Isle Of Tiki
Tiki has landed on the shores of Indianapolis in a tropical wave of bamboo and pineapples. And we’re here for the party, in our Hawaiian-printed finest, to raise a hand-carved Moai mug in honor of both the highbrow mixology and the sentimental kitsch.
This might sound like a lead-up to some kind of joke: Landlocked Indianapolis is jumping into the tiki revival’s Polynesian melting pot. We have a new high-end tiki bar (The Inferno Room) filled with collector-quality Papua New Guinea tribal art, and tiki pop-ups have transformed Hoosier bars into temporary island oases, from Irvington’s Black Acre to Mo’s House in Evansville to Kokomo’s Coterie, which hosted a tropical takeover every Saturday night last summer.
Indianapolis has its own chapter of the Fraternal Order of Moai, a semi-secret society of fez-wearing convivial souls who travel to thatched bars around the world, collecting experiences and swizzle sticks for their elaborate home tiki bars. You will find no shortage of working bartenders experimenting with cocktails that fall under the little pink umbrella of nouveau tiki.
Plus, we can lay claim to some tiki history of our own. Crawfordsville native Steve Crane, a B-movie actor who was briefly married to Lana Turner, is considered one of the fathers of the movement. He founded The Luau restaurant in Beverly Hills in the 1950s and went on to open posh Polynesian spots around the country into the late 1970s. Around that time, local tikiphiles might have thrown back a Suffering Bastard or a Rattlesnake at the gloriously peak-roofed and torch-lit Mai Tai restaurant at the corner of 38th Street and Shadeland Avenue, a piece of architectural lore from a bygone era. It adds to the mystique, though. And the fact that you can order a drink poured into a vintage Mai Tai restaurant glass at The Inferno Room shows how, punch line or not, Indianapolis has embraced its own goofy drunk history.
From full-force island kitsch to accidental tourist, Indy’s tropical bars had us at aloha.
Owner David “Tufty” Clough was an early convert to the tiki crusade. The back of his lucha libre–inspired cantina that opened in 2011 is a surf-tinged repository of coconut heads and hula frippery. During the warm months, sip your banana daiquiris and flaming Jet Pilots on the thatched-in patio with its own island bar. 1132 Prospect St., 317-423-9490
Tiki at a Chinese restaurant? Sure—the pairing feels right if that restaurant is a ’70s-era throwback with a huge menu and its own brand of camp. Substitute a few tiki tropes—wooden masks for a bas-relief dragon ceiling and grass mats for red leatherette—and this joint has enough tongue-in-cheek atmosphere to support a menu of rummy “tropical refreshments.” 49 Mercator Dr., Greenwood, 317-881-5531
The Inferno Room
Fountain Square’s tiki tabernacle is strikingly legit, from the authentic tribal decor (get a partial inventory on page 92) to the rum-forward menu of 28 cocktails served in coconuts and totem chalices. Owners Ed Rudisell and Chris Coy took two years (and great pains) to fashion this double-decker bar after classics like Chicago’s Three Dots and a Dash. But they managed to create a jaw-dropping paradise in its own right. 902 Virginia Ave., 317-426-2343
The focus is on stellar Asian-fusion cuisine, but this precursor to Ed Rudisell’s top-shelf The Inferno Room knows what kind of cocktails pair well with jalapeño Spam sliders and coconut ramen. Many of the drinks are built around botanical gins, with plenty of fruity lushness. 501 Virginia Ave., 317-737-2293
Punch Bowl Social
Foosball tables and private karaoke rooms don’t have much to do with tiki culture. But those eponymous shareable cocktails, served in party-sized glass bowls with ladles for dipping, look exactly like something a 1960s housewife would set out on her Danish buffet cabinet during a luau-themed party. 120 S. Meridian St., 317-249-8613
A newcomer to the Broad Ripple bar scene, this amber-lit, lower-level watering hole is more sexy than kitschy, with an ambient soundtrack that renders the tiki aspect more of a soft sell. The cocktails, poured into fishbowl chalices and skull mugs with lychees and orange slices, come on a bit stronger. 1001 Broad Ripple Ave., 317-389-5555
If You Like Piña Coladas …
Not sure where to begin on the tiki menu? Let us take over the cocktail shaker.
If you like Piña Coladas, Try a … Painkiller
Like the ultimate beach sipper (itself a respectable tiki-bar order), the Painkiller is built on rum, pineapple juice, and cream of coconut. It just isn’t frozen. It also has a smack of orange and, if your bartender is feeling generous, extra rum.
If you like Manhattans, Try a … Three Dots and a Dash
Swap your usual bourbon for rum and see what you think of this classic that is also stiff and, as tiki drinks go, not overly sweet. It is named for the letter V in Morse Code to signify “victory” during World War II. Like a Manhattan, it comes alive with Angostura bitters and should be garnished with good cherries—three of them, representing the dots, along with a pineapple frond or chunk standing in for the dash.
If you like Mojitos, Try a … Zombie
The lime juice, frequent mint garnish, and superfine sugar evoke the popular Cuban cocktail. The four types of rum involved evoke a bottle of aspirin and a pitcher of water. The tangerine hue comes courtesy of an extra fruit juice or two shaken in—nobody seems to agree on which ones are definitive, but passion fruit and papaya are both popular choices.
If you like Cosmopolitans, Try a … Shrunken Skull
Also known as a Skull & Bones, this simple lime-and-pomegranate creation has the same tartness and color as the drink that Sex and the City made iconic.
If you like Palomas, Try a … Navy Grog
Grapefruit juice, club soda, and honey syrup—an increasingly trendy add-in to an already trendy Mexican concoction—make for a smooth transition to the world of tiki.
If you like Mulled Wine, Try a … Nui Nui
This icy juice bomb may not bear much resemblance to a mug of your favorite steamed vino. But the cinnamon, cloves, and allspice make it a welcome wintry cocktail that isn’t too strong.
Giant Tribal Mask
When The Inferno Room co-owners Ed Rudisell and Chris Coy began dreaming about opening a tiki bar last year, they knew they wanted a huge, scary mask to greet visitors. And when it comes to hand-carved objects inspired by Melanesian tribal art, Milwaukee-based artist Dave Hansen has basically cornered the market. The duo hired Hansen, who whittled portions of this 7-foot-long mask in front of a live audience at Boone & Crockett, a throwback Milwaukee bar.
A few weeks after The Inferno Room opened, a woman came in, sat at the bar, and pulled these shell necklaces from her purse. “She had purchased them from villagers in the remote regions of Papua New Guinea, and she wanted us to have them,” Rudisell says. “We’re still new on the scene, but it made me happy that she had heard of us. The collection is still growing.”
Acquired from an online retailer based in Thailand, these lights (and the nearby fishing floats) represent the style most people associate with tiki.
A lot of artisans make ceramic cups for Mai Tais and Singapore Slings. The Inferno Room wanted to produce stoneware they could sell to patrons at a reasonable price. Tiki Farm in southern California manufactures the logo skull mug ($35), and Ken Ruzic from Illinois makes the taller “drum mug” with images from the bar ($75).
While small in stature, this figure of a man holding his giant penis is hard to miss atop the back bar. “They’re a very proud people,” Coy says, laughing. When Rudisell and Coy first looked through the Edler collection, they didn’t notice what has since become a kind of mascot for the establishment. “He just happened to fit perfectly in that high-profile spot,” Coy says.
Sepik River Region Art
As the bar was coming together, Rudisell and Coy heard about a recently deceased anthropologist in Ellettsville named John Edler, who had spent much of his life in Papua New Guinea, collecting artwork. “Chris and I drove down to his house not knowing what we were going to find,” Rudisell says. “We thought it was going to be a couple of pieces. It turned out to be a pole barn full of art. Half joking, I said, ‘How much for all of it?’ His brother gave us a number, and we drove away with 400 objects.”
Unlike many tiki bars, The Inferno Room has a slightly creepy, headhunter village vibe. “It spoke to us more than the beach-themed stuff you see everywhere,” Rudisell says. “It’s darker, more mysterious.” After visiting the Milwaukee Public Museum, Coy built this replica of an exhibit there with bamboo and skulls acquired from a Hollywood prop company.
The Luau Room
One of the biggest figures in tiki history hailed from Crawfordsville. Steve Crane owned The Luau in Beverly Hills in the 1950s, among the genre’s Big Three (alongside Trader Vic’s and Don the Beachcomber). This entire room, from the wood trim carved with his bar’s logo to the thatch wallcovering, is a tribute to him.
While spectacular, the masks from Edler’s collection aren’t particularly rare. The religious symbols often were used for only a short time before new ones were produced, meaning there are thousands of them. Nevertheless, having authentic art from the area was essential for the owners. “They’re valuable to us because it allows us to create a museum you can drink in,” Rudisell says.
The Torch Bearers
The definition of tiki varies depending on whom you ask. Some fans say it’s about the movement’s idiosyncratic cocktails and music, or a love of the funhouse-mirror version of Polynesian culture it portrays.
Others, perhaps most, see it as escapism. And what precinct is more deserving of a little full-immersion island fever than a group of fun-loving Hoosiers with enviable Hawaiian print collections? “We’re landlocked here in the Midwest, and it’s cold, and we don’t have palm trees,” laments Eric Bogan, a member of the Pukapuka chapter of the Fraternal Order of Moai, a national organization of serious aficionados that is often referred to as a cult within the cult of the modern tiki revival. The social club has hubs all over the country, including New England’s Queequeg chapter, Atlanta’s Tongariki chapter, and Central Ohio’s Kahiki chapter. The Indy-area group named itself after a remote atoll in the Cook Islands that, from the air, reminded them of the Circle City. The island’s beaches form a ring around the landmass, reminiscent, they thought, of I-465.
Bogan works as a bartender at The Inferno Room, as does his Pukapuka brethren, Dan O’Connell (who works the back bar on the weekends), but their interest in the lifestyle predates the local resurgence by a few years. O’Connell is an old friend of The Inferno Room co-owner Ed Rudisell. “He probably got tired of me asking when he was going to open that tiki bar.”
Both Bogan and O’Connell keep lavishly appointed tiki bars in their basements. Those DIY watering holes serve as regular meeting places for colorful little cocktail parties. But the big event of the year—and the only one open to nonmembers—is the annual Makahiki: A Night of Tiki, a grand party in September that benefits a local charity. Last year’s fete included a luau and rum tasting, with live music, a tiki-themed burlesque act, and bartenders pouring tropical drinks.
For many fans, the movement’s touchstone isn’t necessarily Polynesia, but rather Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort. O’Connell got the bug from watching The Brady Bunch episodes from 1972, when the family went to Hawaii. Bogan has actually visited Hawaii, an experience he describes in terms akin to a pilgrim visiting Mecca. Ironically, the cocktails weren’t that great. “But really, people don’t go there for the cocktails,” Bogan says. If they want a great stiff drink and if they have friends like these, they can just stay home.
This basement bar dubbed Blue Demon’s Hideaway was the first room that tiki connoisseurs Dan O’Connell and Michelle Warble furnished when they moved into their home three years ago. “It’s still a work in progress,” O’Connell says.
(1) A framed piece of beach-themed crewel embroidery picked from the Indie Arts & Vintage Marketplace.
(2) One of many in a collection that O’Connell, a musician in several local bands, procured from secondhand stores.
Glass Ball Fishing Floats
(3) Two of these vintage globes came from the coastal Irish town where O’Connell’s father is from.
Lucha Libre Figures
(4) A collection of Mexican wrestler action figures represents both O’Connell’s penchant for WWE and Warble’s love of Mexican folk art.
(5) The collection includes two from Indy’s Mai Tai restaurant and another from the famed Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale. “I want them to put my ashes in that one,” O’Connell says.
(6) Mementos from tiki events the couple has attended around the country, like the Hot Rod Hula Hop in Ohio and the Chicago Tiki Tour.
(7) Among the scores of bottles, O’Connell’s favorite is Rum Fire Jamaican white overproof rum. “But it isn’t something you would put in a Mai Tai,” he says.
(8) Warble found these four vintage vinyl perches at 3 Stray Cats in Kirkland, which specializes in midcentury-modern decor.
(9) A piece of pot-metal art from the 1960s that O’Connell picked up at Goodwill.