According to the high priests of tikidom, Ernest “Don Beach” Gantt was the first person to stumble upon the idea of serving “exotic” food and drink in a “Polynesian” setting back in the 1930s. Because of this, talk of the original “Don the Beachcomber” inspires a quiet reverence in the pop-tiki subculture of the Southland, a group that remains fiercely passionate (and passionate about tiki refreshments) to this day.
The original Don the Beachcomber, located at 1722 N. McCadden Place in Hollywood, was a big hit with the film community and gave birth to countless knock-off tiki bars, restaurants, and suburban backyards the world over. Up until the 1980s, there were quite a few Don the Beachcomber restaurants that had sprung up T. Vic’s fashion all over the land. Although exactly who created the iconic libations like the Mai Tai and Scorpion can be debated (see our piece on Tiki-Ti), it can be said with certainty that Gantt/Beach managed to get everything together first and for that he has been beatified in the tiki canon.
“Don the Beachcomber name was bought by Marisol, LLC and the building, formerly Sam’s Seafood, was turned into Don’s in 2009. Bombshell.”
Fast forward to modern times and tastes have changed a bit since the hey-day but the Southland continues to carry the world’s tiki torch brightly. While Don the Beachcomber has almost faded from memory, Trader Vic’s continues to plug away with one newish location at LA Live and a poolside lounge at the Beverly Hilton. Bahooka out in Rosemead closed down (1967-2013 R.I.P), but it’s been confirmed that a lot of the memorabilia from Bahooka is going into the freshly designed Clifton’s Cafeteria 4th floor tiki lounge (itself a resurrection of Clifton’s now shuttered “Pacific Seas” location on Olive Street). Out Valley way, Tiki No and Tonga Hut do a fine job of keeping the dream alive and word on the street is that Trader Sam’s at Disneyland puts that goddamn Disney awesomeness into every drink it makes, complete with animatronic sinking ships in bottles and other sundry enchantments. The Purple Orchid in El Segundo also makes for a nice pre-flight stop for those craving drinks that have flames erupting from their center. Not a bad selection and I didn’t even name all of ‘em.
This brings us to the current incarnation of Don the Beachcomber located on the PCH in Huntington Beach. After gawking at the appropriately bizarre looking exterior, my stalwart chum Erich and I opened the door, took a left and bellied up to the bar in dire need of tiki refreshment. We had just arrived from standing outside Bahooka on what was supposed to be the restaurant’s final day of operation. Due to the orgy of drinking and feasting that had occurred the previous evening, things had gotten out of hand and management was forced to cancel the final festivities. It seems a family member was sent to the hospital and shit must have been crazy. We headed south since every other Tiki bar was closed and I had on a special tiki shirt that required a tiki place to go with it. Don’s it was.
Inside Don’s everything looked ok, a bit uncluttered maybe, but ok. I ordered a Mai Tai and Erich ordered a Navy Grog, pretty standard but hey, they’re classics for a reason right? In less than a minute the barkeep was back with two drinks. That was quick. I scoped the drink prep for an adjacent table and instead of the highly elaborate pours, memorized recipes, and ritualized presentation per traditional tiki establishments, I saw that the juices were already pre-mixed in a spout bottle and spirits were merely added on top. Each drink took 15 seconds to make. Tops. They were not served in tiki mugs. Sure they tasted ok, but where was the magic? Where was the style? I drank up anyway.
Starved not only for drink but for grub as well, Erich and I put in an order for calamari and were brought back a small plate which set us back $12. After polishing off the squid, ok but pricy, we each got a sandwich. I got a rib sandwich and Erich got one with pulled pork. Both were good but I was still slightly chuffed over the drinks. I asked the barman what the story was with the history of the place and he said that the Don the Beachcomber name was bought by Marisol, LLC and the building, formerly Sam’s Seafood, was turned into Don’s in 2009. Bombshell. Shoulda known. Was Don the Beachcomber a zombie brand back from the dead? I looked around and suddenly the place seemed darker. Was this a tiki bar without the tiki soul? I might expect these shenanigans outta Disney but taking the name of the patron saint of Exotica and charging the faithful high prices seemed like a raw deal. I had to order another drink to deal with the news. It was ok. Think I ordered a rum barrel. After polishing off the second drink, we left after spending about $40 apiece on lunch. With tip the price was up to around $50. Not horrible for two drinks, app and sandwich but not all that awesome either.
In the end I guess it wasn’t that the meal was bad or the drinks were not tasty, it just felt a bit put on and pseudo-historic with all the menus claiming it was “the original” and what not. As Sam’s Seafood, the building had been a tiki destination since the 1960s but it seems like something was lost when it became Don’s. I guess I should have done more research before heading out and perhaps my feelings regarding the ignoble passing of Bahooka had colored my experience. I know it was a sad day for tikiphiles of the Southland and I was actually glad Don’s was open in the end. I needed a drink.