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New Orleans’ tiki bar revival brings rum to the forefront 

click to enlarge Jeff "Beachbum" Berry opened Latitude 29 to highlight his tiki drinks.

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Jeff "Beachbum" Berry opened Latitude 29 to highlight his tiki drinks.

For some New Orleanians, tiki inspiration and ambience reached their pinnacle at the Bali Ha'i at Pontchartrain Beach.

  Guests were welcomed with leis and may have heard Martin Denny's "Quiet Village," with its birdcalls and faux-jungle sounds. Men wore Hawaiian shirts and women wrapped themselves in sarongs and put exotic flowers in their hair.

  The Bali Ha'i closed in the mid-1980s, as national interest in tiki waned. The appealing images of tropical Pacific islands, Polynesian food and powerful, fruity rum drinks had swept the nation in the middle of the century. The concoction of faux Polynesian culture was created largely by Donn Beach, aka Don the Beachcomber, and Victor Bergeron Jr., aka Trader Vic, each of whom had opened more than a dozen tiki bars and restaurants across the country.

  Today, tiki is hot again, and tiki expert Jeff "Beachbum" Berry is helping revive interest in New Orleans. A drinks historian and author of six books about tiki, Berry and his wife Annene Kaye moved to New Orleans a few years ago and opened their tiki bar and restaurant, Beachbum Berry's Latitude 29 (321 N. Peters St., 504-609-3811;, in the Bienville House hotel, in the space formerly occupied by Iris restaurant.

  Berry attributes tiki's revitalization to a combination of factors.

  "The drinks are being rediscovered, and they're delicious," Berry says. "Tiki always fares well when the world appears to be going to hell. Tiki provides a temporary escape from all that.

  "During the craft cocktail movement in the early 2000s, bartenders wanted nothing to do with tiki. They were too young during the trend's prime to ever appreciate a good tiki drink. They probably thought it was some slushy, syrupy drink served on cruise ships."

  The first craft cocktails after the repeal of Prohibition preceded the tiki craze, with bartenders using fresh juices, rum and making their own syrups and liqueurs.

  "In the 21st century, mixologists leading the craft cocktail movement are pushing tiki and bringing it to a new audience," Berry says.

  As the tiki trend was fading, Berry began searching for tiki recipes as a hobby. "Very few were published because they were valuable trade secrets that were the bartender's job security," Berry says.

  Berry lived in Los Angeles, where many older bartenders were still around, and sometimes their wives or children helped him obtain recipes.

  "It took maybe eight to 12 years before I saw the first Don the Beachcomber recipe," he says.

  He wrote books, including Beachbum Berry's Intoxica! and Beachbum Berry's Sippin' Safari, and he spoke about tiki at cocktail events such as New Orleans' Tales of the Cocktail in 2007. Berry was invited to lecture on tiki in Slovakia, Ireland, Amsterdam, Berlin and London. "Europe discovered tiki before the U.S. rediscovered it," he says.

  Berry is not alone in the tiki revival in New Orleans. Nathan Dalton, beverage director for Felipe's Taqueria and Tiki Tolteca (301 N. Peters St., second floor, 504-288-8226;, also was interested in the tiki renaissance. His bartending mentor, Richard Odell, helped him get started.

  "Richard taught me about rums and tiki drinks and wanted to open a tiki bar [above] Felipe's French Quarter location, where we worked," Dalton says. "It became our project. Richard had the tiki drinks and rum passion, and I had a fervor for the culture and spirits of South America, so we melded the two together."

  The tiki room features a thatched roof tiki hut bar, rattan and bamboo furnishings and tiki carvings.

  Dalton credits neighbor Berry with the resurgence in tiki. 

  "Without him, we wouldn't exist," he says. "The legitimate tiki drinks would have died out if Jeff Berry hadn't come along and done the detective work, brought the recipes back and shared the knowledge."

  "Plus, tiki cocktails come packaged with their own wacky culture," Dalton says. "Tiki commands a whole passel of mood-changing artifacts and other sensory enhancements."

  Tiki Tolteca's accolades include winning Food & Wine's 2014 Peoples' Choice award for best new bar in the Southeast, and USA Today included it on a 2014 list of the nation's top tiki bars.

  At the rum-focused Cane & Table (1113 Decatur St., 504-581-1112;, tiki inspired the bar's original plans, but the decor is more subdued. Nick Detrich is a veteran of the Uptown craft cocktail pioneer Cure. He originally planned to open Cane & Table as a tiki bar but changed the emphasis prior to the bar's opening. Detrich says tiki's resurrection is cyclical.

  "With tiki, it's still craft cocktails but with a fun, lighthearted ambience and irreverence," he says.

  Initially, Detrich was given a copy of Beachbum Berry's Grog Log, which started his tiki bar fixation. He read more of Berry's books and attended his lectures.

  "It was during that six months preceding the opening of Cane & Table that I decided to focus on tropical drinks preceding the tiki movement and the heritage of the proto-tiki experience," Detrich says.

  "We can pull from just about any place in the Caribbean and from any culture that makes rum," he says. "We are basically tracing the lineage of our food through the cultures that influenced New Orleans cooking, like Africa, Cuba, Haiti and others ... where the drink format really pairs well with these big strong, robust flavors of the Caribbean."

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