SONIC REDUCER What exactly does exotica mean to a little brown girl from a tropical island? How does tiki translate to someone who once identified those fierce masks by name, as Lono, Kane, or Ku? To most, exotica tuneage boils down to Martin Denny and Esquivel; tikis, to that last retro revival that surfed in alongside early '90s alternative culture. But for this wahine from cosmo Honolulu, exotica meant Quadrophenia mods and Italian scooters zipping around a freezing little island on the other side of the globe and tikis were simply a fact of life, like those special guest appearances by Pele on street corners. Tiki was all around it was more radically exotic to sport leather motorcycle jackets under the hot Hawaiian sun.
So Bay Area tiki culture's latest return in the form of Alameda's Forbidden Island and Oakland's Kona Club is both surreal and heartwarmingly familiar, a roughed-out, kitschy-koo Hawaiian fusion. I always associated the tiki cult of the '50s and '60s with World War II vets nostalgic for humahumunookienookie high times, filtered through mediocre Chinese grub and juicy beverages that even a teetotalin' mom could easily get toasted on. Here it's all about vintage peeps, ex-locals, and hearty-drinking pirates in search of novel booty. And the Bay Area is the ideal spot for an ersatz islander experience, what with Oakland being the home of the first Trader Vic's, Alameda's Otto von Stroheim continuing to roll out the Tiki News zine, San Francisco's ReSearch spurring an exotica rediscovery with its Incredibly Strange Music volumes, and the area providing ground zero for the San Francisco Bay Area Tiki Weekend.
The aforementioned gathering is thrown by Forbidden Island co-owner Martin Cate, and the loving care he and fellow big kahunas Michael and Emmanuel Thanos (who also own the Conga Lounge in Oakland) lavished on the nine-month-old lounge is obvious. On this frigid, drizzly Saturday night there's something vaguely subversive about retreating to a tiki-strewn fantasy island when it's colder than a sea lion's tittie outside. Forbidden Island is a fruity-drink lover's fever dream, boasting fresh-squeezed juices and stealth quantities of silver rum that sneak up and slam you in the puss. Cocktail umbrellas spear dollars to the cork ceiling over an early '60s back bar, bamboo-sheltered booths, and a dramatically lit Polynesian god overseeing the grizzled locals, water cooler refugees, and fresh- and Fog Cutterfaced collegians, downing spicy grog and Scorpions by the bowl. As I suck down a delish Banana Mamacow of coconut, cream, and rum, my bud Dr. B points out the bodacious, bare-chested native maid in the black velvet masterwork by the bar: "If I had that in my room when I was a teenager, I'd never have left the house." My only disappointment: nary a note of bird whistles, a bongo beat, nor a wisp of exotica in earshot, though the jukebox is said to be crammed with the stuff. Where's the mai tai moment for the mind's ear?
Next up on the relative newbie list is the year-old Kona Club on a silent stretch of Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, just a stagger or so away from Trader Vic's founder Victor Bergeron's final resting spot at Mountain View Cemetery. Love the tapa clothcovered walls decorated with ukuleles and old wooden surfboards; the smell of dried lauhala; and the unduutf8g hips of the life-size hula-girl robot. And I'm told the smoke-spewing volcano behind the bar is da bomb. As the Pixies blast over the sound system and Dr. B fetches more Macadamia Nut Chi Chis, I sprawl over a corner table the sizable crowd appears to be simultaneously more hipster and fratty. Maybe it's the quiet village of Piedmont that binds us together the burbies outside are tucked in early while we belly up in our mini-wacky-wiki-Waikiki inside the onetime British brew pub King's X.
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