Inside LA’s Tiki Underground

In the city where Polynesian cocktail culture was born, the tiki tradition has gone underground and is thriving in the basements and backyards of its loyal enthusiasts.

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Alan Smart and Michael Uhlenkott's HaleKahiki (“Tahitian Room”), a 1950s-inspired tiki bar built into their basement in LA's Echo Park neighborhood.

Alan Smart and Michael Uhlenkott

Smart (left) an Emmy-nominated animation director for SpongeBob SquarePants, and Uhlenkott (right) an artist who specializes in tile work.

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HaleKahiki is full of glowing sconces and artwork, including this charming volcanic mural painted by Uhlenkott.

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A Macadamia Nut Chi Chi served in a Fatutu mug designed by Tiki Tony; porcelain tiki artifacts littering the bar top.

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Smart's Basil Grapefruit Martini; HaleKahiki's napkin design.

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HaleHahiki's current drink menu; A Mai Tai served in the bar's signature glassware.

Americans have been drinking Mai Tais inside tropical-themed bars ever since Ernest Gantt a.k.a. Donn Beach washed up on Southern California shores in the 1930s and opened Don the Beachcomber, thereby sticking an umbrella in our lives forever. And while the tiki trend has ebbed and flowed on a national level in the intervening years, in Southern California the tide never really went out. 

Angelenos lament the closings of tiki institutions such as Bahooka Family Restaurant and Kelbo’s, but a handful of old haunts still hold strong. A step into The Tonga Hut (c. 1958) in NoHo or Tiki-Ti (c. 1961) in Silver Lake can still transport a tired soul in need of an island vibe and tasty tropical drink. For those desiring a more modern take, cocktail bars all over town have found their own ways of bowing down to the deities. Acabar’s cocktail menu is organized by historical era; tiki drinks get their own section. La Descarga a.k.a. “Cuban Narnia” is packed solid on Tiki Tuesdays every single week. 1886 at The Raymond in Pasadena dedicated much of last summer’s menu to tiki, setting some coladas afire while deconstructing others into spiked ice cream sundaes, replacing that ever-present straw with a spoon.

But there’s another mighty LA tiki movement much closer to home—literally. A growing community of tiki devotees have been foregoing a night out in favor of a night in, and for good reason: many of them have spent years building authentic tiki bars in the confines of their own homes. Some need a place for their lifelong tiki collections, while others long to play a greater role in this surprisingly vibrant community. But all seem to be linked by one thing: a youthful fascination with tiki.

Consider Sven Kirsten, tiki historian and author of The Book of Tiki (not to mention a successful cinematographer by day). Kirsten grew up in Germany, but he became obsessed with the American appropriation of tiki when he moved stateside in the 1990s. He links his tiki leanings to the familial lore that says he was conceived on an ocean freighter owned by his grandfather, which predisposed him to travel and an amalgamation of cultures. Called the “Indiana Jones of collecting” by his peers, he sipped green tea while leading me around his Silver Lake home. He has a bar, but you’d be hard-pressed to make a drink on it; it’s buried beneath a collection of mugs, lamps, salt-n-pepper shakers, stirrers and skulls. That’s fine with him, though, as these days he tends to sip rum straight.

The low-ceilinged hut houses a ragtag collection of flowered furniture, random tiki mugs and a ridiculously small bar—you can practically feel the ghosts of countless tiki-fueled blackouts that have taken place within. The bathroom door serves as something of a sign-in sheet, the white paint covered with Sharpied notes and drawings that say things like, “Coco is loco for Kirby’s Rumpus Room” and “Thanks for the memories! —Tiki Dean.”

Kirsten sent me a few miles away to his friends Alan Smart and Michael Uhlenkott, who own a Spanish-style bungalow in Echo Park that once belonged to John Steinbeck’s brother (they still get the occasional piece of mail addressed to Henry Steinbeck). Smart, an Emmy-nominated animation director for SpongeBob SquarePants,bought the house in 1993. With the help of Uhlenkott, an artist who specializes in tile work, he restored the house to reflect its 1930s roots. Think decorative wrought iron and exposed ceiling beams alongside brightly colored handcrafted stair tiles (c/o Uhlenkott, of course), rich fabrics and retro kitchen appliances.

“We’d been collecting tiki for years at flea markets and swap meets,” said Uhlenkott as he toured me through their home, clad in a Hawaiian shirt. When they realized that tiki didn’t quite jive with Spanish Revival, they decided to transform the basement into the bar.

The result is the HaleKahiki (“Tahitian Room”), a 1950s-inspired tiki bar with a beautifully crafted rattan-paneled bar, glowing sconces and a charming volcanic mural painted by Uhlenkott set back into the wall.

Uhlenkott credits his tiki fascination with The National Geographic covers of Tahiti he saw as a boy. Later in life, as an artist/musician enmeshed in LA’s punk rock scene in the ’80s, he hung out at tiki bars. “All the punk rockers did,” he said.

Smart mixed his signature Mai Tai while we chatted, adding a secret ingredient—a dash of Austrian Stroh rum—with a flourish. These days they’ve pretty much given up on going to bars. Smart gestured to our surroundings and asked the obvious question: “Why would we?” It’s true. Most Angelenos have to get on a plane for a slice of paradise, or at least brave crosstown traffic to the beach. These guys just have to walk down a flight of steps.

Later that week, Smart and Uhlenkott sent me on to Ron Ferrell, a friendly engineer who lives out in Camarillo and has a home bar named after one of his favorite surf spots. The Rincon Room is a rather astonishing outdoor bar, a perfect mix of authentic tiki and modern whimsy: a flat-screen TV hidden behind a vintage map of the South Pacific, a hand-carved skull that serves as the bathroom sink’s faucet.

Ferrell was in the midst of planning his 60th birthday bash when I visited—to take place at his home bar of course. When I asked him to explain the inspiration behind his bar, he began telling me about his father, who used to entertain clients at now-defunct Los Angeles Tiki haunts such as The Islander and The Luau. As a child, Ferrell celebrated birthdays at Bahooka—the beloved Tiki spot that closed last year after 46 years in business—with his grandmother; as a young man, he often met his parents for brunch at Don the Beachcomber’s.

While Smart and Uhlenkott’s HaleKahiki and Ferrell’s The Rincon Room both seemed to birth from lifelong tiki collections, Kirby Fleming created The Rumpus Room, in La Crescenta, for a very different purpose.

Fleming is a mellow, blond-bearded guy in his late 30s—a self-proclaimed “Tiki carver, artist and pool boy to the rich and famous.” (He owns and operates a successful pool maintenance company.) In 2008, while hanging with a handful of fellow regulars at The Tonga Hut, Fleming realized that most of his friends were unemployed and broke. He decided to mix three drinks with one shaker: give his friends something to do, renovate his space on the cheap and end up with a home tiki bar where everyone could drink. Fleming admired The Rincon Room and some of the other home bars he’s visited, but beauty was never his goal. “I wanted mine to feel used.”

After six years of parties, it does. The low-ceilinged hut houses a ragtag collection of flowered furniture, random tiki mugs and a ridiculously small bar—you can practically feel the ghosts of countless tiki-fueled blackouts that have taken place within. The bathroom door serves as something of a sign-in sheet, the white paint covered with Sharpied notes and drawings that say things like, “Coco is loco for Kirby’s Rumpus Room” and “Thanks for the memories! —Tiki Dean.”

Like Uhlenkott, Fleming was first drawn to tiki because of the imagery and art, but for him it’s the people in the community—that welcoming Aloha spirit—that have kept him firmly planted in the scene. “Their heads are in paradise.” Though his young son and flourishing small business have caused him to step away from hosting the weekly party that often went to 5 a.m., The Rumpus Room lives on as a traveling affair. Listed regularly in events on TikiCentral—the go-to website for all things tiki—the location changes each week, but that communal punk rock spirit Fleming first created remains.

Perhaps no one understands the LA tiki community better than Kelly “HipHipaHula” Reilly, a freelance tiki mixologist who’s tended bar at The Rumpus Room, The Rincon Room and pretty much every major home bar between San Diego and San Francisco. She grew up in the San Fernando Valley in the ’50s and ’60s, where “Polynesian pop was standard.” Every pool party was a luau, and her parents attended “gourmet groups” with other couples in the neighborhood, testing out the latest restaurant in town, many of which were tiki-inspired. She remembers her mom coming home from dinner one night and bringing her the shells from her escargot—an early artifact from what would become a lifelong collection.

Though she dreams of opening a brick and mortar bar of her own, Reilly relishes in the pros of home bartending. “What I love most…is the spirit of people. They really want to be there. They get to drink a $16 cocktail by putting two dollars in the jar…They help clean glassware and slice lemons and limes…And I get to take my time, experiment.”

She loves the pride that the homeowners take in their bars—their original mugs and signature drinks, the napkins they have printed with their home bar’s name. It makes her feel a part of a community of like-minded tiki lovers. “Tiki was never a choice or a trend for us,” she says. “It was just the way we grew up.”