The Joys of the Tiki Bar

I fucking love tiki bars. The Perth dudes who run Hula Bula and Deville’s Pad set one up in Fitzroy, which opened last week, and it is fucking awesome, and I am stupidly happy about it. First of all, a friend of mine has moved over here to run it, so I get to have him in my life again, which is awesome, and secondly, THERE’S A FREAKING TIKI BAR IN MY FAVOURITE MELBOURNE SUBURB. Why do I love tiki bars so much? Because a well done tiki bar is never half arsed. The fantasy worlds created within them are pure modern day temples to drinking. Everything revolves around smiling and having a legitimately good time, and it’s not a desperate, fake, money hungry happiness- it’s a near childish enrapture with sugary booze, an innocent passion for the enjoyment of liquor, a delight in transporting patrons in to a different world where you can’t help but laugh loudly and wholeheartedly at everything.

When I lived in Perth I had a short stint as the door bitch at Hula Bula Bar. I didn’t really know anyone who worked there and I was a little bit shy, so I never hung around for long after I finished, but that dark, colourful and visually cluttered space gave me my first taste of the tiki kitsch vibe. Nearly every time I’ve visited Perth since moving away, I’ve made an effort to get back to Hula Bula, even if to just sit at the bar and watch the bar tenders do their thing, because I am a total creep, but I’m also a total child and just love being amongst it. Fruity booze, coloured lights, novelty plastic things in drinks, ocean sounds in the bathrooms, it’s all a massive show that requires very little effort from the bar staff and managers to keep the fantasy going for the broad range of people who feel compelled to enter that beautiful below-hotel den.

When I walked into this new tiki bar in Fitzroy- The Luwow- it felt like coming home. Only it was a much bigger, more ambitious home with more money at the owner’s disposal. The wood, rope, plastic plants and fake volcanic rock throughout created a beautiful sense of enclosure in the spacious venue, with the whole thing feeling much more like a beach hut than I was expecting. The cocktail lounge seems to be more than double the size of Hula Bula, with an almost hidden door in the corner leading to a band room that is like a miniaturised, bluer-in-hue version of Deville’s Pad, complete with go-go dancer cages on either side of the stage. Walking into the nearly finished band room that night, with ladders and drop sheets still on the floor as the manager showed off all their hard work before it was officially opened to the public, I looked around in awe and anticipation, my stomach doing little back flips at the thought of the ridiculous nights that will inevitably ensue when the lights are dim and rockabilly bands start to play every weekend to crowds of hyped up rum drinkers dressed to the nines in vaguely (or not so vaguely) retro attire.

I suppose the reason I look forward to this ridiculousness so much is because of that previously mentioned idea of the tiki bar as a temple. When one thinks of a tiki bar, they think of the cocktails, the theme, the totems, the beach huts, and therein lies the pull. The worship of fun and drink, a post-depression era type decadence and appreciation of simple enjoyment. Generally, the population does not go to a tiki bar to get laid, and as such there seems to be a higher level of respect and comfort in these venues, and a silliness that would be frowned upon in most other watering holes- dance clubs, wine bars, dingy live music venues, warehouse parties etc. They all have their place in culture, but it seems to me that while getting laid is a high priority for single patrons to these other venues, those single folk who come to a tiki bar are in it much more for the experience. And I LOVE that.

I find the whole immersion in a boozy fantasy land thing fascinating. The original tiki bars, opened in the 1930’s, were homages to islander art and culture experienced by the proprietors during their travels. At that time, the world was beginning to open up for individuals- travel was easier, and exotic cultures were very much all the rage. Appreciation for the exotic has evolved through breeding with Amercian kitsch and pop culture to become the brightly coloured, highly stylised experience we know it as today. While there are a large number of people involved in the tiki industry, particular in the design elements, who stay truer to the Polynesian origins of this “culture”, generally one cannot step foot into a full on, inner-city tiki venue without feeling like you’re in an Elvis film, or are about to be carried off by a group of scantily clad youths in the middle of a surf rock clip from the 50’s or 60’s.

It’s a deliciously weird environment, both comforting and exhilarating, and the presence of high heels, bright red lipstick, Betty Page haircuts and Elvis quiffs, leather and leopard print amongst it all bring a sense of wonderment to the beholder, a feeling that even though the world outside the elaborately carved doors of the Luwow exists in an awful state of enslavement to the whims of bankers, there still exists an inspiration taken from a simpler way of life, a distorted yet pleasant attitude that goddammit, we can still enjoy something tasty and something visually stimulating; it’s perfectly fine to retreat to this fake tropical paradise because even though the drinks are comparatively expensive, there is no reason for negativity in a tiki bar, not when you’ve got a giant totem pole next to you, a belly full of rum, and a fucking zombie finger puppet hanging off the edge of your glass.