First discovered by Captain James Cook in 1773, the tiny Kingdom of Tonga sits amid crystal blue waters in the southern Pacific Ocean. Much closer to home in North Hollywood, the Tonga Hut is a welcoming island in its own right amidt he Valley's summer-heated suburban sprawl.
This month, the Tonga Hut is celebrating 55 years of pineapple garnishes and fire-breathing totems, ensuring its continued status as the oldest operating tiki bar in Los Angeles. And it shows no signs of slowing down.
"Everybody here, whether you are young or old, you all fit together" says co-owner Amy Boylan. "This is a neighborhood bar. Here you'll see people in their 30s talking to people in their 50s. Not every bar has that. You can walk into 100 bars in L.A. and you won't find that."
By striking that balance between throwback and modernity, the Tonga Hut has found longevity in a genre has seen many of its contemporaries disappear. Last March, Rosemead's boisterous mainstay Bahooka closed after 46 years of business. It appeared to be an ominous sign for the tiki scene, but in many respects, tiki still appears to be thriving.
Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room celebrated 50 years of singing birds and thatched roofs last month, outlasting many of the renovations that have overcome the rest of the park. Patron saint of the cocktail umbrella, Don the Beachcomber has had its name resurrected for Orange County's recent beachside temple in Sunset Beach. Even rum, that pillar of every tiki bar menu, has been elevated in status by the recently opened La Caña in downtown Los Angeles while bars such as Manhattan's PKNY are bringing tiki culture into the high-end speak-easy scene.
The owners of the Tonga Hut do not see tiki culture ending any time soon. They even have their eyes set on expanding the brand beyond North Hollywood and toward tiki-friendly Palm Springs.
The tiki craze struck the U.S. following World War II. James Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific" romanticized the tropical landscape, and the book was transformed into the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway show "South Pacific" two years later. For the next 15 years the craze spread across the country, filling countless closets with Hawaiian shirts in hopes of impressing the lusty women pasted onto the covers of LPs by the likes of Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman. It was an irresistibly appealing lifestyle full of consequence-free suntans and potent drinks glowing with unnatural hues.
The Tonga Hut opened at the peak of that craze and has carried the bamboo torch ever since. Although it has had a few additions since opening, the dimly lighted intimate space has all the requirements of any tiki aficionado. A four-tier fountain gently descends behind the bar's illuminated bottles while a shallow pool opposite the bar houses a small, drooling statue. Several snug booths are held up by totem-like pillars rescued from a Playa del Rey apartment complex while a more communal space opens up around a midcentury enamel fireplace in the center. In between, patrons chatter, united in their love of loud fabrics, strummed ukuleles and strong, mysterious libations.
"It's important to remember our past, but it's important to be relevant," explains Boylan. "We're not what you call 'bamboo/palapa tiki.' We're Midcentury Modern tiki. We play in both groups."
Charming bartender Lisa-Marie Burnside has been responsible for filling many of the customers' collectible tiki mugs for the last six years. She can easily whip up a crisp mai tai or a tall Voodoo Juice, playfully splashing rum into shakers and squeezing simple syrup with a casual flair. She even ladles drinks into tiki's greatest contribution to drinking culture: cocktail bowls. A four-person Scorpion bowl forms a communal experience that casually introduces drinkers to the ghosts of tropical-themed evenings of the past by way of an oversized straw.
Understandably, the standard tiki repertoire is second-nature for Burnside, but Boylan is more than happy to see her branch out beyond the Pacific. A small illuminated board behind the bar boasts the new creations she has dropped in alongside the well-worn punches and zombies. Her go-to creation, the Belle Époque, with a smattering of liqueurs, fresh mint and spices, easily slides in among the classics.
"People who truly love what tiki stands for, it's kind of corny, but it's a mind-state," says Boylan. "I think it'll probably go out of fashion like everything else, but tiki has come and gone half a dozen times already.
"What the Hut represents is an aloha spirit, a friendly state of mind," she adds. "It's a special place."