Surfers know the best waves come in sets, with two, three, four swells building in size. The same can be said of chilling at a tiki bar. The first wave hits when you open the door. Palm fronds. Fish tanks. Lava lamps. In these landlocked escapes, Hawaiian-shirted bartenders across the region are proving that daily worries melt under the glow of irony.
You’ll find the second wave at the bottom of a so-kitschy-it’s-cool mug. We’re talking cocktails that wow the eyes as much as the tongue. But mind the fire—it’s real on the flaming ones—and beware a quantity of rum that matches the outrageousness of the tumbler. Whether you’ve already tested your sea legs or have just decided to dip your toe into tiki seas, ordering another round at these watering holes can deliver a tropical hit to last until our Midwest sun shines again.
5 Must-Try Midwest Tiki Bars
1. Lost Lake, Chicago
A dolphin-shape banana floats inside the ceramic head of an ancient god-man. His pineapple-leaf flippers are soaking in an icy pool of rum-on-rum-on-spiced-rum (one is labeled "overproof"). You’re seeing all that right. But if the buoys decorating the room look like they’re starting to bob, it might be time to slow down (lostlaketiki.com).
DON’T MISS: Monster and Rambo, two live piranhas swimming behind the bar.
Chicago’s Lost Lake designs its kiddie-pool-size cocktails to share. (But we won’t judge if you decide not to.)
2. Hala Kahiki Tiki Bar and Lounge, River Grove, Illinois
This institution, 5 miles from O’Hare Airport, has earned its motto: “We were tiki before it was cool.” Better yet, it did tiki the first time it was cool (pre-Brady Bunch) and has weathered five decades to relive the glory in a hipster spotlight. Categories, sweet to tart to coconut, sort a 20-page menu with 130-some island-inspired cocktails and fiery shots (chicagotikibar.com).
DON’T MISS: Hula shows and dinner on select Saturday evenings.
Photo courtesy of Hala Kahiki
3. Psycho Suzi’s Motor Lounge, Minneapolis
Squint from the deck and the waters of the Mississippi look like a turquoise oasis—sorta. Behind a set of heavy wooden doors in northeastern Minneapolis, you’ll find a world somewhere between Indiana Jones and epic biker bar. Rockabilly bartenders with colorful dreads welcome urban professionals, suburbanites and even dogs (on the patio) here. That keeps Rover out of the indoor waterfall (psychosuzis.com).
DON’T MISS: Three bars, each with a unique tiki theme, open upstairs on Saturdays.
Drink beside tiki heads and cabanas above the Mississippi River at Psycho Suzi’s.
4. Grass Skirt Tiki Room, Columbus, Ohio
Finally, a place where whale-size mai tais are served in whales. (Slurp through the straw in the blowhole.) Bartenders can deliver a dish of dry ice to shroud your table in a cloud of smoke at this Hawaiian-theme haven downtown. Throw back the drinks beside an active lava flow of red and purple lights and the glowing eyes of a tiki head on the wall (grassskirttiki.com).
DON’T MISS: Drinks so potent they come with a warning. Our pick: the cinnamon-flavored Grass Skirt Zombie.
Hula girls round out the Hawaiian theme at Grass Skirt.
5. The Golden Girl Rum Club, Springfield, Missouri
More hip rum bar than tiki classic, this chic newcomer promises the finest in mixology craftsmanship. Drinks listed with a skull beside them (The Monkey’s Paw contains four types of rum) are limited to two per customer. Enjoy these sippers in a bright white and airy space that proves even pineapple art and banana-leaf wallpaper can be done tastefully (facebook.com/thegoldengirlrumclub).
DON’T MISS: Campy barware themed to the drink, like The Holy Sh*t Jaws in 3D (shark mug) or The GG Itch (full-size back scratcher as a swizzle stick).
Fresh fruit and plants seal the island feel at The Golden Girl. Photo courtesy of The Golden Girl Rum Club.
The (Not-so-ancient) History of Tiki Bars
Authentic tikis are carvings of the storied “Adam” (a god-man) of the South Pacific— with effigies tracing back more than 10,000 years. American tiki, however, started in the 1930s at Hollywood’s Don the Beachcomber bar. Socialites went bananas for the amalgamation of all things tropic, crafted by a Texan-turned- island-hopper named Donn Beach. The invention spawned a slew of copycats through the ’60s. The South Pacific craze faded after the controversy of the Vietnam War, but it recently boomeranged back like bell-bottoms and waxed ’staches.
Legend of the Umbrella
Bartenders like to say they shade ice from melting in the sun. Historians counter that the paper toppers were only designed to draw women to bars or to replace sugar sticks as a less-messy garnish. Either way, they stuck.