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Bamboo Nation 

Hawaiian-print shirts, flaming cocktails -- who can resist the Tiki Bar Crawl?

Wednesday, Mar 31 2004
The resurgence of tiki culture fulfills many needs. It gives enthusiasts an excuse to wear vintage Hawaiian-print shirts, indulge in early-'60s nostalgia, and quench their insatiable desire for flaming cocktails (which we all of course share). Though the jaded among us may chalk up the revival of this subculture as a fading mid-'90s phenomenon, the last year alone has seen the debut of two local tropical-themed bars: Oakland's Conga Lounge and Fairfax's Mr. Vise Grip's Bamboo Bar.

Mig Ponce, one of the moderating kahunas of the online Tiki Central community, explains the enduring popularity of these ersatz Shangri-Las. "It's a combination of escapism and kitsch. But tiki bars are also just plain fun. With a few drinks, you can be whisked away to a tropical isle." And at this year's San Francisco and Beyond Tiki Bar Crawl, an expected crowd of more than 100 exotica-loving enthusiasts hits the equivalent of a utopian archipelago -- all of the Bay Area's tiki bars in one long, liquored-up weekend.

Ponce organized the first barhop in 2001. "San Francisco is the only city where it is feasible to visit more than one tiki bar without driving long distances. In the Midwest, it's up to 12 hours between bars, but here you can hit four in one night." The annual trek has exploded from its one-night beginnings to a four-day blowout extending beyond the city limits to include the North and East Bay.

For those who fear driving while impaired, co-organizer Martin Cate has coordinated a bus to transport rum-soaked revelers. Though the idea of a mobile luau is clearly inspired, it was also a practical decision: "It was a pain having 45 people pouring out of a bar at once, flagging down as many cabs as they could," Cate says. "With the Tiki Bus, we just pull up, double-park, and everyone piles on." Onboard the decked-out bus are free-flowing spiked punch, videos documenting the rise of Polynesian pop, and an exotica-driven soundtrack. Those who forgo a bus ticket can follow along in a car-and-taxi caravan (be sure to pick a designated driver, if you're not in a cab).

The weekend's highlight is Saturday night, which begins with happy hour at the world-renowned Tonga Room. After a few potent cocktails, pop-culture anthropologists pay their respects to Tiki Bob, an icon from a long-shuttered watering hole that's still standing at the corner of Post and Taylor. Then it's on to North Beach's Bamboo Hut before die-hards cross the Golden Gate Bridge to Mr. Vise Grip's Bamboo Bar for tiki-inspired entertainment, including the theremin stylings of Project Pimento, comic/ukulele player King Kukulele, and goofy pop outfit Tom Jonesing. For tiki lovers, it's nothing less than paradise found.

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Jane Tunks


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    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

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