Film on the glass means no peeking inside. You’ll have to open the door of 1378 Queen St. W. to whisk yourself to an exotic world that the city last experienced more than two decades ago. Awash in the soft glow of pufferfish lamps and netted fishing floats, tall carved moais cast watchful wooden eyes over the brand new Shameful Tiki Room.
Patrons who have been pouring into the bar might not realize that everything here – the six-foot totems carved from raw pine logs included – has been painstakingly handcrafted by the owner of one of Toronto’s first true tiki bars in a generation.
In late August, Rod Moore arrived from Vancouver – where his 50-seat Shameful Tiki Room has enjoyed great success since 2013 – and imprisoned himself inside the Parkdale storefront with reams of bamboo, plywood, nautical rope and tapa cloth. All that effort was to gift Torontonians with a larger, 70-seat Shameful experience, which he says is “100-per-cent accurate” when compared to the tiki bars of yore.
“If it opens and no one cares and they don’t like it, then I’d rather close it than put in all the TVs and turn it into a tiki sports bar,” said Mr. Moore, who purchased his first tiki mug in Hawaii in 2006. There’s what he calls a “Disney element” to the place: drinks that come out on fire, with smoke and sound effects, for instance.
In Facebook and Twitter posts promoting the bar’s three-night opening party late last month, he boasted that “Trader Vic’s and Don the Beachcomber would be proud.”
Once upon a time in Toronto, the mention of a place such as Trader Vic’s was synonymous with a good time out. It was one of the original tiki bars opened in California in the 1930s, along with Don the Beachcomber. Both bars morphed into multiple-location corporations by the 1950s. Copycats soon followed, and by the 1960s, even Ontario was lousy with tiki: Kitchener had The Waikiki and Ottawa had The Beachcomber Room at the Talisman Motor Inn.
In Toronto, there was Doc’s Place in the Town & County restaurant at Mutual and Gould streets, where the decor could be described as part Polynesian and part African. Even uptown denizens had their own escape: At the Northgate Hotel on Yonge Street, the most popular of the on-site themed restaurants was Bali-Hai, where then-premier John Robarts was honoured at a $100-per-plate fundraiser in 1963.
And in 1975, the legendary Trader Vic’s chain finally arrived at Richmond Street and University Avenue in the new Hotel Toronto. Movie stars, musicians, Blue Jays and ordinary folk would imbibe well into the 1990s – long after other places had paddled their outriggers over the River Styx.
“It had its heyday,” said Annette Punyi, an executive assistant who began at the Hilton in 1987, when the chain had acquired the Hotel Toronto where Trader Vic’s was still booming. But by the early 1990s, the hex was on: “They were doing everything in their power to promote menus … but there was just no more interest,” she said. “It was pricey for what it was at the time.”
Baba Wong was also around to witness the rise and fall of tiki in Toronto. After working at the London location of Trader Vic’s for three years, Mr. Wong came to Toronto in 1975 and was hired immediately for the new outpost, where he would rise from waiter to supervisor within a year.
“In those days, I’d do a lot of parties,” said Mr. Wong, 66. “Anne Murray, I did her party every Christmastime, here, for 15 years.”
Eve Bergeron, the granddaughter of Victor (The Trader) Bergeron, joined the family business in 1997 and agrees that the downfall “began in the late 70s,” until its popularity was “almost non-existent in the 1980s.”
Trader Vic’s Toronto closed in 1993; a pricey steakhouse sits where rum once flowed and Chinese barbecue ovens glowed.
During the first decade of the new millennium, “Polynesian Pop” experienced a renaissance with the under-40 crowd turning to tiki at home. Mugs traded for high prices online, books by experts Sven Kirsten and James Teitelbaum became hot sellers and vintage Hawaiian shirts were snapped up at thrift shops. Neo-tiki bars opened to lubricate the new aficionados, such as Otto’s Shrunken Head in New York and Chicago’s Three Dots and a Dash.
In Toronto, “tons of bars started doing tiki nights and featuring tiki-themed cocktails on their menus in the last year or so,” said Kristin Voisey, who opened BYOB Cocktail Emporium in 2011. She stocks a rainbow of bitters, bartender’s tools and, yes, grimacing ceramic tiki mugs at two locations on Queen West and in Kensington Market. Customers, she adds, come in to buy orgeat, an almond syrup used in mai tais, “all the time.”
In addition to the Shameful Tiki Room Toronto, there is also a new bar called The Shore Leave on the Danforth, where co-owners Zach Littlejohn and Julian Altrows offer a more casual tribute to tiki. “We want our own creative mix to be part of it; we don’t want to be a slave to a certain menu,” Mr. Littlejohn said.
Consider their take on the mai tai: homemade orgeat, agave syrup, infused absinthe, house-spiced rum, “then on top you have a dairy-free coconut foam.”
It does, however, come in a hollowed-out pineapple.
“It’s nice that we see small tribute bars popping up and really honouring the craft,” Ms. Bergeron said of the resurgent interest in her family’s business.
Ms. Punyi at the Hilton points to a less esoteric reason behind tiki’s comeback: “Look at the success of Mad Men. … Everything old is new again.”Report Typo/Error