clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Rise of the Zombie King

Tiki historian Jeff "Beachbum" Berry has spent five decades
obsessively chronicling Polynesian cocktail culture. Now he's
opening his own bar, and everything is about to change.

AFTER A WHILE, Annene Kaye couldn’t stomach another daiquiri.

"I was driving her crazy," admits her husband, Jeff Berry. He's better known to the world by his adopted sobriquet, Beachbum. It's a nod to the tiki demimonde, the study of which he has made his life's work. "I would make three daiquiris a night, seven nights a week, each time doing a slightly different sugar, different ratios, different rums—over and over again trying to get something that was the best it could be," he says. "I still don't know if I've done that."

It would not be unlike Berry to endure such pleasant research for one of his many influential books on the history of tiki culture and its companion cocktails. But this particular daiquiri marathon was in service of something else. Later this fall, Berry—a writer and historian by profession—will open a bar, his first, inside the Bienville House, a hotel in New Orleans's French Quarter. It will be called Latitude 29, after the parallel upon which the city sits. In cocktail terms, this opening is momentous. It's the equivalent of when the legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg took on the role of Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part II. It's the backstage guru stepping up and showing the youngsters how it's done.

Berry is aware of the high expectations he faces. "This kind of bar—with the people we know are going to come to this bar—we've got to get that drink right," he says of that much-workshopped daiquiri. "They're going to test us on it."

UNLIKE SOME OTHER fields of enterprise, the current cocktail renaissance lends itself very neatly to the Great Man theory of history. This hypothesis, which originated in the nineteenth century, conjectures that our cultural progress can be traced through the influence of individual figures. And it is not hyperbole to say that the cocktail revival in America largely did begin when Dale DeGroff began mixing up classic cocktails at the Rainbow Room in 1987. Dick Bradsell, the career British bartender, really is the man behind many of the most important London cocktail bars and bartenders of the last two decades.

Without Jeff Berry—and his dogged diligence in tracking down former barkeeps from Trader Vic's and Don the Beachcomber and prying from them the drink recipes secreted in their brains—the current tiki revival simply never would have happened. Over the last two decades, he has steadily produced the most comprehensive modern library of tiki scholarship there is. Beginning in 1998 with a volume called Beachbum Berry's Grog Log—published by Slave Labor Graphics and available mainly in comic book stores—his works bear titles like Intoxica! and Sippin' Safari. The canon culminated in 2013 with the coffee table-worthy Potions of the Caribbean, his only hardcover release to date.

As a phenomenon, tiki culture predates Berry by a few decades. In 1934, the doors opened at Don the Beachcomber, the Hollywood restaurant that was the arguable originator of the style—Polynesian carvings, bamboo chairs, floral leis, and intricately flavored, ornately garnished drinks—all run under the auspices of the legendary Donn Beach. A few years later, the Trader Vic’s chain kicked off, bringing Mai Tais, crab rangoon, and a breezy tropical aesthetic to a massively receptive national audience. But after a midcentury surge in popularity, the ‘70s and ‘80s saw tiki’s influence wane—right about the time when the movement was really starting to capture Berry’s attention.

Much like the warm-weather fantasy world he inhabits, Berry, who is fifty-six, is a product of Hollywood. His father and mother, both Jewish, were from the Bronx and Brooklyn, respectively, but in the late sixties, they moved to California, where Berry grew up—mainly in the San Fernando Valley.

"The food of my people was Chinese," he says of that sunny childhood. "In the mid-sixties, the tiki craze had peaked at such a point that regular, old-school Cantonese restaurants figured out that they were already serving Polynesian food, which is just Chinese food under different names. All they had to do to cash in on the trend was to retrofit their restaurants with decor."

When Berry was eight years old, his folks took him to Ah Fong's, a joint owned by Benson Fong, who played the Number Three Son in the Charlie Chan film series in the 1940s. The people around him were drinking flaming punches and sipping Navy Grogs through ice cones, and Berry was immediately transfixed. "It was a complete Disney World when I walked in there. My parents were there just for the chow mein; I wanted to live there. It had been art-directed to a tee."

When he turned twenty-one, he started visiting tiki bars on his own, and began to get nosy. "I went to the Tiki-Ti"—the legendary tiki relic that still does business today on Sunset Boulevard—"and I would ask Ray, the old guy behind the bar, 'What's in this drink?' And no matter what the drink, he would say, 'Rum and fruit juice.' I ran into that everywhere I went: 'Rum and fruit juice.'"

That old guy, Ray Buhen, died in 1999. He once tended bar at the original Don the Beachcomber in the 1930s, and in his vague answers to Berry, he was only acting on ingrained instincts. His former boss, Donn Beach, had instructed him never to reveal trade secrets, lest they be adopted by the competing tiki bar across town. For this reason, many of the recipes of tiki's golden age—including the famous, potent Zombie—were buried under secrecy from the time of their creation; by the time Berry started asking questions, they were almost impossible to unearth.

As the 1980s dawned, he spent his days breaking into the movie business in various marginal ways, writing coming attractions and movie poster copy. (He wrote that famous Home Alone tagline, "A family comedy without the family.") Meanwhile, Los Angeles' remaining tiki palaces began to vanish one by one. To fill the void, Berry tried making the drinks he loved at home. For this, he used what he calls his Rosetta stone, the 1972 edition of Trader Vic's Bartender's Guide, just about the only tiki cocktail book anyone could buy back them.

"All through the eighties I thought I was the only guy in the world that had any interest not only in tiki drinks but in all these old restaurants," he recalls. "I was working completely in isolation."

That changed in 1990, when he met his future wife, Annene Kaye, a music critic who wrote for rock magazines like Creem and NME. Through her, he met the other tiki heads who dotted the fringes of the film industry like so many islands in a South Pacific archipelago. Annene took him to a party in L.A.'s Silver Lake neighborhood, where he met a Chicago actor named Charles Schneider, who was also into tiki. Schneider urged Berry to contact Sven Kirsten.

Kirsten is a German-born cinematographer and director of music videos whose mania for tiki culture found full expression through his 2000 publication, Book of Tiki. "I went to his house," Berry remembers. "He had a huge loose-leaf folder of lost tiki culture. We were like dogs sniffing each other out." They began hanging out at the Tiki-Ti and Madame Wu's in Santa Monica, where Tony Ramos, another Beachcomber veteran, served them peerless Fog Cutters.

Through Kirsten, Berry met Ted Haigh, a gregarious graphic designer. Haigh kept a cache of discontinued spirits in his Silver Lake home, which he used to make historically accurate versions of cocktails from the many dusty drink manuals he had in his collection. Haigh was more into cocktail history in general than tiki itself—he was an Aviation, rather than a Mai Tai, kind of guy—but he was a master at drawing out secrets from reticent bartenders.

"Drinking with Ted Haigh in bars was a nightmare," recalls Berry. "He'd walk in—didn't know the bartender from Adam—put the cocktail books down and say, 'Excuse me,' in his best Jimmy Stewart voice, 'can you make me a Corpse Reviver No. 2?' The guys would look at him. Some of them would try. Some of them would just say no. He had nothing but chutzpah."

But the method worked. When Berry walked into a tiki bar alone, he got "rum and fruit juice." When he went with Haigh, he walked away with a recipe. "The first Don the Beachcomber recipes I got were because of Ted," Berry admits.

AS THE YEARS WENT BY, Berry became something of a rolling rum ball, spending his off-hours peering at microfilm in libraries, and hunting down former Beachcomber and Vic's barmen in unlikely places, gathering ferns and falernum recipes as he went.

Annene didn't mind her man's peculiar obsession. "In my world, anyone who wasn't into weird shit was some 'norm' or 'straight person' who wasn't worth talking to," she says. "So the fact that Jeff had a 200-pound statue of Pele in his living room was cool with me. He also had a real couch that he didn't pull in off the street and real art on the walls and he didn't live with ten other people. I thought he was one of the most grown-up guys I'd ever gone out with."

Berry's research roughly coincided with the digging being done by the classic cocktail historians who were fueling the turn-of-the-millennium speakeasy revival, but for the most part, the mavens of the pre-Prohibition elixirs paid Berry and his tiki findings little heed.

"Craft cocktail people in 2002, 2004 didn't want to touch tiki with a ten-foot pole," says Berry. "It was the worst thing you could do if you're trying to do the lost art of the cocktail and present it to customers as worth their time. They don't want any slushy drinks on their menu." Tiki, it seemed, was still uncool.

So he took his tiki talents to Europe, lecturing on the subject in Ireland, Italy, and Germany. "I felt like the Dexter Gordon of the cocktail world," he says, comparing himself to the American jazz saxophone legend who found his greatest fame overseas. "The U.S. doesn't want me? I'll go to Europe!"

But by 2008, when Berry first visited the serious-minded New York bar Death & Co., attitudes had changed. As soon as he walked in the door, Berry was treated like visiting royalty. "We just plied him with drinks," recalls Brian Miller, a Death & Co. bartender who was at that time at the beginning of his tiki enlightenment. (He's now the host of the itinerant New York pop-up Tiki Mondays.) "We sent Bum out on rails. He was so loaded."

Tiki was finally ready to have its moment. San Francisco's ambitious Smuggler's Cove opened in 2009, and the next year in New York, three tiki bars opened in quick succession: Lani Kai, Painkiller and Hurricane Club. But while Smuggler's Cove was an instant success—it continues to be an anchor of the Bay Area cocktail scene—within three years, the New York spots all went dark.

At present, the tropical booze ethos hangs on in Gotham only through a smattering of tiki nights at a half-dozen scattered bars. But to Steve Yamada, who will be Latitude 29's head bartender, tiki done piecemeal is not tiki enough. "It's as much about the culture and the people involved in it as it is about the drink," he says. The problem with isolated theme nights at bars, in his assessment, is that none of those other essential pieces are there: "The focus is all on the drinks."

New York might not be able to sustain a full tiki bar, but New Orleans—city of rummy Hurricanes in to-go cups—feels like a more hospitable environment for a full-time temple to tropical drinks. In fact, Berry and his crew won't be the first laid-back rum lovers to walk the streets of the Vieux Carré: Donn Beach himself put in considerable time in the Crescent City.

"I'm clinging to the evidence that I have that he was born here," says Berry. "His widow says that he was born in East Texas, and far be it from me to argue with someone who was married to him. But he told people that he born in a bunch of places."

Of course, Berry plans to go the hall of records to get to the bottom of the matter. Bar owner or not, old historians die hard.

FOR ALL HIS BAR SMARTS, Berry has never tended bar for a living, and doesn't intend to start with Latitude 29. "I'm the world's worst bartender," he admits. "I've tried it a few times. Not only am I the slowest in the world, I also have a terrible memory. Someone gives me an order for four drinks, I've forgotten what the third and fourth ones are by the time I've made the second."

Instead, he will be the host, playing to the hilt the "Beachbum" part of his name. Jeff Berry and Beachbum Berry are two very different people. Jeff, in the man's own words, is an "introverted writer who can't look anybody in the eye." In contrast, Beachbum is a friendly, engaging fellow with a relaxed, party attitude.

The name Beachbum was an accident. When putting together his first book, Berry came across a restaurant in Redondo Beach, California, called Beachbum Burt's. He admired the typeface used in its sign: "It was as if it were drawn in the sand by Robinson Crusoe's walking stick." He considered cutting up the letters to make them spell his given name on the cover of the book, but the right characters weren't all there. So he decided to pick up a new first name for the title: "Finally I said, 'Why not just call the book Beachbum Berry's Grog Log?'"

He meant the name as a joke. But it stuck, and he eventually adopted it professionally. The move has ample historical precedence. In the mid-twentieth century, nobody knew who Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt and Victor Jules Bergeron Jr. were. But they sure knew Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic, the identities taken on by those two titanic entrepreneurs in all things faux tropical. The tradition of elaborately constructed tiki personae continues today. For example, you'll find the abundantly bewhiskered visage of Paul McGee, the tiki genius behind Chicago's Three Dots and a Dash, on his bar's mugs. Berry is just the latest in a long line of Polynesian play actors. (Annene, who will be on the floor at Latitude 29 as well, has good-naturedly assumed the title of "Mrs. Bum.")

"The whole thing is an assumed identity," says Berry of his alter ego, who is easily identified by his always-on-holiday attire of a loud tropical shirt and a wide-brimmed straw hat. "I used to be in the movie business, and a lot of the actors said 80 percent of assuming a character is wardrobe. It's certainly true with me."

PEOPLE STARTED ASKING Berry if he would ever open his own place as soon as his first publication came out in 1998. But he didn't consider the prospect seriously until he and Annene moved to New Orleans in May 2012. Once they landed in a city that felt like it could support the kind of bar they'd want to open, the couple spent two years drinking their way through the city, looking for bartenders.

"We ordered drinks and just watched," Berry says of their scouting technique. "What we wanted wasn't someone who made a perfect drink. What we wanted was someone who worked with people very well. Someone who had a good personality, who was open, positive, smiled at you when you walked in a room, was attentive and liked what they did."

That sort of bartender wasn't easy to find, but Jeff and Annene spotted a few—and they landed every bartender they approached, including Hadi Ktiri of the elegant French 75 bar at Arnaud's; and Brad Smith, the man behind the cocktails at the much-vaunted Maurepas Foods in the Bywater neighborhood. They also picked up Yamada from the city's Victory Bar.

Finding a space wasn't nearly as straightforward as finding the talent. Location after location fell through, and Berry began to think New Orleans didn't have a home for his bar. Then, earlier this year, Neal Bodenheimer, one of the owners of celebrated craft cocktail bar Cure, mentioned to the couple that the Bienville House was looking for a new tenant. The hotel's restaurant had suddenly closed, and they were in need of a food component. Jeff and Annene dismissed the suggestion, thinking they couldn't afford the French Quarter. But then Ann Tuennerman, founder of the annual July convention Tales of the Cocktail, gave them the same lead. They decided to look into it, but didn't have high hopes for their meeting with the hotel manager.

"What will probably happen," Berry says he thought at the time, "is he'll find out we want to open a tiki place and he'll excuse himself five minutes later and that will be the end of that."

As it turned out, a tiki spot was just the sort of thing the Bienville House wanted. A respected hotel that possesses a quiet charm, its reputation was on the sleepy side. As Annene understood it, they wanted to introduce something that would bring in a little excitement, not just to the property itself, but to the French Quarter, which is overrun with spots selling gumbo, po' boys, and seafood to tourists. "The hotel was not interested in that," she says. "They wanted to push the boundaries."

But they also wanted a restaurant, not a bar. For that, Berry and Kaye needed someone like Chris Shortall, a Texas-born, New Orleans-based chef. "We could not have gotten into Bienville House without a chef of his caliber," says Berry. Shortall's menu—which he describes as "a fantastic change of pace" from his previous work doing barbecue at a Mid-City bar called Twelve Mile Limit—will include tiki-friendly fare like fried whole shrimps "in a blanket" and a teriyaki-style burger made of tenderloin that's been sous-vided for twenty-four hours and served on a seaweed wheat bun.

BERRY'S YEARS OF HISTORICAL spelunking and tiki collecting will give Latitude 29's ambiance a depth not shared by other tiki bars. The chairs were salvaged from Mai-Kai, an enormous tiki restaurant that has fed and watered Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, since 1956. A cabinet near the bar will be filled with his collection of forty-plus vintage tiki mugs. The five-foot-tall wooden "greeter tikis" that flank the door were carved by Bosko Hrnjak, an artisan Berry met through Sven Kirsten years ago. Bosko also created thirty-six carved wall panels, moldings for every wall, and eight ceiling lamps made of bamboo and tapa cloth. Another like-minded artist who calls himself Tiki Diablo is fashioning a massive three-dimensional, low-relief map of the Polynesian islands that will hang behind the bar, and perched next to each island group will be a tiki mug done in the style of that land's native art. The orgeat—tiki's essential and ubiquitous almond-flavored syrup—is a blend created just for the restaurant by Adam Kolesar, a Brooklyn-based enthusiast better known in the industry as "Tiki Adam."

Many tiki establishments of old had hidden service bars where much of serious drink-building went on while the front bar was crowded with patrons, and one of Annene's touches is a sliding speakeasy-style window at the back of the bar that leads to such a workspace. Should Latitude 29 get busy enough, drinks will be handed through that portal.

But it's not all looking backward; the bar will have modern touches as well. Some of the huts and tables are equipped with cell-phone ports. "They're going to be taking pictures and Instagramming our stuff," argues Yamada of his patrons. "I want those phones charged."

WHEN LATITUDE 29 OPENS, it will find itself in a rarefied company of high-profile tiki bars that are inspired by the passions of Jeff Berry. Martin Cate, the bartender who would go on to open Forbidden Island in Alameda, California, and then Smuggler's Cove in San Francisco, has read all of Berry's books cover to cover. Nick Detrich, an owner of New Orleans' tiki-ish Cane & Table, picked Berry's brain when they met at a party two years ago. "He solidified my idea of this kind of bar working in New Orleans," says Detrich.

Paul McGee, of Three Dots and a Dash, actually named his bar after a lost tiki drink whose recipe, uncovered by Berry, McGee found richly inspiring. "Berry decoding that recipe is really what opened my eyes to having a cocktail with such great depth of flavor and different flavors than a lot of tropical drinks," he says.

Berry is aware of having fueled the menus—and very existence—of these bars, and others like them. But, although he's a good-humored, even-tempered man—he's routinely referred to by his colleagues as "the nicest guy"—he occasionally betrays some disgruntlement at having inadvertently created his own competition.

"I have to compete nationally now," says Berry. "We can't just open another tiki bar at this point. There are world-class tiki bars who are doing it right. We have to bring something else to the table." To help guarantee that something else, Berry has kept a few of his tiki formulas up his sleeve, including an ornate, nine-ingredient simple syrup once used at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan. It will flavor the Professor Remsberg Punch that appears on Latitude 29's opening menu.

"I was holding onto it just for this particular situation," says Berry of the syrup, cracking a mildly malevolent grin. And if anyone else wants the recipe, they'll have to do the research themselves: "I won't be publishing it."


Robert Simonson writes about cocktails, spirits, bars, and all sorts of related boozy stuff for the New York Times and other publications. His book-length exploration of a single drink, The Old-Fashioned: The World's First Classic Cocktail, was recently published by Ten Speed Press.
Editor: Helen Rosner
Illustrator: Sarah Becan

Sign Up for Dining In, the New Eater at Home Newsletter

The Move

The Best Way to Eat Ice Cream When It’s Cold Out Is a Stout Float

Eater at Home

In ‘Joys of Jell-O,’ There’s Nothing You Can’t Do With Colored Gelatin