In the corner of North Hollywood tiki bar Tonga Hut, you’ll find a fountain with a little tiki statue carved from volcanic rock, water dribbling out of its smiling mouth. The fountain is nicknamed the Drooling Bastard. “He’s been drooling like that since 1958,” says executive bar manager Marie King, who joined the staff in 2012.
After 60 years, the Tonga Hut is still going strong. According to King, there will be a big birthday celebration in October, but in the meantime, they’re hosting regular quarterly events in the parking lot. The spring event, Mai Tais on the Moon, takes place Sunday, March 4. In addition to the bar’s own anniversary, the festivities honor the 10th anniversary of popular tiki band Tikiyaki Orchestra, who’ll play a pair of live sets.
Even after six decades in the biz, the folks at Tonga Hut don’t worry about competing with the newer tiki bars that have opened up around L.A. “There’s a very small world of people who open these and run them and understand how to make a correct tiki-style cocktail,” King says. She believes a thriving tiki culture benefits all of the local tiki bars. “It’s broadening the interest and the culture, and that’s going to keep us here at the Tonga Hut alive—and you can’t ever take away the fact that we are the oldest still-operating tiki bar in Los Angeles.”
She points out that each of the tiki bars has a slightly different focus. “You have Tiki No, which is modern; you have Tiki-Ti, which is the second oldest. The Tonga Hut went through the dark days of tiki when this was just a local beer bar, and the drinks were not of quality in any way, shape, or form—the Tiki-Ti has continuously been making these tiki cocktails.”
She continues, “Pacific Seas and LONO, they really get it—especially Pacific Seas, because they have the history, too. They’re in the Clifton’s Building in DTLA. In the ‘20s and ‘30s, it was what they consider a ‘pre-tiki’ bar, because it was during Prohibition, so it was more about the food and the décor—that South Seas atmosphere.” If King is speaking your language, you’ll find plenty of like-minded people to talk tiki with at the Tonga Hut on Sunday.
Durango’s Tacos will be serving food, there’s an art show, and several vendors will be selling vintage and modern clothes and jewelry—all with a tiki twist. King says, “Bring money, because you’re going to want to buy some of this stuff. It’s all about promoting these artists and individual mug makers. A lot of them make one-off mugs and one-off paintings, and you’ll find some tchotchkes, too. The art show always reflects the theme, and all of the art will also be for sale.” The only downside? No tiki drinks outside. For now, you’ll have to head into the bar to imbibe. For the bar’s official birthday party in October (date TBA), King hopes to fence off the entire parking lot and get a license to serve drinks outdoors as well.
During parties, the Tonga Hut offers a limited cocktail menu to make sure everyone gets their drinks in a timely manner. If you’re not sure what to order, King has a recommendation: “We’re going to be serving the Jungle Jetsetter, which is the official Tikiyaki Orchestra cocktail. It’s coconut rum, some cherry, almond syrup, lime, and pineapple juice. It’s fruity, yet tart as well, because there’s an ounce and a half of lime per cocktail.”
The bar will also debut the newest color of their Drooling Bastard mug, the perfect accessory for anyone attempting to join the bar’s exclusive club. “You become a member of the Loyal Order of the Drooling Bastard when you have all 78 drinks in Jeff ‘Beachbum’ Berry’s Grog Log within 12 months,” says King, who views membership as an exercise in cocktail archaeology. “There’s a lot of flavors on there that you’ve probably never experienced before, or wouldn’t think of putting together,” she says. “They’re vintage-style ingredients. People don’t drink a lot of vermouth drinks or Luxardo maraschino drinks anymore. This kind of gives you an opportunity to see what they were doing in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s in tiki culture, and try those drinks.” So far, more than 500 people have completed the challenge. What are the benefits of membership? “If you make a plaque—and you have to make the plaque—I’ll put it up on the wall. Then, you get a little pendant that gives you $1 off all of your premium cocktails forever.” Sure, the discount is nice—but becoming part of L.A. tiki bar history is the real prize.
Mai Tais on the Moon, Tonga Hut, 12808 Victory Blvd., North Hollywood; Sun., March 4, 2-10 p.m. Admission is free.
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