If California’s Last Don the Beachcomber Closes, a Fascinating Chapter in Tiki History Ends

There’s more to the story than a guy and his tropical drink recipes

If you’ve ever set foot in a tiki bar anywhere, you’ve probably seen a mention of Don the Beachcomber, which laid the groundwork for the tiki craze when it opened in Hollywood in 1933, and that legendary bar’s founder, who called himself Donn Beach (born Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt). Dozens of now-classic cocktail recipes are claimed (though not without controversy, in some cases) to have been invented by Don the Beachcomber, including the Mai Tai, Zombie, and Navy Grog.

That original Hollywood tiki bar closed in 1985, but the Don the Beachcomber name has carried on at other locations. Over time, almost all of those have closed as well, leaving only three, and just one in California. Now, according to The Orange County Register, the Huntington Beach location, which only opened in 2009, appears to be at risk of closure as well. Staff have reportedly been telling patrons that doors will be closing, and events scheduled after April 1 are being canceled or moved to other venues. Nonetheless, current owner Delia Wu Snyder told the Register that the rumors of imminent shutter are premature.

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In 2007, Snyder and her husband, the scandal-plagued erstwhile L.A. City Council member Arthur K. Snyder, purchased the rights to the Don the Beachcomber branding from the original owner, Cora Irene “Sunny” Sund, Gantt’s ex-wife. While Gantt was always the outgoing public face of the brand, glad-handing customers and developing new drinks, it was his wife and business partner, Sund, who is credited with helping to catapult Don the Beachcomber from a 25-seat hotel bar to a multi-location, rum-slinging juggernaut.

When World War II broke out, Gantt joined the Air Force, taking an assignment to create rest-and-recreation centers for troops in Capri, Cannes, and Venice. While he was away, Sund embraced her role as a pioneering female entrepreneur. By the time he returned, she had gathered investors, managed the company, hired chefs to create Chinese-American dishes that are still menu staples today, and expanded to 16 locations across the country. But while the business flourished, their marriage did not. Gantt and Sund eventually divorced, and she demanded that she keep control of the company she had built, including the Don the Beachcomber brand.

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After the couple’s legal split, Gantt was barred from using the Don the Beachcomber name to open a restaurant anywhere in the country, so he set sail for Hawaii—not yet a state at the time—and opened a new establishment. Two locations operate there now, in the Royal Kona and Royal Lahaina resorts.

At some point during his adventures, Gantt made friends with Delia Wu’s shipping-magnate father. While she recalls her mother encouraging her in a different direction, Wu loved the idea of the restaurant industry, and Gantt acted as a sort of inspiration and mentor to her, even teaching her some of his secret tiki drink recipes he rarely revealed (and which she still mixes herself, rather than training staff to do so, to honor his trust). She dreamed of reviving the Don the Beachcomber legacy years before she married Arthur Snyder and their company bought the rights to the Beachcomber name. They would ultimately purchase a restaurant called Sam’s Seafood and overhaul it into what it is today.

In almost a mirror of Sund and Gantt’s partnership, Wu dove into running the back of house, while Snyder was out front. Then, just three years after opening, Snyder passed away, and, like Sund before her, Wu found herself helming the enterprise all on her own.

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And while she stepped into the role with confidence, by 2015 Wu told the Register she was already thinking about moving on from the business. “This old grandmother needs effort to keep her going,” she said. That same year, a proposed rezoning of the area where Don the Beachcomber sits came up before the Huntington Beach City Council. That proposal was rejected then, but had it passed, the plan would have allowed the landlord to redevelop the complex, including adding 250 units of housing and adding new commercial spaces. Around the same time, a real estate posting also went up for the property where Don the Beachcomber is located, which revealed that the business was on a month-to-month lease at “substantially below market rent.”

For the moment, the bar remains open and serving up Rhum Rhapsodies and pupu platters just as they have for nearly a decade, at least through April 1. After that, the next chapter of the Don the Beachcomber story appears unclear for now.

RELATED: Some of the Most Obscure Vintage Tiki Drinks Have Finally Been Revealed

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