There’s a mermaid doing somersaults on a TV screen in a lamp-lit room. Exotica spills from unseen speakers. Carved wooden faces hang on a wall, alongside a signed photo of Don Ho. Floral-festooned patrons sip cocktails out of ceramic mugs. The bartender is lighting drinks on fire.
But, no, this is not a tiki bar. Definitely not. I guess?
According to owner Rory Snyder, The Reef—which opened Feb. 4 inside the tiki-style Caliente Tropics Resort in Palm Springs—is a “tropical libation sanctuary.”
Snyder says those who take their tiki very seriously—dubbed tikiphiles by some—would likely object to The Reef calling itself a tiki bar, because it doesn’t completely adhere to all of the criteria of a true tiki bar.
“In a lot of ways, it is a tiki bar, but I don’t want to be restrained and confined by the parameters of, supposedly, what tiki is,” said Snyder, who is also a self-admitted tikiphile. “I don’t want to be defined just by tiki.”
Let’s talk about tiki for just a second. For all intents and purposes, there are four, let’s say, “tiki-style” bars in the valley: The Reef, Bootlegger Tiki, Tonga Hut Restaurant and Bar, and Toucans Tiki Lounge; all are in Palm Springs, and all bring a little something different to the table.
We have a section of tiki drinks on the menu at Truss and Twine, where I work, and I’m often asked: “What is tiki?” The word “tiki” comes from New Zealand and the Marquesas Islands. In Maori mythology, Tiki was the first man created.
What most Americans see as “tiki” and its surrounding culture is the creation of one man—Ernest Gantt, and his Hollywood bar and restaurant Don the Beachcomber. Gantt started Don’s Beachcomber Cafe just off of Hollywood Boulevard in 1933 at the age of 26 after traveling the Caribbean and south Pacific following his high school graduation. Gantt returned from his adventures with a unique collection of exotic, Polynesian ephemera and a taste for exotic, Polynesian drinks.
At Don’s Beachcomber Cafe, he put it all together. The mix of the bar’s ambiance (puffer-fish lamps, nets, traps, shells, driftwood, etc.), Gantt’s exotic drinks and presentation (served in a coconut, with fun names like The Zombie, etc.), and his personal showmanship (wearing cutoff pants and weathered clothing) was something truly new and unique. In 1937, Gantt moved his joint to a bigger space across the street, named it Don the Beachcomber, and officially changed his own name to Donn Beach.
Following Beach’s lead, a number of others opened extremely popular “tiki” restaurants, and the “tiki craze” spread throughout the United States. That lasted until the end of the 1960s, when “tiki” all but died. On life support, tiki culture was kept alive by a handful of enthusiasts throughout the ’80s and ’90s, almost as a form of counterculture. In the late 1990s and 2000s, alongside the craft-cocktail movement, tiki culture went through a revitalization, which has led to where we are today. In other words, tiki is cool again.
“(Like) the advent of being allowed in your 40s and 50s to like comic books and Star Wars, tiki was always kind of that thing that was the redheaded stepchild and mockable,” Snyder said. “But now we embrace our geek and can be proud tikiphiles.”
The Reef and, more significantly, the Caliente Tropics hotel own a substantial slice of tiki-culture history. The A-framed Caliente Tropics, originally just called The Tropics, opened in 1964, the heyday of tiki, as part of Ken Kimes’ 40-motel empire, five of which were Polynesian in theme. According to Snyder, all the tiki statues on the grounds are original and are from the famed Oceanic Arts in Whittier, made by noteworthy tiki-carver Ed Crissman. Tiki Oasis, the largest tiki event in the country, which is now held annually in San Diego, started at Caliente Tropics in 2001 as a fundraiser for the then-struggling hotel.
In its salad days of the ’60s, The Tropics housed the Congo Room steakhouse and underground Cellar Bar, which was popular with a number of celebrities who vacationed in Palm Springs, including Elvis Presley and members of the Rat Pack. The Reef now occupies the space where the Congo Room once was. (An adjoining restaurant space will soon be home to Evzin Mediterranean Cuisine.) Additionally, Snyder has brought more tiki events back to Palm Springs with his Tiki Caliente parties, which he’s thrown since 2008 at Caliente Tropics.
“I love this hotel,” Snyder said. “This is my dream home. I’ve always loved this place. I love the history here. The greatest gig in the world is being an owner of this bar in this historic tiki hotel. I get to sit in the tiki mecca of Palm Springs, which is the Caliente Tropics Hotel.”
OK, enough history lessons. Let’s drink.
It’s Saturday around 7 p.m. The bar is really filling up fast. It’s an eclectic mix of folks. Bar manager Brandon Glass shakes me up some cocktails while the guy next to me is telling me how he lives “right behind” the Jelly Belly factory.
I start with the Hot Hula Hibiscus, which is basically a spicy margarita variation with tequila, jalepeño and hibiscus syrup, giving the drink a slight floral note. It’s light, refreshing and well-balanced, with the right amount of heat—and it’s served in a kitschy-cool cactus glass.
Next, I try the Hemingway Daiquiri, a classic which The Reef honors nicely. The popular daiquiri variation, with grapefruit juice and maraschino liqueur, was supposedly created at the La Floridita bar in Cuba, for famed writer and imbiber Ernest Hemingway. This one is legit.
I finish with a frozen piña colada out of a slushy machine. Cocktail snobs would surely raise their noses in disdain at such a sight … but, damn, it’s delicious. I add a float of dark rum to the top, because, why not?
The Reef’s cocktail menu contains many tiki classics like the Mai Tai, Singapore Sling and Painkiller. However, The Reef doesn’t stock the high-end spirits that some cocktail bars in town do, and the bartenders don’t jigger-measure the drinks.
“Truly, it’s not about eyedroppers and super-accuracy as much as free-flowing fun and keeping it loose,” Snyder said. “I like to think of the bar as part of the show.
“The one part of tiki I don’t get these days is that somehow, tiki and mixology crossed. The pretentiousness of mixology, to me, in a lot of ways doesn’t mix with the ohana of tiki.”
History, fun, good drinks, great ambience and customer service … is The Reef a tiki bar or not? And does it even matter? I’ll leave that up to you to decide.
Patrick Johnson is a journalist and head bartender at Truss and Twine. He can be emailed at email@example.com. Below: The Reef opened Feb. 4 inside the tiki-style Caliente Tropics Resort in Palm Springs. Photo by Patrick Johnson.