Tonga Hut: Tiki Culture Thrives in So Cal

Open since 1958, the Tonga Hut is L.A.’s oldest tiki bar, serving up exotica and tropical cocktails amid tiki gods and mid-century modern décor in North Hollywood, August 20, 2017. (Photos by Monique A. LeBleu)

At first sight through the street side door is a resident sculptured Tiki, looming like a doorman or an Easter Island god. Martin Denny’s seductive mix of exotic bird calls, tropical percussion and piano combine with the soft trickle from the back bar fountain, transporting you to the tropics long before your eyes even adjust to the dark bar.

An always-full bar side competes with cozy booths that are semi-intimate, flanked by carved dark driftwood pillars. The forward lounge is a color balance circa 1970’s—a burnt orange corner inglenook fireplace, avocado green mid-century modular benches, olive green smoking-room chairs, warm woods, and just a touch of animal print.

Celebrating it’s 60th year this year—opening in 1958—the Tonga Hut is now the oldest tiki bar in Los Angeles and is co-owned by music artist Jeremy Fleener, guitarist for SX-10 and formerly for Cypress Hill, who bought the bar in late 2005, and Kevin and Claudia Murphy.

Per the L.A. Times, Fleener restored the bar himself after taking ownership. The ambiance is accentuated by the flowing fountains, assorted tiki gods, black velvet nudes, and a large bas-relief map of the Polynesian islands dominantly lit in the overall dimly lit bar.

Tiki bars have been succumbing to changing times here in Southern California, a culture in the United States that began after Prohibition was repealed and perpetuated by other influences, such as the popularity of the musical “South Pacific.” Don the Beachcomber, opened in 1933 by bootlegger and father of the Tiki bar, Ernst Gantt, closed in 1985. Personal favorite Kelbo’s of West L.A., part of a Polynesian-themed chain of long-popular restaurants, closed in the late eighties to become a Gentlemen’s Club. Trader Vic’s in Beverly Hills closed in 2007 after 52 years, and most recently, Bahooka’s in Rosemead closed in 2013.

But Tiki is not dead. In fact, Tiki culture appears to be growing and thriving once again. If social media is anything to go by, backyard-garage Tiki kitsch remodels are practically a competitive sport, and tickets to San Diego’s annual Tiki Oasis weekend are always a hot commodity. Still, feeding the culture is a smattering of Polynesian and Tiki themed-bars tenaciously serving 80-plus years of rum-based cocktails garnished with gravity-defying fruit and those tiny paper umbrellas to those of us who just can’t get enough of them.

Tom D. Kline, known as Tonga Tom, is also one such fan. And as Tonga Hut’s exclusive Sunday DJ from 4 p.m., Kline personally blends a smokin’ hot mix of exotica, contemporary and old-school surf guitar, crime jazz, and James Bond which he’s perfected over some five-years in residency. And among others, Kline is also a member of the Loyal Order of the Drooling Bastard, and honor bestowed after journeying through the 78 cocktails listed in Beach Bum Barry’s Grog Log administrated at the Tonga Hut. A bartender initials each new cocktail tried from the log.

Once the list is completed, membership is granted—an honor blessed by the fountain god himself that overlooks the bar. Perks of becoming such a member gains the honored patron a lifetime dollar off on cocktails and a name plaque on the Loyal Order of the Drooling Bastard board faithfully guarded by its namesake. But quality drinks at the Tonga Hut are the key.

Aside from standards such as the Mai Tai, the Blue Hawaiian, or the 78 other cocktails in the Grog Log, bartender Syd Thomas also creates daily specials and conveniently writes his crafted cocktails in multi-color day-glo on a glass board behind the bar. Featured among the dozen or so unique cocktails at the time of this story:

  • Krackin’ the Dole Whip, which is Kraken spiced & vanilla rums, macadamia, coconut, pineapple juice and peach bitters. The Tiki Masala with coconut rum, Canton Ginger, lemon, cream, and piri piri—a spicy drink.
  • Thyme is on my Side Car, which is Bulleit rye, thyme, lemon and orange bitters. Oaxacan in L.A., with Cazadores tequila, mezcal, hibiscus, Roses, lime and bitters.
  • The Watermelon Wayfarer, which mixes Don Q silver rum, watermelon, Roses and lime, is a hot summer day favorite.
  • The Bad Decision—likely named as a remedy for when you’ve made one—is with smoked rum, mescal, Falernum and passion fruit, orange and pineapples juices.

Personally tried was the Winsome Wahini, which won over from an autopilot Blue Hawaiian standard order. The Winsome Wahini was a delicious transporting blend of Demerara rum—which Thomas’ says lends a toasty flavor—Jamaican dark rum, vanilla rum, macadamia, lime, cinnamon, apricot brandy, and passion fruit and papaya juices. According to Thomas, a proper Mai Tai—the Tiki Cocktail standard by its original creator at Trader Vic’s—consists of rum, orgeat, lime, curaçao and simple syrup, a recipe he follows faithfully. Tonga Hut also has a sister bar in Palm Springs, that Southern California city that also continues to cultivate and embrace tiki culture and mid-century modern.

But if you’ve never been to this tropical hideaway in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, it’s time you do yourself a favor and take yourself on that venture into North Hollywood. Just a word of warning—at 4 p.m., especially on a Sunday, the local natives are already lining up at the door.

Tonga Hut is at 12808 Victory Blvd in North Hollywood and is open every day from 4 p.m. until 2 a.m., with happy hour every day until 8 p.m. Contact the bar at (818) 769-0708 for updated events.

About Monique A. LeBleu

Monique A. LeBleu is a writer, photographer, videographer, and shameless foodie and wineaux. A love of film history and a background in film production, post-production, and film theory provide unique insights into her movie reviews. As well, a background in technical theater fuels her passion on all-things theater. As a foodie, living in the ever-growing and diverse culinary landscape that is the City of Los Angeles feeds her never-ending pursuit of the perfect comfort food—the world's best Mac n' Cheese!
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