Bali H’ai to Bourbon Street and Back: NOLA’s Tiki Love Affair

With its tropical climate and mishmash of cultures, New Orleans was practically predestined to become a tiki mecca. Sarah Baird tracks the city's tiki love affair, from its early heyday and Bourbon Street kidnapping to its current renaissance on Decatur.

My favorite toy as a child was a tiki god sculpture made out of coal.

My grandfather, a coalminer in Eastern Kentucky, had received the statuette as a gift while working for a company that named all their mines after tiki gods—Martiki, Pontiki, Toptiki.

“They named them that for good luck, so nothing bad would happen,” he surmised. Why else would tiki culture show up in the middle of Appalachia?

The tiki god was a catalyst for delving further into a wormhole of splashy, campy tiki treasures. I swooned over Elvis’s gyrating hips in Blue Hawaii, plucked on my grandfather’s ukulele and hornswoggled neighborhood children into staging backyard productions of South Pacific.

The trappings of tiki culture combined a Carmen Miranda-style flamboyance and unflappable midcentury cool that I found utterly intoxicating: the kind of adult world that seemed worth living in.

That’s even before I knew about the best part—tiki drinks.

Whether by dumb luck or a lifetime of rubbing my tiki god friend to make wishes, I now make my home in New Orleans at a time when the city’s tiki celebrants are crawling back out of the woodwork after a long snooze. In a city that needs no excuse to get rowdy, tiki has the inherent ability to take a night of drinking from black-and-white to Technicolor in a flash, with nuanced rum and fruit juice concoctions that can dazzle even the most seasoned cocktail veteran.

The city’s tiki roots run deep. “Without New Orleans, there might not have been a tiki movement at all,” says Jeff “Beach Bum” Berry, the country’s foremost tiki scholar and torchbearer of next generation tiki culture.

Courthouse records don’t indicate that tiki mastermind Donn the Beachcomber (née Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt)—who often claimed a New Orleans birthright—was born in the city proper, but he spent a good portion of his childhood there as the son of a hotel manager. The influence of the city’s spirit and Louisiana staples from the turn of the 20th century—such as Planter’s Punch—are evident in Donn’s seminal tiki potions that catalyzed a national craze for Zombies and Mai Tais in post-World War II America.

When tiki began to sweep the country, New Orleans grabbed on with both hands for a three-decade ride, and it was only natural. A melting pot with hundreds of years of French, Spanish, African and Native American influences, New Orleans’ embrace of a drinking trend with similar cross-cultural roots—from Caribbean to Indonesian—made sense. From the Hawaiian Luau in the Fontainebleau Motor Hotel, to The Outrigger Room inside the swanky St. Charles Hotel, tiki spots spawned like rum-fueled gremlins across the city during the 1950s and ’60s.

While the drinks sloshed around by drunken frat boys in blinking cups might not match up with tiki’s revered cocktail cannon, Bourbon Street and the tiki movement have more in common than meets the eye. The two occupy opposite ends of an escapist dichotomy, and each possesses a finely tuned brand. The primary intersection of these two liquor-fueled escapes is the Hurricane, a downright treacly sweet concoction with both New Orleans street cred and tiki roots.

The grand dame of them all, though, was Bali H’ai, a lakefront bar on Pontchartrain Beach. Beginning in the early 1950s, the A-frame, tiki-grass-covered palace was owned and operated by the grandparents of Bryan Batt—who played the Ann Margret-loving art director Sal on Mad Men—and became an exotic, luxurious haunt for celebrities, pro football players and country music stars.

But, like the rest of the country’s tiki havens, New Orleans’ embrace of the genre all but disappeared in the 1970s and early ’80s—a period that marked the beginning of Bourbon Street’s co-opting of tiki traditions, much of it fueled by the rise of Jimmy Buffett.

While some Bourbon Street concoctions might look like tiki drinks, they’re the result of the Parrothead “trop-rock” movement of the 1980s, according to cocktail aficionado and writer Wayne Curtis. Curtis contends that the majority of Bourbon Street’s most popular drinks have their heart in Margaritaville.

“The drinks on Bourbon might be rum-based, but they invoke that Jimmy Buffett, laid back vibe that took over in the 1980s after tiki went downhill,” says Curtis.

While the drinks sloshed around by drunken frat boys in blinking cups might not match up with tiki’s revered cocktail cannon, Bourbon Street and the tiki movement have more in common than meets the eye. The two occupy opposite ends of an escapist dichotomy, and each possesses a finely tuned brand.

The primary intersection of these two liquor-fueled escapes is the Hurricane, a downright treacly sweet concoction with both New Orleans street cred and tiki roots. On my first trip to Bourbon Street, I was in awe of the drink’s ruby red color and quickly found myself incorrigibly drunk. If you’ve ever wondered what kind of bad drunk you might be, drink a couple of Hurricanes and you’ll quickly find out.

Tall tales surround the origin of this drink, with credit roundly given to French Quarter landmark watering hole Pat O’Brien’s. (According to Curtis, the drink’s origin story may be a bit more complicated, as a recipe similar to Pat O’s appears in The Rum Connoisseur, a pamphlet from 1941.) With all the proper trappings of a tiki drink—rum, fruit juice and sass—the Hurricane exploded onto the scene in the mid-1950s, but as the decades slid on, the Buffett bastardization set in. The drink’s color shifted from a pale pink to blood red, and a packet of Kool-Aid-style “hurricane” powder replaced juice for the sake of factory-style efficiency.

Awash in both mass appeal and urban folklore, the Hurricane is one of the few drinks that dances along the razorblade of negative connotations and historical prestige with a certain finesse not shared by its Bourbon Street brethren, the Hand Grenade and the Shark Attack. It eventually became such a staple that even Don the Beachcomber added a version to his repertoire, cementing Bourbon Street’s gift back to the annals of tiki.

While boozed-up, quasi-tropical concoctions spent decades elbowing their way to the forefront of touristy New Orleans, tiki lurked just below the surface of the city’s mainstream culture. One of the most prominent spots for underground tiki is the legendary “tikioke” night at The Saint—a dank, dark bar more closely associated with metal bands and brooding twentysomethings than Aloha shirts. No one is immune to tikioke’s charms: I once sang “Do the Clam” by Elvis while wearing a giant, glitter temporary tattoo of a koi fish.

From the doldrums of a black metal bar to the bleeding edge of trendiness, tiki’s recent revival in New Orleans has spread across the city with an infectious zeal, as Fogcutters and Painkillers now grace the lips of hardnosed cocktail lovers and joie de vivre generalists alike.

The heart of this revival in New Orleans is found a stone’s throw away from the strip clubs and “Big Ass Beer” signs of Bourbon. Decatur Street—a long, winding stretch on the outer edge of the French Quarter—has become ground zero for the renaissance. Anchoring one end is Tiki Tolteca, which opened this summer and sits perched—crow’s nest style—on the second floor of an old Saffron-colored building. The Don Ho soundtrack, tiki hut-shaped bar and velvet cushioned nooks allow drinkers to be quickly transported to a tropical paradise while sucking on boozy tiki candies and sipping drinks that feature an old Peruvian fertility potion.

On the other end of Decatur is Cane & Table, the kind of upgraded proto-tiki joint that quietly turns out complex, well-balanced drinks in a space that feels like a stately, well-preserved English hotel bar plopped down in the Caribbean. If Hemingway were around today, this would be his bar.

Cane & Table was the first of New Orleans’ “new-new” tiki arrivals in 2013, offering tropical spins on standard craft cocktails—like Banana Manhattans—a flower-lined, labyrinthine courtyard, and a specialty whale mug (if you ask nicely and bat your eyelashes) all allow drinkers to forget they’re steps away from reflexology parlors and a loitering crew of gutter punks.

Straddling the middle of Tiki Tolteca’s delightfully cheesy, over-the-top kitsch and Cane and Table’s dark wood sophistication is perhaps the most important piece of Decatur’s tiki strip: Jeff Berry’s soon-to-open tiki lounge, Latitude 29. The spot promises to be one of the most sought after tiki destinations in New Orleans, and likely the country.

“There’s no other city that’s so cocktail-centric or hospitable, where cocktails are woven into the fabric of a place so well,” said Berry. “So, when it came time to find a place to open a bar, we knew it had to be New Orleans.”

For a girl growing up across from a cow pasture in Eastern Kentucky—a place light years away from Polynesian beaches—a token of tiki provided me with a lei-wearing, ocean front fantasy life that fueled a lifelong adventurous spirit. In New Orleans, this kind of otherworldliness has long been drawing in those—like me—who are full of wanderlust like a moth to the tiki torch, where Mai Tai aficionados and Bourbon Street revelers alike can create their own version of a rum-driven paradise.

Hear a conversation with home tiki bar owner Joe Desmond and Jeff “Beachbum” Berry about the in a segment of PUNCH Radio on Heritage Radio Network. [33:40]