Remember the pre- and post-war (WW II) proliferation of “Tiki” bars and restaurants?
OK, I wasn’t even born then, but as the phenomenon grew into the 1950s and 60s (by then, I was around,) I do recall the tacky tourist joints in Waikīkī and elsewhere.
Thing is, though, those rum-based watering holes didn’t start here; they were the brainchild of a couple entrepreneurs on the continent, who eventually brought their establishments to our shores.
Starting in 1934, Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt (who?) – aka Donn Beach – opened the first Polynesian motif bar in Los Angeles, just off Hollywood Boulevard.
Named “Don the Beachcomber,” his bar seated about two dozen customers and he scattered a few tables in the remaining space. The place was decorated with faux South Pacific décor, along with old nets and parts of wrecked boats he scavenged from the oceanfront.
The Polynesian Pop revival was underway.
Not to be out-done, Victor Jules Bergeron (who?) – aka Trader Vic – in 1936 converted his Oakland “Hinky Dink’s” pub into a South Seas tropical retreat with tiki carvings, bamboo and outrigger canoes and rechristened it “Trader Vic’s.”
I still recall my 21st birthday and the celebration of my first legal consumption of alcohol at the downtown Denver Trader Vic’s, while I was a student at University of Denver – we had Mai Tais.
Polynesian Pop spread like wildfire and tiki-themed eateries opened across the country. While others have followed, none bettered the tiki and tacky of Don’s and Vic’s.
Along with the décor, rum-based concoctions were the signature drinks in these themed establishments. And that brings us to a discussion on who really invented the themey-est Polynesian Pop umbrella drink of all … the Mai Tai.
Some say Donn, some say Vic – others suggest a quiet barkeep at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.
Here is what I have found and it’s based mostly on the self-professed statements from each of their websites.
While Don the Beachcomber started the whole tackiness, he apparently does not claim “invention” rights to the Mai Tai. Although the Mai Tai was served in Donn’s establishments, then and now, his signature rum-based theme drink was the Zombie.
The New York Times ran a brief obituary that painted him as a sort of Thomas Edison of the thatched-roof bar and the inventor of 84 bar drinks (Mai Tai, not included.)
The honor of invention of the Mai Tai seems to be directed at Trader Vic.
The story goes that the original Mai Tai was created by Victor J. Bergeron in 1944 by combining 2 ounces of 17-year-old J. Wray Nephew rum with juice from one fresh lime, 1/2 ounce each of Holland DeKuyper Orange Curacao and French Garnier Orgeat, and 1/4 ounce Rock Candy Syrup. The mixture is hand shaken and poured over shaved ice with a fresh mint garnish and 1/2 the lime rind.
The story seems to indicate he then asked some Tahitian friends to taste his new concoction and they reportedly exclaimed “maitaʻi” – the Tahitian expression for “good”; but today the drink is spelled as two words, sometimes hyphenated or capitalized.
Reportedly, in 1953, Vic brought his wildly acclaimed Mai Tai to the Hawaiian Islands when he was asked by the Matson Steamship Lines to design the cocktail menu for the bars at their Royal Hawaiian, Moana and Surfrider Hotels.
The Mai Tai became such a popular cocktail in the 1950s and 1960s that virtually every restaurant, particularly tiki-themed restaurants or bars, served them.
Nelia and I find ourselves returning to Waikīkī every now and then, rotating between the Royal Hawaiian and Halekūlani for Mai Tai sunset sips and pupu.