These lounges aren’t tiki bars like the well-known Trader Vic’s, the Alibi or our 2013 Bar of the Year runner-up, Hale Pale. These are basement bars, built by people in Hawaiian print shirts who invite other like-minded geeks over for a drink and debate who invented the mai tai. These are people who sniff at the Alibi’s popular, but inauthentic, karaoke night.
These are people like Craig Hermann, who, when I meet him, is carving the smiling face of a Polynesian god into an 8-foot piece of plastic foam. Asked to explain the attraction, Hermann pauses for a full 28 seconds to compose his answer. “Dark, dangerous, wonder, surprise, delight,” he says. “It’s a return to a base level of being; it’s a way for you to take off your three-button suit and put on a different sort of attire where you become wild where you can’t during the day.”
For that, Portland’s three big tiki establishments aren’t enough. The true tiki experience, they say, is crafted by hand. So they turn their basements, their backyards, entire rooms of their homes into personal Polynesian asylums. And your neighbor just might be one. We looked past the suburban façades and explored the hidden tiki lounges of three of Portland’s most dedicated tiki fans.
The Monkey Hut
Hermann’s North Portland basement is an underground tropical paradise. The Monkey Hut is his third home tiki bar, one he’s been working on for the past five years. The bar is lit by dim lamps made of fishing bobbers and has enough bamboo chairs and ottomans to host a dozen people, as well as a long line of flavor syrups along with a loop of chirping crickets. Ask Hermann and he’ll launch into a tirade for a full 10 minutes about tiki culture’s roots from Gauguin in Tahiti as he masterfully mixes up a Navy grog for his visitors. A systems administrator by trade, Hermann has technical skills that enable him to wire up complicated lighting and sound systems; in a basement that’s part technical wonder and all tiki, the only thing missing is the sand.
“Many of my interests, I kind of…over-intellectualize them, sort of,” he says.
Hermann developed a love for tiki culture early, spurred by frequent visits to Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room and his father’s backyard tiki pond. In 1999, when he was 27, a chance visit to a hotel tiki bar rekindled this love. After moving to Portland in 2004, he quickly became a chief in the local tiki scene and, until this year, was the main organizer behind Tiki Kon. Hermann gave that up because of his two small children. “Hopefully, they’ll grow up with it so they don’t think it’s weird.”
Photos by Richard Grunert
The Lowbrow Lanai
Step into Austin Jordan and Marci Holcomb’s Northeast Portland home and you’re instantly transported back to the 1960s. Ask them what sorts of things they’ve collected over the years and both will proudly list records, cocktail shakers, cat figurines, plastic rocket ships, Finnish glassware and, of course, tiki, to which they now dedicate a whole room of their home. Their Midcentury Modern is stocked with artifacts from the 1950s and ’60s. Since 2003, they’ve jointly run Sputnik Housewares, specializing in “jet-set furnishings from the atomic age.”
“A lot of people out there are collecting newer tiki mugs; we always for our personal collection keep to the actual vintage mugs from the ’50s and ’60s,” Marci says. “It’s always fun to find something with a restaurant on the back that no one knows about.”
They’ve completely transformed what was once a broken-down backyard patio into the Lowbrow Lanai. What started as a few antique bamboo chairs from the 1940s quickly expanded into a full-blown tiki lounge that now dominates their backyard.
The Green Bamboo Lounge
Paul Nielsen’s home tiki bar isn’t just for entertaining, it’s also a showroom. His Parkrose Heights home is part ceramics factory, part shipping center, and all tiki. Paul and his wife, Debra, run MunkTiki.com, an outlet for ceramic tiki mugs he designs, makes and sells to collectors. Some limited-edition mugs go for $150 each.
Six months ago, Nielsen and his family decided their small tiki bar wasn’t enough, so they completely renovated their basement, raising the ceiling and transforming it into a three-room tiki escape called the Green Bamboo Lounge. Today, there’s bamboo everywhere, exotic masks on the walls, and shelves lined with more rums than you knew existed. As Paul fiddles with the vintage tiki jukebox, Debra seems embarrassed by the expensive margarita maker hidden in a corner. (Margaritas and Jimmy Buffett’s Caribbean are decidedly un-tiki, but they’ve got one anyway.)
Before he got into tiki, Paul mostly worked on bathroom accessories and dinnerware. Now, Tiki geeks are his primary clientele. He makes one design at a time—zombies, monkeys, Easter Island heads—for tiki collectors around the world.
“I’ve been doing ceramics pretty much my whole life,” he says. “I created a [tiki] bar line thinking it would be another hot item. We took it to a New York gift show and it totally bombed. Then, about three years later, I put up the mug and a few other items on eBay and the mug just took off.”
The whole family is part of the business. In one room Paul’s son Miles prepares a large batch of mugs for shipping. In another corner, the shelves are proudly lined with mugs from the past. There’s a prevailing sense of pride in his voice as Paul talks about his mugs, and it’s easy to see why. It’s not a bad business for someone who used to make toilet parts.
GO: Tiki Kon is at Red Lion at the Quay, 100 Columbia St., Vancouver, Wash., 360-694-8341. See tikikon.com for a full schedule of events. Friday-Sunday, July 12-14. $12-$205.