Thoroughly Modern Tiki: Creating Tropical Escape, Minus the Colonialist Fantasy


Bensonhurst native Michael Lombardozzi likes a good tiki bar. Nothing, he says, dissipates city stress as efficiently as relaxing amid tropical greenery with mai tai in hand, soundtracked by the lilt of slack-key guitar. But when he decided to open his own bar after ten years in the industry, he skipped escapism in favor of something more familiar. His new Bushwick bar, Dromedary, which opened last month — just in time for summer — focuses on tropical drinks, but keeps the ambience minimalist and approachable; he calls it “urban tiki,” and it’s more salvage-chic than island tableau.

Lombardozzi’s seeking to slide into a New York market that hasn’t always embraced tropical-themed bars: We’ve got Zombie Hut, the beloved Cobble Hill spot that has the look but not the top-shelf drinks, and swank places like Mother of Pearl or Pegu Club, with the addictive cocktails but not the island vibe. Bars that offer up both don’t last long here: The Julie Renner–helmed Lani Kai and PKNY on the Lower East Side were well received and fully imagined but closed within a few years of opening.

Marlo Gamora, a bartender who has studied and mixed tiki drinks for almost ten years at establishments including Mother of Pearl, thinks it’s because the city’s drinkers just don’t want to leave their comfort zone. “We like what we like and want what we want,” he says. “I wish [there could be more] escape, but a lot of folks are too focused on their routine, so they want their bars to feel familiar. They don’t want to go hang out at a tiki bar all the time, just once or twice.”

It may also be the fraught history. The tiki craze — the carved-mask mugs, rattan furniture, and thatched huts evoking an island paradise — that spread across the U.S. from the Forties through the Sixties has its roots in colonialist fantasy. It arguably started with the 1939 World’s Fair, which included a (romanticized) presentation of Polynesian culture — which until then was unfamiliar to most Americans. According to Nicholas Mirzoeff, a visual culture theorist at NYU who studies the history of Western conquest of the Pacific Islands, the exhibit “was a classically colonial project, a spectacle to say: ‘Here’s the world that we control, and dominate, and is available to us.’ ”

In the following years, soldiers returning from combat longed to experience an unbloodied version of the faraway places in the Pacific where they’d served. And as Mirzoeff points out, veterans weren’t the only ones who wanted an escape. “Tiki formed a way out of the Cold War way of imagining the world — a closed world with no way out. So we imagined open worlds that existed outside it.”

It was a cultural landscape in which tiki bars like Don the Beachcomber, in Hollywood, and Trader Vic’s, in Oakland, flourished. Named after their white owners, the bars were nonetheless staffed by Filipino, Chinese, and Hawaiian workers, many of whom helped to create or refine the drinks that are now essential to the tiki canon: the mai tai, the zombie, the missionary’s downfall, well-balanced and endlessly drinkable concoctions of fruit and spice that belie heavy doses of rum.

For Gamora, learning that many of the early tiki bartenders were Filipino like him solidified his love of the subculture. “I look up to a lot of those [original bartenders], and that’s what I’m trying to do now. But even though their influence is in tiki, tiki is not Filipino and it doesn’t represent me as a Filipino.” Rather, he says, it represents a pleasantly familiar tropical atmosphere that conjures not just the Philippines, but Vietnam and Thailand, where he has traveled and explored.

Such vagueness is at the center of tiki’s appeal: It means whatever you want it to. These constructed worlds create their own reality, kind of like Disneyland, says Mirzoeff. “These are real places you can go to, and people form real memories and come to identify [tiki] as part of their lives.” This is why Gamora thinks tiki can be welcoming to all. “It’s a construct, and it doesn’t offend me, because I relate to it. I don’t see it as a bastardization. It’s just this ideal of escape to a distant place.”

At Dromedary, that sense of escape looks different, more homegrown. Lombardozzi’s decision not to open a full-on tiki joint was in part informed by his time spent in Hawaii, where he’s stayed several times with friends who are natives. “Hawaiian culture has been beat to death by Americans making it into a tourist attraction,” he says. “People who are from there aren’t into Americans taking over the island — it was a beautiful place and now it’s got Sheratons all over it. The same thing happened in Polynesia.” And whether or not Bushwick residents new and old know tiki history, at the very least, they think the aesthetic is tacky, he believes.

So while his bar serves drinks faithful to Don the Beachcomber’s careful balance of tart and fruity, the only visual cues are a small carved totem by the bar and a cabinet in the back corner that he plans to fill with tiki mugs. He appears to have struck the right balance; even on a weeknight, Dromedary is packed with Bushwick locals, from the usual young tattooed set to a handful of middle-aged bikers.

That doesn’t mean you’ll see Mirzoeff there anytime soon; to him, no amount of toning down can compensate for a history of violence. “[If] you’re just trying to make a bar, it shouldn’t [rest] on the triumph of one group over another. No one would think of making a minstrel bar, and just because Polynesia or Hawaii are farther away doesn’t mean it’s any better.” But if you can live with the guilt, sidle up and order a drink — they’re strong enough to make you forget where they came from.

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