To use the terminology “most important” when it comes to tiki bars seems like a paradox.

Tiki bars were never meant to be important. Born in America’s post-Prohibition era, these bars became wildly popular in the 1950s and ’60s for celebrating a romanticized notion of island life. Bamboo and waterfalls, torches and exotic carvings, pupu platters and, of course, boozy rum drinks served in ostentatious drinking vessels.

Yet, despite being predicated on a heavy dose of frivolity, tiki’s enduring legacy merits our respect, especially amid the genre’s modern revival.

“My focus has always been on tiki as an art form, not on tiki as mixology,” explains Sven Kirsten, setting a template for how we will best define the genre’s most important bars. A tiki archaeologist, designer and author of The Book of Tiki, Kirsten claims, “There are so few original bars left now that are great examples of the style, they need to be worshiped as temples of classic tiki design.”

The closing of many original midcentury tiki bars, like Don the Beachcomber, means that the few remaining old icons are utterly crucial to understanding quintessential tiki. And while the drinks at aging tiki dens like Trader Vic’s or even Tiki-Ti might not be up to snuff to a modern craft cocktail drinkers, the “realness” of their fabricated Polynesian aesthetic remains a significant cultural artifact.

“It is sad to see that the foodie community nowadays labels anything ‘tiki’ as long as it has some tiki drinks on the menu, and passes on places with tradition and historic context because their cocktails are not up to par,” says Kirsten. “This shows great ingratitude and ignorance to why the modern version exists at all.”

Nevertheless, there are modern tiki bars that don’t just accurately pay homage to tiki’s past, but also elevate its drinks, using fresh fruits and high-quality syrups as opposed to the commercial “mixes” that became synonymous with tiki during its darker days.

Tiki icons of yore and new-school trailblazers are both represented on the list below, which was compiled by polling some of today’s top tiki experts, including Kirsten; Martin Cate, James Beard award-winning owner of Smuggler’s CoveJeff “Beachbum” Berry, author of six books on tiki and owner of Latitude 29; Brian Miller, the so-called “pirate captain of all things tiki in New York City”; and “Tiki” Chris Osburn, a London-based travel writer.

Nearly half of our list comes from two hardly-tropical cities, London and Chicago. Meanwhile, Asia and Latin America were almost completely ignored by our experts—perhaps no surprise, as tiki is mostly an American art form that spread to other western, English-speaking locations, with a few notable exceptions.

  • 1

    Tiki-Ti

    Before opening the doors to Tiki-Ti in 1961, Ray Buhen learned his tiki trade secrets by working under Don the Beachcomber. Now his son and grandsons carry on the tradition (and guard the cocktail recipes), running this tiny Hollywood joint that offers 12 bar stools, tiki kitsch galore and 94 signature concoctions. Potent drinks like the Chief Lapu Lapu and the Uga Booga (still made with canned pineapple juice and maraschino cherries) are perhaps more about kitsch than they are craft, but even the most ardent cocktail snob can’t help but embrace this ultimate tiki time warp.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • tiki
    • historic
    • cheap date
  • 2

    Mai-Kai Restaurant

    The most expensive restaurant built in 1956, this Oakland Park “grand Polynesian palace” was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2014. Created by brothers Bob and Jack Thornton, Mai-Kai was inspired by both Trader Vic’s and Don the Beachcomber, even stealing away much of the staff from the latter’s Chicago location. An immediate hit due to South Florida’s growing tourism industry, the family-run spot remains popular today for its surfboard bar and bikini-clad servers. More seriously, it features authentic Polynesian artifacts, gardens with tropical palms over 50 years old, live dance shows and the ...

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    KNOWN FOR

    • tiki
    • historic
  • 3

    Hala Kahiki

    “We were tiki before it was cool,” proclaims the motto on Hala Kahiki's website. In fact, they are one of the Midwest’s oldest existing tiki bars. Opened by former funeral home directors in 1952 (and in its current location since 1964), this self-dubbed “bamboo rendezvous” is still family-run and features a tiki patio, ornate light fixtures and authentic Witco furniture and carvings.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • tiki
    • historic
  • 4

    Lost Lake

    A Logan Square tiki oasis with all the modern trappings (not least of all friendly bartenders well-versed in rum), Lost Lake joins Land & Sea's roster of delightful destinations, alongside Longman & Eagle and Parson's Chicken & Fish. Banana leaf-print wallpaper surrounds as Paul McGee and his team serve up a menu that delves deep into the classic tiki (and Three Dots) canon, while still offering some innovative options that McGee has described as "slightly weirder."

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    KNOWN FOR

    • tiki
    • bar food
  • 5

    Three Dots and a Dash

    One of the country’s premiere modern tiki bars, Three Dots and a Dash is an underground tropical oasis with a fine-tuned focus on all things rum. The bar has become a beacon for the contemporary tiki movement—new and innovative, but still firmly rooted in the classics. A must-stop on the Chicago cocktail trail.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • tiki
    • lots of rum
    • craft cocktails
    • bar food
  • 6

    Beachbum Berry's Latitude 29

    Jeff "Beachbum" Berry's much ballyhooed tiki Mecca lives up to its hype and then some, with scholarly concoctions that straddle the past and present of tiki culture with graceful ease.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • tiki
    • full menu
    • lots of rum
    • craft cocktails
    • hotel bar
  • 7

    Smuggler's Cove

    A modern day tiki kingdom, Smuggler's Cove has all the trappings of Polynesian paradise: a babbling brook, cocktails in skulls and rum, lots of rum. Martin Cate's tropical paradise is one of the few contemporary tiki joints that perfect the traditional formula while establishing its own style within the genre. Ask one of the bartenders to show you around the massive rum selection, but beware: you'll probably leave the bar swaying once you go down that rabbit hole.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • tiki
    • craft cocktails
    • lots of rum
  • 8

    Hale Pele

    Flaming lime shells? Check. Bamboo hut rafters? Check. Hulking carved tiki gods? Check. Simulated rainstorms? Check. The creation of cocktail enthusiast Blair Reynolds, Hale Pele is an unlikely oasis in a weird, suburban sector of cloudy Portland. Home to all of the tiki kitsch one could ever wish for—there are orchids, Polynesian lanterns and the occasional lei—alongside a long list of surprisingly balanced tropical drinks executed by skilled bartenders, this is the place to escape those soggy winters.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • tiki
    • craft cocktails
    • bar food
  • 9

    Trader Vic’s Tokyo

    An example of a “high-end” Trader Vic’s, the Tokyo outpost opened on the fourth floor of the Garden Tower in the Hotel New Otani in 1974, making it the fourth-oldest remaining location. Formal and expensive, Trader Vic’s Tokyo is essentially a tiki museum you can drink in, with mostly original furniture and decorations, many of which are utterly priceless today. While pricey whiskey, cognac and cigars are served to accommodate the well-dressed Japanese locals and business travelers, tikiphiles will be excited to see that cocktails are based exactly off Vic Bergeron’s original recipes—the only location to still do ...

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    KNOWN FOR

    • tiki
    • historic
  • 10

    Trader Vic’s Munich

    The second-oldest Trader Vic’s still in operation (after London), Munich’s Trader Vic’s has been located in the basement of the Hotel Bayerischer Hof since opening, in 1971. Equipped with massive carvings, this is an archetypal example of a “golden era” tiki establishment, and is one of the more well-preserved of the remaining Vic’s bars.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • tiki
    • historic
  • 11

    Trader Vic’s London

    Opened in 1963, this was Trader Vic’s first international foray; it is now the oldest of the restaurants still in operation. Located in the basement of the London Hilton on Park Lane, the restaurant was remodeled in 2014 (after a fire in the hotel), but retains much of its original decor. Their Chinese wood-fired oven helps create dishes not just Polynesian, but from the Middle East and Mediterranean as well. Drinks are more classically tiki, served in Vic’s signature drinkware.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • tiki
    • historic
  • 12

    Trailer Happiness

    This brilliant little tiki den has kept Notting Hill's drinkers happy for over a decade. An oddball world filled with psychedelic kitsch, Tretchikoff prints, shag piles and beanbags, the rum-focused bar delivers drinks with theatrics verging on absurd. At any moment a flaming cocktail served in a sombrero or a skull might be slid across the bar. Trailer's dim sum service is equally as delightful with rum cocktails in place of tea service.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • bar food
    • craft cocktails
    • tiki
    • lots of rum
  • 13

    Mahiki

    Part of a growing chain of bars, the original Mahiki opened in London’s Mayfair district in 2005. More of a celebrity-driven, trendy nightclub than a casual Hawaiian-shirt tiki bar—which finds it often pooh-poohed by true tiki fans—the decor remains impressive and cocktails high-quality. With late-night hours, the party atmosphere is undeniable, even if many drinks are made with vodka.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • tiki
    • historic
  • 14

    The Beachcomber

    Less famous internationally than its London tiki brethren, this dimly-lit basement bar has been a hit amongst the tiki cognoscenti since it opened, in 2013. It's home to one of the largest rhum agricole collections this side of the Caribbean and forms the foundation of most of the bar's drinks. A laid-back clientele comes to perch at the tiny bamboo bar, which remains full even during late-night hours.  

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    KNOWN FOR

    • tiki
    • historic
  • 15

    Kahala Barcelona

    Spain’s first “Polinesian” cocktail bar is a holdover from Catalunya’s 1970s love affair with tiki (there were once 14 tiki bars in Barcelona). With a waterfall entrance, sculptures made of volcanic stone, the ambient sounds of birds and huge ponds where tropical fish mingle with live piranhas (“¡Cuidado Pirañas!”), Kahala is as atmospheric as tiki can get. Classic tiki cocktails are served in a uniquely Catalan take on tiki drinkware.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • tiki
    • historic

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