feel to this city, but the Purple Orchid, a dive-y tiki bar just around the corner from Main Street, brings a lighter touch to the city (Oh yeah, and the Lakers and Clippers practice here, too). Pass by regulars smoking under the neon purple sign and enter a tropical mecca of fruity drinks and kitschy decor. There are the requisite bamboo-lined walls and tiki lamps, but the Purple Orchid also does tropical with a twist: yes, tiki masks hang throughout the bar, but there are barbies dangling from their mouths as sacrificial offerings, and a cage with tiny heads hangs by a big screen TV (nope, we don’t want to know their origins). The drinks, unfortunately, don’t always take such a creative turn. With an average (and hefty) price of $12, the menu lists classic picks like a Mai Tai, Scorpion, Blackwell Daiquiri and various coconut-infused libations. You may or may not get an umbrella (a must) depending on who is working, and sometimes the bartender confuses the Vic’s Grog with the Navy Grog (a tarter version of the rum-based cocktail). And the Dark and Stormy, a sailor favorite, has an unfortunate metallic aftertaste. Still, the place gets points for ingenuity, like its $10 Martini and Manicure special on Mondays. Where else can you get your nails done under hanging heads? Sign us up.
At the end of a long line of auto shops on Lankershim Boulevard sits Tiki No, a darkened tiki bar where North Hollywood regulars come to smoke on the outside patio or chat up the dive's waitress while she concots a Toasted Marshmallow. That would be one of Tiki No's more popular cocktails, made from overproof rum of Jamaica, fluffed vodka, Licor 43 and a few other sickeningly sweet ingredients. The cherry on top arrives in the form of a flaming marshmallow, causing you to wonder if you're here for drinks or dessert. Still, it's an impressive (and tasty) libation, as are some other staples on the menu—the Coconut Mojito, the Eastern Sour, the Suffering Bastard—and the bartenders make each one with admirable precision under plastic blowfish lamps. Are they a friendly crew? It's hard to tell, since conversation can sometimes be drowned out once the live band comes on—especially if it's the lone keyboardist who specializes in synth-heavy '80s music. Take refuge from the blaring tunes in the hut-style booths over a shared Scorpion Bowl. The band may not be on fire that night, but your drink most certainly will.
Drive past Tiki-Ti in Silver Lake and you will almost always see a line out the door. Its popularity is a factor, but so is its size: Tiki-Ti is tiny. Finding a seat here feels like winning the tiki bar jackpot, but once you've settled in and gained some bearings, you'll see that there are all the usual suspects—a menu filled with classic tiki drinks, tschotskes galore, a mechanical bull trotting down the bar...wait, what? The bar's unofficial mascot, a small robotic toy bull, often makes an appearance as the night wears on, walking past patron's drinks as they cheer him on. This, and many other unexpected touches, seems to drive Tiki-Ti's fandom. Sure, its cash-only policy can be a pain, but regulars will always return for the strong drinks topped with maraschino cherries. Newcomers come by to experience a Los Angeles institution—and wind up becoming regulars themselves.
As one of the few—if not the only—tiki bars we know of that welcomes children, it may come as no surprise that Trader Sam's Enchanted Tiki Bar is Disneyland-adjacent. Situated next to the Disneyland Hotel, there are children here that marvel at the bar's special effects, sip on Sam's No-Booze Brews (like the juice-heavy Schweitzer Falls), and squeal with delight as bartenders in tropical T-shirts greet them with a friendly "Aloha!". Truth be told, the adults love all of that, too. There is a certain childish delight that takes hold as you order the Shipwreck on the Rocks, a bourbon drink with freshly muddled lemon and mint, that prompts the bartender to suddenly clang a warning bell and squirt patrons with a water bottle as a fake ship sinks behind him. Or when an unsuspecting tourist asks for the Krakatoa Punch, a rum cocktail mixed with Sam's Gorilla Grog and hibiscus grenadine, causing a model volcano on the far left wall to erupt amidst mock cries of "We're going to die in the lava!" There are more mellow drinks, too: the Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Rum (yes, there are five Tikis) does not come with special effects, just rum, cream of coconut, pineapple and orange juice, and a dusting of cinnamon and nutmeg. Still, a visit to Trader Sam's requires succumbing to all forms of kitsch, like the "oa oa oa" chants coming from the table that ordered the Uh Oa bowl, or the creepy moving eyeballs on the bar's pillars. Embrace it. You're in the happiest place on Earth, after all.
When you enter the Tonga Hut, LA's oldest operating tiki bar and our favorite of the bunch, there will be, without fail, a drooling bastard there to greet you. We're not referring to a sloshed patron slumped over the bar—although, no judgment if that was you last Saturday night—but rather the Drooling Bastard, this North Hollywood bar's unofficial mascot. The sloppy drunkard comes in the form of a lava rock fountain, where a tiki mask (the bastard) dribbles water (a drunkard, clearly) into a small pool. Across from the fountain, the bartender—and yes, there's usually just one working each night, so be patient—whips up classic tiki cocktails, like Mai Tais garnished with large sprigs of mint or the always-popular flaming Scorpion Bowl. The Tonga Hut, which opened in 1958, has a loyal following of patrons, some of whom have tried every 80+ cocktails in "The Grog Log" (a famous tiki book); as a reward, they become members of The Loyal Order of the Drooling Bastard. For the mere mortals among us, we can be happy choosing our favorite tunes at the jukebox before settling into the Tonga Hut's cozy booths or chatting up regulars at the bar.