Tiki culture hit the U.S. big just after World War II, when soldiers returning from the South Pacific helped stir up a romanticized notion of Polynesian culture-flowers, bamboo, bigheaded idols, rum-heavy fruit drinks.
San Diego being a Navy town, you'd think we'd be a tiki mecca. Indeed we're home to the only surviving tiki-themed liquor store in the U.S.-Trader Mort's on Shelter Island Drive. Pass Mort's thatched roof and flaming torches and you enter San Diego's "Tiki District." What the place is lacking, though, is a true tiki bar.
"Unfortunately, no vintage tiki bars are left in San Diego," said Bosko Hrnjak, a tiki artisan who lives in Escondido. "The Bali Hai [on Shelter Island] is cool but they pulled all the décor around the bar years ago. What is there now is a tiny fraction of what was there."
Architecturally, the Bali Hai hotel hits the tiki bull's-eye, but the bar area-a tiny space in the middle of a larger restaurant-is lacking. The restaurant's view of the harbor is stunning, though, and the famous Bali Hai Mai-Tai is a knock out.
Search elsewhere in San Diego if you want to for a true tiki bar-dark wood, dim lights, leering tikis and some guy playing Polynesian music on a Casio keyboard-but you won't find it. There are establishments with "tiki" in their name, but they're not the real deal. And many that were once true tiki have been made over.
Hrnjak pointed out that opening this week in the Gaslamp is Mister Tiki Mai Tai Lounge at Fifth and F streets. Some of his carvings were used to decorate the place, though its overall décor comes off as more tiki-chic than that charming tiki-tacky.
If you're yearning to add a little tiki to your life this summer, don't fear. It's not uncommon for tiki fans to set up their own home tiki bar. For starters, places like Babette Schwartz in Hillcrest and Urban Outfitters downtown usually stock tiki barware. For the real thing, check out Hrnjak's online shop: www.tikibosko.com-he sells everything from swizzle sticks to handmade fittings for an authentic tiki bar.
Or, just head down to Trader Mort's and get everything you'll need for a good Mai Tai:
1 ounce Fine Jamaican Rum
1 ounce Martinique Rum (St. James)
1/2 ounce Orange Curacao
1/2 ounce Orgeat Syrup
Juice from one fresh lime
Mix, serve and enjoy