Correction, 8/24/20: A previous version of this article misstated the location of Guanabanas and The Square Grouper Tiki Bar, which are in Jupiter, FL. The Gabber apologizes for the error.
Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, aka Donn Beach, opened the first American Tiki bar in the middle of the Great Depression. It marked the end of an era for Gantt, who’d spent years traveling to the Caribbean, the South Pacific and beyond. Without the funds to continue this lifestyle, Gantt created his own version of island-life in Los Angeles, California.
At a time when most Americans couldn’t afford to travel, Don’s Beachcomber Café provided the tropical escape they so desperately needed.
Now, with travel restricted and financial uncertainty, Americans are facing a similar struggle – and Tampa’s 23 Restaurant Services is bringing Tiki back.
“With the challenges that this year brought everybody, people are craving positivity and friendliness more than ever,” says Tiki Docks lead designer Tara Matheny. Matheny calls it the “Aloha Spirit.” It’s all about sending good vibes to the people around you. This is what 23 Restaurant Services hopes to accomplish at two Tiki Docks locations in Riverview and south St. Petersburg.
Like Gantt, Matheny and crew used their travels as inspiration.
“Through our travels, we’d always take that experience you get at Tiki and beach bars, or anything that’s waterfront dining, and know that it organically provides something different,” says Matheny.
When the group decided to create their own waterfront dining experience, they took a research trip to Guanabanas and The Square Grouper Tiki Bar in Jupiter and other waterfront locations.
“You have a choice when it comes to this kind of environment or atmosphere,” says Matheny. “You can go the direction of a nautical or boating theme, you can go Caribbean-themed, or you’ve got the Hawaiian or Polynesian theme…For us, the Polynesian or Tiki theme had an edge and stood out because of the culture itself.”
Smuggler’s Cove founders Martin and Rebecca Cate call it “Polynesian Pop.” Polynesian Pop is that delightfully random combination of island-inspired drinks, food, music and décor that have become Tiki tradition in the U.S. There are many cultural traditions in Tiki. Some of it’s Caribbean, some Polynesian, some South Pacific, and some invented.
Rather than just choose one, 23 Restaurant Services chose to embrace Tiki’s diversity when developing Tiki Docks.
“We’ve created seven Tiki personalities,” says Matheny. “They’re all very unique in their personalities because we wanted to create a diversified Tiki family.”
Tampa’s Grand Theming Studios carved each six-and-a-half-foot tall Tiki statue in a different style to reflect Tiki’s multiple personalities. In addition to the statues, 23 Restaurant Services commissioned Tampa Murals to paint the seven Tiki personalities at each location.
The diversity theme carries through to the cocktail menu, which includes drinks from Cuba (daiquiris), Mexico (margaritas), Hawaii (Blue Hawaiian, Pineapple Doley Whip), the British Virgin Islands (painkiller), Puerto Rico (piña colada) and the classic Tiki bars of LA (Trader Vic’s Mai Tai, Don the Beachcomber’s Zombie, Tiki Ti’s Puka Punch).
And this is Florida, so of course there’s a rum runner as well. Invented at the Holiday Isle Tiki Bar in Islamorada, the rum runner is Florida’s unique contribution to Tiki culture.
“A rum runner is known for being strong,” says Matheny. “You usually notice at first sip how strong it is.”
The original rum runner combines pineapple juice, orange juice, blackberry liqueur, banana liqueur, both light and dark rum, and a 151 floater.
Tiki Docks’ Sneaky Rum Runner combines Trader Vic’s Spiced Rum, Bacardi Lime, Pineberry, Banana Liqueur and 151-soaked fruit.
“It’s just as strong, but you can’t tell that right away with our flavor profile,” says Matheny.
The food menu at Tiki Docks is modern Floribbean with a Hawaiian twist. In keeping with the Aloha Spirit, Matheny and crew included dishes for sharing. She cites the peel-and-eat shrimp as an example.
“It’s very simple, but it fits in this environment,” says Matheny, who also highlights the Alafia Tacos.
“My personal favorite is diving into the shrimp tacos – a trio of blackened shrimp tacos with mango salsa and Hawaiian slaw,” she says. “It’s a full meal, but it’s not heavy. It’s the same thing with the watermelon appetizer or getting raw oysters.”
As in Tiki days of yore, Tiki Docks plans to include music as part of their Tiki experience, but they don’t plan on restricting themselves to island sounds.
“The music will be diverse, just like the seven Tiki statues,” says Matheny.
The old LA Tiki bars provided a unique experience through a combination of tropical drinks, food, music and décor that went way beyond just getting people drunk on a Saturday night – and Tiki Docks looks to continue the tradition.