Alameda’s Tiki Obsession
An underground world of tiki fanatics runs deep in Alameda.
Photos by Clara Hogan
It’s a Thursday night, and the rum is flowing. Men clad in Hawaiian shirts and women donning flowers in their hair mingle over exotic drinks, swaying to the tune of a live Hawaiian-style band.
It’s a scene that could be witnessed on a faraway island in the tropics, but the party’s happening right here on the island of Alameda. Specifically, it’s happening in the backyard of local resident Brian McDonald’s Victorian home, in a detached garage that’s been renovated into an elaborate tiki haven. Given the name “The CapyBar,” the home dive was designed by Ignacio “Notch” Gonzalez, who’s also responsible for famed San Francisco tiki bar Smuggler’s Cove, and the result is every bit as magical. The bar is decked out in kitsch: puffer fish dangle from the ceiling, more than 400 eclectic mugs line the walls, neon palm trees flash in the corner, and bamboo covers the remaining space.
McDonald, who goes by his nickname “Chiwito” in the tiki community, is well known for his tropical parties held on the first Thursday of each month. “I’m a Parrot Head,” McDonald says as he makes his way through the crowd of people, his shirt patterned with colorful birds and cocktails. “That means I like all things Margaritaville and Jimmy Buffett. I’ve always loved everything that reminds me of being outside somewhere south and warm on the water.”
Photos by Clara Hogan
Looking around the room, it’s clear he’s not the only one who’s into the tropical lifestyle. Turns out tiki culture is thriving in Alameda, thanks in part to the island’s retro vibes, universally praised tiki bar Forbidden Island, and a rowdy bunch of cult tiki fans.
This rise of tiki bars came at a time when young men were returning from the South Pacific after World War II. People went wild for the laid-back ambience and tropical flavors of these Polynesian-inspired joints. The first tiki bar, Don the Beachcomber, popped up in 1934 Los Angeles, and it wasn’t long until others like Trader Vic’s jumped on the bandwagon (owner Victor Bergeron is said to have invented the mai tai at the chain’s Oakland location in 1944).
The craze fizzled out by the 1970s, with bars shuttering across the country, but it’s seen a renaissance in recent years as seasoned bartenders found themselves looking for more innovative ways to approach cocktails. From Chicago to New York — and even in less obvious places like Albuquerque, Denver, and Minneapolis — people have once again turned to tiki bars as a way to escape, this time from their modern, overconnected world.
That’s really what tiki is all about: “escapism,” the idea that once you walk through the door, you can be transported to the best of island life. But in the 21st century, when people are much more well traveled and generally more sensitive to other cultures, tiki has also been criticized for being a form of cultural appropriation, as much of the inspiration and decor are based on real and important cultural symbols. Enthusiasts argue, however, that tiki bars have never tried to present themselves as representative of an actual culture, instead offering a transport to a completely fictional paradise.
That’s what Forbidden Island attempted to create when brothers Michael and Mano Thanos opened the bar in Alameda in 2006. They wanted people to not only feel like they were fleeing to a distant island but also entirely back in time, to a classic mid-century Americana experience. The bar — tucked inconspicuously in a residential neighborhood in the middle of town — has no windows, is covered in gaudy decor, plays 1950s tunes on the jukebox, and runs vintage movies on the bar TV.
“We wanted people to feel like they were walking into a time capsule,” said owner Michael Thanos. “We were one of the first bars in the tiki resurgence to really take it back to that core era.”
People flocked to Forbidden Island instantly, both visitors from around the Bay Area, the country, and the world, in addition to locals. McDonald, like many others, credits his first trip to Forbidden Island as the spark of his tiki obsession.
“Our regulars aren’t just customers; they’re fans with a deep love for the bar,” Thanos said, adding that, like with McDonald, “we’ve turned hundreds of people into tiki-philes who, based on their experience, have started to experiment at home.”
McDonald isn’t the only tiki enthusiast in Alameda with a home bar — far from it.
“You’d be surprised at the number of them, whether it be it in a backyard, an extra room, or a corner of the basement, they’re just usually not as elaborate as Brian’s,” says RJ “Rum Junkie” Held, a guest at McDonald’s event. “We’ll often do home tiki bar crawls.”
McDonald’s soiree has expanded over time to now include more than 400 people in his secret Facebook group, where he sends out invites, just as his tiki decor and rum collections have grown. McDonald has amassed more than 200 different bottles in his home collection — many vintage and in limited supply. “I hang out with rum nerds and tiki people. There’s a high overlap, but they’re different groups,” he said.
Forbidden Island bills itself as a rum bar as much as a cocktail bar. There, if you drink all 100 rums on the menu, you become inducted into the “Kill Devil Club,” which involves a ceremony and getting a custom plaque on the rum shelf, in addition to becoming privy to a limited selection of 70 library rums. Then, if you make it through those tastings as well, you graduate to “Kill Devil 2.0,” an elite group of around 30 people so far. A dozen or so people, known as the Kill Devil aficionados, have done several runs through the entire rum list. McDonald holds the record, having done it a whopping 17 times.
Another hobby in tiki culture, besides drinking rum, is collecting vintage decor. In McDonald’s bar, for instance, he has a lobster trap and chairs from the SF Trader Vic’s, a large totem pole-style carving from the Osaka Trader Vic’s, a large sign from the burned down Tiki Tom’s in Oakland, and mugs from across the country.
It turns out the game of collecting and trading all of this tiki kitsch — especially mugs — is a world all its own. And it just so happens one of the most important figures in this space, Otto von Stroheim, also happens to call Alameda home.Von Stroheim, who has lived in Alameda for the past 14 years, runs the nation’s largest tiki event, Tiki Oasis, which takes place every August at the Crowne Plaza in San Diego. Over the course of five days, more than 3,500 people enjoy parties, cocktail tastings, ukulele jam sessions, and a huge number of vendors.
“Our goal with the event is to create an experience similar to what you’d have at any tiki bar across the country — where you can walk in and feel like you can talk to anybody,” von Stroheim says. “There’s something about the environment that makes it welcoming to everyone.”
Von Stroheim got his start in tiki in the 1980s, hosting monthly tiki-themed music events as well as launching an international tiki zine. He launched Tiki Oasis in Palm Springs in 2001, eventually moving to San Diego. It’s a “culmination of all things tiki,” von Stroheim says.
The event started out primarily as a place to buy and sell tiki collectibles and that remains a big aspect. Attendees can find everything from swizzle sticks to vintage clothing and matchbooks, as well as mugs.
Bars also come out with a limited amount of custom mugs for collectors to buy. At Alameda’s Forbidden Island, the mid-century tradition of having a house souvenir carries on, theirs being a custom-designed mug known as Kapu.
All in all, it’s not totally surprising that so many tiki lovers call Alameda home.
“This island in many ways still has that midcentury, Leave it to Beaver feel; it hasn’t been completed remodeled to be modern upscale like in San Francisco,” von Stroheim says. “The tiki bar is an American fantasy, like Disneyland. It’s an homage to the island lifestyle, and it’s about creating that experience, whether in your backyard or at the bar down the block.”