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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

There’s a mermaid doing somersaults on a TV screen in a lamp-lit room. Exotica spills from unseen speakers. Carved wooden faces hang on a wall, alongside a signed photo of Don Ho. Floral-festooned patrons sip cocktails out of ceramic mugs. The bartender is lighting drinks on fire.

But, no, this is not a tiki bar. Definitely not. I guess?

According to owner Rory Snyder, The Reef—which opened Feb. 4 inside the tiki-style Caliente Tropics Resort in Palm Springs—is a “tropical libation sanctuary.”

Snyder says those who take their tiki very seriously—dubbed tikiphiles by some—would likely object to The Reef calling itself a tiki bar, because it doesn’t completely adhere to all of the criteria of a true tiki bar.

Um, OK.

“In a lot of ways, it is a tiki bar, but I don’t want to be restrained and confined by the parameters of, supposedly, what tiki is,” said Snyder, who is also a self-admitted tikiphile. “I don’t want to be defined just by tiki.”

Let’s talk about tiki for just a second. For all intents and purposes, there are four, let’s say, “tiki-style” bars in the valley: The Reef, Bootlegger Tiki, Tonga Hut Restaurant and Bar, and Toucans Tiki Lounge; all are in Palm Springs, and all bring a little something different to the table.

We have a section of tiki drinks on the menu at Truss and Twine, where I work, and I’m often asked: “What is tiki?” The word “tiki” comes from New Zealand and the Marquesas Islands. In Maori mythology, Tiki was the first man created.

What most Americans see as “tiki” and its surrounding culture is the creation of one man—Ernest Gantt, and his Hollywood bar and restaurant Don the Beachcomber. Gantt started Don’s Beachcomber Cafe just off of Hollywood Boulevard in 1933 at the age of 26 after traveling the Caribbean and south Pacific following his high school graduation. Gantt returned from his adventures with a unique collection of exotic, Polynesian ephemera and a taste for exotic, Polynesian drinks.

At Don’s Beachcomber Cafe, he put it all together. The mix of the bar’s ambiance (puffer-fish lamps, nets, traps, shells, driftwood, etc.), Gantt’s exotic drinks and presentation (served in a coconut, with fun names like The Zombie, etc.), and his personal showmanship (wearing cutoff pants and weathered clothing) was something truly new and unique. In 1937, Gantt moved his joint to a bigger space across the street, named it Don the Beachcomber, and officially changed his own name to Donn Beach.

Following Beach’s lead, a number of others opened extremely popular “tiki” restaurants, and the “tiki craze” spread throughout the United States. That lasted until the end of the 1960s, when “tiki” all but died. On life support, tiki culture was kept alive by a handful of enthusiasts throughout the ’80s and ’90s, almost as a form of counterculture. In the late 1990s and 2000s, alongside the craft-cocktail movement, tiki culture went through a revitalization, which has led to where we are today. In other words, tiki is cool again.

“(Like) the advent of being allowed in your 40s and 50s to like comic books and Star Wars, tiki was always kind of that thing that was the redheaded stepchild and mockable,” Snyder said. “But now we embrace our geek and can be proud tikiphiles.”

The Reef and, more significantly, the Caliente Tropics hotel own a substantial slice of tiki-culture history. The A-framed Caliente Tropics, originally just called The Tropics, opened in 1964, the heyday of tiki, as part of Ken Kimes’ 40-motel empire, five of which were Polynesian in theme. According to Snyder, all the tiki statues on the grounds are original and are from the famed Oceanic Arts in Whittier, made by noteworthy tiki-carver Ed Crissman. Tiki Oasis, the largest tiki event in the country, which is now held annually in San Diego, started at Caliente Tropics in 2001 as a fundraiser for the then-struggling hotel.

In its salad days of the ’60s, The Tropics housed the Congo Room steakhouse and underground Cellar Bar, which was popular with a number of celebrities who vacationed in Palm Springs, including Elvis Presley and members of the Rat Pack. The Reef now occupies the space where the Congo Room once was. (An adjoining restaurant space will soon be home to Evzin Mediterranean Cuisine.) Additionally, Snyder has brought more tiki events back to Palm Springs with his Tiki Caliente parties, which he’s thrown since 2008 at Caliente Tropics.

“I love this hotel,” Snyder said. “This is my dream home. I’ve always loved this place. I love the history here. The greatest gig in the world is being an owner of this bar in this historic tiki hotel. I get to sit in the tiki mecca of Palm Springs, which is the Caliente Tropics Hotel.”

OK, enough history lessons. Let’s drink.

It’s Saturday around 7 p.m. The bar is really filling up fast. It’s an eclectic mix of folks. Bar manager Brandon Glass shakes me up some cocktails while the guy next to me is telling me how he lives “right behind” the Jelly Belly factory.

I start with the Hot Hula Hibiscus, which is basically a spicy margarita variation with tequila, jalepeño and hibiscus syrup, giving the drink a slight floral note. It’s light, refreshing and well-balanced, with the right amount of heat—and it’s served in a kitschy-cool cactus glass.

Next, I try the Hemingway Daiquiri, a classic which The Reef honors nicely. The popular daiquiri variation, with grapefruit juice and maraschino liqueur, was supposedly created at the La Floridita bar in Cuba, for famed writer and imbiber Ernest Hemingway. This one is legit.

I finish with a frozen piña colada out of a slushy machine. Cocktail snobs would surely raise their noses in disdain at such a sight … but, damn, it’s delicious. I add a float of dark rum to the top, because, why not?

The Reef’s cocktail menu contains many tiki classics like the Mai Tai, Singapore Sling and Painkiller. However, The Reef doesn’t stock the high-end spirits that some cocktail bars in town do, and the bartenders don’t jigger-measure the drinks.

“Truly, it’s not about eyedroppers and super-accuracy as much as free-flowing fun and keeping it loose,” Snyder said. “I like to think of the bar as part of the show.

“The one part of tiki I don’t get these days is that somehow, tiki and mixology crossed. The pretentiousness of mixology, to me, in a lot of ways doesn’t mix with the ohana of tiki.”

History, fun, good drinks, great ambience and customer service … is The Reef a tiki bar or not? And does it even matter? I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

Patrick Johnson is a journalist and head bartender at Truss and Twine. He can be emailed at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Below: The Reef opened Feb. 4 inside the tiki-style Caliente Tropics Resort in Palm Springs. Photo by Patrick Johnson.

Published in Cocktails

DJ Baz, aka Barry Martin, is not a typical DJ—his musical tastes are vintage and unique.

Those traits make him a perfect fit as one of the two performers at the Modernism Week Tiki-a-Go-Go party at the Royal Hawaiian Estates on Saturday, Feb. 18.

During a recent interview, Martin explained this year’s theme for the party.

“This year’s spin is ‘go-go.’ You take the Sunset Strip with places like the Whisky a Go Go and the Troubadour and you bring it to Palm Springs,” Martin said. “It’s a combination of tiki music and go-go, so that’s why it’s called ‘Tiki a Go-Go.’ A band called the Hula Girls, from Orange County, will be performing a special set of music with a lot more go-go thematic twists. They also have two beautiful dancers on podiums. It’s going to be a lot of fun. This event always sells out, and it’s (the Royal Hawaiian Estates’) big fundraiser for the year. The residents at Royal Hawaiian love it. They’re typically very quiet.”

Martin considers himself a big fan of tiki culture.

“A lot of people associate tiki with Hawaii, which isn’t really true,” he said. “Tiki represents anywhere where they carve idols that would represent different things. Hawaii just stands out because it’s part of the United States, and we always think of tropical imagery of being only Hawaiian when it’s Samoa, Fiji and a lot of the other islands out there.”

According to Martin, The Hula Girls will not disappoint.

“I’ve seen the Hula Girls many times,” Martin said. “A lot of people hear them play and call it ‘rockabilly.’ A lot of what they do does, in fact, have a rockabilly edge to it, but they call it ‘hulabilly,’ so they’re taking Hawaiian themes … and were really big in surf guitar.”

Martin does a variety of events; he said he saw an opportunity.

“I saw a big, gaping hole,” Martin said. “Every time I would go to an event such as a fundraiser, a gala, or anything else like that, (DJs were just playing) house or nu-disco. That’s fine, but you hear it everywhere all the time. It’s just so pervasive. Where’s the music that represents Palm Springs? … I thought there was room for me.”

Martin’s knowledge and taste as a crate-digger lead to music that is fun and different.

“I love a lot of the Hawaiian music, and I always mix it in, but there’s so much of that music from that culture,” he said. “I play what I call ‘world-beat exotica.’ I mix in a lot of vintage Latin music with cumbia and reggae. I just blend it all together. It’s not just Hawaiian music. Twist-and-shake music was really big in the ‘60s. The twist-and-shake music was adopted by go-go dancers on the Sunset Strip.”

Celebrating the vintage side of Palm Springs is a lot of fun for Martin.

“That’s what Modernism Week is all about,” he said. “Modernism Week is putting all of this on a pedestal, because it almost all but disappeared. Palm Springs is still the mecca in the world of that kind of architecture. There are structures and buildings all over town that are still in mint, if not pristine, condition. Places like the Royal Hawaiian embrace that and live it almost as a lifestyle.”

Martin said he loves themes.

“I do weddings, so you have to play everything like ‘Brown Eyed Girl,’ but I prefer doing a very specialized playlist,” he said. “Whether it’s ‘Barcelona Nights’ or ‘Cuban Nights,’ give me any theme—such as ‘Monsters,’ for example—and I can take off with it and really dig. I can come up with not-obvious selections. If your average club DJ took a gig like that or was pressed to do something like that, they might just come up with some pretty obvious choices. That may not be as entertaining. I can turn that around and really make an impression with the music. They might hear something they haven’t heard in years, or something they haven’t heard at all. That’s what I love to do—take genres of music that people have never heard or haven’t heard loud enough, and turn them on to it.”

Finding vintage material can be a challenge—although modern technology has been a big help.

“There are tons of resources,” Martin said. “For digging, Spotify is great to me, and you can pick your poison. YouTube is also a good resource for vintage stuff that might not be available for certain stuff, because royalties can’t be figured out. I figure if there’s no way to find where you can purchase it, it’s kind of free game, and a DJ doesn’t usually need a license to burn music. As long as the venue has the license to play music, I’m covered. … I play music that was only on 35s in India. I have some of my favorite places, such as The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles. You really do find some gems in a shop like that. Vinyl is outselling CDs now, too, and I play a lot of vinyl.”

As for the Tiki-a-Go-Go party, Martin said the crowd will provide a lot of the fun.

“They come with the purpose of partying and having a good time—and they do,” Martin said. “No one just stands around posing. That’s why I wanted that ‘hulabilly’ feel for the music, and I’ll play music leading up to the band going on, when they’re on their break, and music to close out the night. My palette can be much broader, and it can be a lot of shake and twist, go-go and Hawaiian stuff. We’ll keep the night going.”

Tiki-A-Go-Go takes place at 6 to 9 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 18, at 283 E. Twin Palms Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $125. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.royalhawaiianscoop.com. For more information on Modernism Week, which takes place Feb. 16-26, visit www.modernismweek.com.

Published in Previews

What: The Nutty Chi Chi

Where: Tonga Hut Palm Springs, 254 N. Palm Canyon Drive

How Much: $11

Contact: 760-322-4449; www.tongahut.com

Why: Nutty and creamy is a dreamy combination.

Tiki bars—drinking establishments that serve tropical, island-themed cocktails, often with an emphasis on fruit juices and rum—used to be a big freaking deal.

After World War II, these bars slung mai tais and scorpion bowls to a thirsty, eager public. In fact, Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley were the home to a number of tiki bars before the craze subsided and largely died off in the 1970s.

However, to some, like Tonga Hut co-owner Amy Boylan, the craze never died. The original Tonga Hut has been a mainstay in North Hollywood since 1958, and when her crew opened the second Tonga Hut here in downtown Palm Springs in February, it reintroduced tiki-bar culture to the Coachella Valley—and in a big way. (Sorry, but Toucan’s doesn’t count.)

Ask, if you can, for a tour of the Palm Springs Tonga Hut; the detail will amaze you. One of my favorite details: photos, menus and other memorabilia from some of those late, lamented Palm Springs tiki joints, framed within each of the booths. Very cool.

Unlike the original Tonga Hut, the Palm Springs spot has a full kitchen and serves food; they’re working out a few kinks in that area, as one would expect. But thanks to 56 years of experience, the folks at Tonga Hut have the drinks down pat—and one of our favorites is the Nutty Chi Chi.

The drink is not all that complicated—it’s got some creamy piña-colada fixings, vodka and macadamia-nut liqueur—but the result is a smooth, sweet, refreshing and nuanced glass of fun. This drink will be even more refreshing as the temperatures rise, too.

Our recommendation: Head to Tonga Hut; get a seat on the awesome balcony, if one is open; order a Nutty Chi Chi; and raise your glass in a toast to the fact that the valley’s cocktail and bar scene is improving—thanks in part to the return of tiki to the desert.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

Twin Palms Reopens After Fire-Related 8 1/2-Month Hiatus

As we briefly mentioned last month: Twin Palms Bistro and Lounge, located at 1201 E. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs, re-opened in late December after a closure of 8 1/2 months.

Here’s what happened: On April 9, a small fire broke out in the kitchen of the “comfort food” restaurant. The damage was minor—limited to a fairly small area behind some stainless-steel wall panels, according to co-owner Pat Daltroff—because it was extinguished quickly. Daltroff and his crew thought the restaurant would be closed for days, or maybe a week or two, tops, due to the fire, which Daltroff blamed on shoddy workmanship by a former tenant.

Those days or weeks turned into 8 1/2 months. Why?

Daltroff, selecting his words carefully, answered thusly: “For whatever reason, the landlord took 8 1/2 months” to make the repairs allowing Twin Palms to re-open.

Of course, 8 1/2 months is a long time, meaning that Daltroff and general manager Marilyn Simmons had to almost start over. Simmons—who herself was forced to find another job while the landlord/insurance/etc. saga at Twin Palms dragged on—said that most of the original wait staff has returned, but the entire kitchen staff needed to be replaced. For that reason, the restaurant has been gradually re-introducing menu items and specials during their “soft reopening.”

Some of the favorites for which Twin Palms was known and loved are back, including red beans and rice on Monday nights; all-you-can-eat fried chicken on Tuesday nights; and all you can eat spaghetti on Wednesday nights. The restaurant is now open for brunch on Saturdays and Sundays—a fact which makes me particularly happy, as I’ve been missing their crab-cakes Benedict all these months.

Daltroff emphasized that local government agencies—from the Palm Springs Fire Department, to the permit-issuing officials within the city of Palm Springs, to the Riverside County Health Department—“bent over backward” to help Twin Palms.

“They could not have been more anxious for us to reopen,” he said.

What’s in store for the future of Twin Palms? “We’re just trying to build our business back up,” Daltroff said.

Stop by and help the good folks at Twin Palms do just that, will ya? Call 760-322-3730 for more information.

Coming Soon: Pho Vu Palm Springs

The slow but steady diversification of downtown Palm Springs’ restaurant scene continues!

A Vietnamese restaurant is soon joining the figurative fray: The valley’s third Pho Vu will be opening at 285 S. Palm Canyon Drive. A mid-to-late January look in the windows revealed a mostly gutted space, with a few pieces of equipment here and there. In other words, the restaurant is still weeks, if not months, away from opening.

The other two Pho Vu restaurants in the valley are located at 79630 Highway 111 in La Quinta, and 34620 Monterey Ave. in Palm Desert—bright spots in a valley where there’s not a heck of a lot of good Vietnamese fare.

To our knowledge, Pho Vu Palm Springs will become only the second Vietnamese restaurant on the valley’s west side, joining Pho 533 at 1775 E. Palm Canyon Drive.

Visit phovurestaurant.com for more information.

Coming Soon: The Tonga Hut

Ever since we saw Tonga Hut’s awesome entry in the Palm Springs Festival of Lights, we’ve peeked in every time we’ve walked by to see if the bar/restaurant at 254 N. Palm Canyon Drive (above NYPD) is open yet—and alas, it has remained “coming soon.”

Why are we so excited about the Tonga Hut? Well, it’s the sister bar to the legendary Tonga Hut in North Hollywood, which has been serving fruity Island drinks and other tropical fare since 1958; it’s Los Angeles’ oldest still-open Tiki bar, in fact.

While Tonga Hut’s Palm Springs operation was not yet open as of our press deadline, the Tonga Hut Facebook page promises that an opening is imminent; watch that page for more details.

In Brief

On Sunday, Feb. 2, the inaugural Palm Springs Vintage Market will take place from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., in the parking lots of the Spa Resort Casino (near Indian Canyon Drive and Amado Road). The organizers promise lots of vintage goods—as well as food trucks! (Hence the inclusion in this column.) The market is slated for every first Sunday, and admission is $5; find more info at www.palmspringsopenairemarket.com. … The news release was headlined: “Natural 9 Noodle Company to celebrate year of the horse with specialty dishes.” Thankfully, the restaurant—located at Morongo Casino Resort Spa—is not serving horse. Instead, the eatery, under the direction of executive chef Michael Nguyen, will be celebrating Chinese New Year with yummy special dishes, including a lobster cognac fried rice with Chinese sausage, shitake mushrooms and other goodies ($24); and roasted whole Peking duck with green onions, cucumbers, hoisin sauce and Chinese pancakes ($32). The celebration runs from Thursday, Jan. 30, through Monday, Feb. 17; find more info at www.facebook.com/Natural9NoodleCompany.

Published in Restaurant & Food News