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.
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David Cruz says
Wrong…..my father and a team of bartenders actually came up with the drink in the 30’s for Donn. Vic himself admitted to going into the place and got his idea from Donn’s restaurnt. I always laugh when I hear these stories.
Ava Gardner was once quoted when asked the question….if she was on a deserted island what would she wish for…she said my dad, who was the chief bartender of Donn the Beachcomber because he made her great drinks. Haha.
There was an article in the Herald Examiner stating who actually created the drink that so many wanted to claim their own……my dad and the other guys were found to be the creators. TV’s was not even open when Donn’s was serving the drink.
Anyway….great story but not all true to facts.
I have many articles on my dad and I even have a book with some recipes for the Navy Grog, Zombie, etc….. even some experiments with drinks.
My mom gave me some things after he passed away and I found a little black book with all this stuff. Pretty cool.
Howard hughes came in every 6 months and always requested my dad be there..he would have someone watch him the entire day. My dad would make 2 drinks. 1 for Howard and one for the guard. the guard would drink it…NO side effects then Howard would drink his. Crazy.
Either way on the credit of the Mai Tai….it’s all fun to see the stories. All of these bartenders were pioneers and normally used fresh fruit to make their drinks. Great stuff. I wish my dad was alive so i could talk him into writting a book on all the hollywood parties nd stuff he saw as a bartender in Hollywood.
Marcia Cutter says
Trader Vic’s on San Pablo in Berkeley had a thatcher roof and when you walked in the Chinese Ovens were open ( not glass enclosed ) the aroma and atmosphere were a bit smoky but exotic . Of course the glass balls , nets etc added to the decor . I and all Birthdays and celebrations were at TVs . When they moved to Emeryville and the ovens were enclosed and modern decor it was never quite the same but the food was as good . My husbands family were at the opening of TV ‘s and were faithful customers forever . I have his original cook book printed in 1946.
Mahalo for all of your great stories !!