For reasons that elude me, I decided to visit a tiki bar on my latest trip to Hawaii, Honolulu seeming to be the most promising venue. One would think that finding a tiki bar there would be effortless. It is not. In fact, only one authentic tiki bar remains in the city (though a contemporary incarnation, Tiki’s Grill & Bar, makes an admirable but somewhat pallid nod to the tradition).
The lone holdout can be found nestled in a stand of palm trees on the Keehi Lagoon, a standout in the otherwise distinctly industrial-park surroundings west of Waikiki and east of the Honolulu airport. In 1957, Annette and Johnny Campbell founded La Mariana Tiki Bar and Restaurant, and primarily through the efforts of Annette, it survives as a vibrant museum of what was once a lively movement across America, exemplified by the many branches of Trader Vic’s.
With thatch paneling, dried blowfish lanterns, waterfalls, orchids and, of course, tiki figures, these places provided instant escapes from the gray-flannel world of the ’50s and early ’60s. With pupu platters laden with then-exotic fare such as Chinese spareribs and crab Rangoon, and lethal drinks with names like the Scorpion (served in a large bowl for several people with a gardenia floating in the middle) the Zombie and the still-popular Mai Tai, they were worlds unto themselves. Tastes changed, however, and rum punches gave way to white-wine spritzers.
Even in Hawaii, tiki bars declined, but the ever-vigilant Annette snapped up artifacts whenever she could, enshrining them and incorporating them into La Mariana. Thus, you will find the old carved tikis from the Sheraton Kon Tiki standing guard over tables from the original Don the Beachcomber, once the center of the late lamented International Market Place in Waikiki.
I took some Hawaiian friends who had never been, and they loved it as much as we did. Yes, a bit tacky, but such a wonderful spirit and embodiment of the lively design sense of the ’50s. The food is very good, if not outstanding, and the Mai Tais come with the requisite wedge of pineapple and cherry skewered on the pole of a tiny paper umbrella. I would not return to Honolulu without returning here.
50 Sand Island Access Road. Tel. (808) 848-2800.