Tiki bar 'boom': What's behind the latest revival in metro Detroit?

Maybe it’s the cold, dark winters. Maybe it’s the cloud cover and the broad expanse of land that makes flatlanders crave palm trees, balmy breezes, and gaudy flowers in riotous colors. In Rust Belt cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Detroit, a peculiar love of tiki sprang up years ago and never quite went away. Detroit’s tiki history has seen a recent revival, with funky new bars serving colorful concoctions alongside venerated suburban restaurants.

 

If the Midwestern passion for tiki comes from a desire for escapism, it might also stem from a serendipitous fusion of people. In the early 20th century, rapidly expanding manufacturing cities brought together a diverse assortment of recent immigrants. In a city with Belgian feather bowling, kafta kebabs, Asian corned beef, and Greek chili-slathered hot dogs, there was plenty of room for one more restaurant.

 

So Marvin Chin, a mechanical engineer, opened a Cantonese-American carryout restaurant in 1953 near Livonia’s Fisher body plant with an emphasis on the newly popular Polynesian décor. Within a few years, he’d opened up a sit-down spot, with woven palm walls and extravagantly colorful murals. The restaurant stayed open until 3 a.m. most nights to feed hungry late-shift workers.

 

And not long after that, alongside tiki restaurants in Bloomfield Hills, Garden City, and Warren, Detroit’s beloved and massive Chin Tiki was born on Cass Avenue downtown. All five of the Chin restaurants catered to diners with a sense of adventure and capitalized on the popularity of outlandish South Seas themes.

 

Marvin’s son, Marlin Chin, isn’t quite sure what prompted his father to bring tiki to the masses, but “he really did have this passion for the décor. He just loved the tiki,” he says. Not much has changed since then, aside from a few more generations’ worth of family. Now Marlin runs it with the help of his nephew Steven Lim.

Marvin Chin, a mechanical engineer, opened a Cantonese-American carryout restaurant in 1953 near Livonia's Fisher body plant with an emphasis on the newly popular Polynesian décor. Within a few years, he'd opened up a sit-down spot, with woven palm walls and extravagantly colorful murals.

 

“You come in here and it’s a time warp,” says Chin. “I’m like the museum keeper.” And Lim agrees, noting, “generations of people have been coming here, so now they make sure they come in whenever they’re in the area.”

 

Chin is delighted by the resurgence of tiki. “I’ve seen it before, you see a revival and it dies out,” said Chin, “but this time it’s really more of a boom.” This iteration of tiki, in metro Detroit at least, swings in favor of the fun and frivolous, a balm after the professorial stylings of the classic cocktail revival of the last decade.
 

Dave Kwiatkowski, whose Detroit Optimist Society opened Mutiny Bar in Southwest Detroit in December 2017, calls his place a “dive tiki.” The bar doesn’t take itself too seriously. “In the age of progressively more stuffy bars,” he says, it’s “nothing too precious.”

 

Not that tiki drinks are simple. They’re a delicate balance of sweet, sour, acidic, and potently boozy. In the wrong hands, tiki drinks can be flat and cloyingly sweet. A poorly made Mai Tai is a tragically saccharine, neon-colored atrocity. In the right hands, though, the original tiki drink recipes sing with bursts of flavor and unexpected notes of spice.

 

A bar wouldn’t be a tiki bar without some of the classic tropical drinks, like the Zombie or the Scorpion. Each bar has room to put its stamp on the traditional recipes, though. A skilled bartender can draw from tiki’s traditional ingredients: rum, citrus juices, and spices, and craft something startlingly new yet still familiarly tropical.

 

That’s what Lost River’s Karen Green and Matt Mergener had in mind last June when they opened their bar on the east side of Detroit. Mergener had spent years visiting tiki bars across the country and collecting artifacts. The pair had a couple of false starts, with spaces falling through before they could open, but they finally found the perfect space, an old dive on the border of Grosse Pointe.

 

Mergener thinks the allure of the tiki bar is, “the escapism aspect of it, where you can — at least for a couple of hours — get away from the dead of winter. On the flip side,” he says, “it’s a more fun version of craft cocktails. Tiki drinks are sophisticated, they are complex, there’s a lot of ingredients, but they’re a little bit more fun.”

Ariel Gosselin, Lost River's "Curator of Libations."

 

Green’s favorite contribution to Lost River’s character is her beloved rum collection. She says, “You see whiskey bars, but we wanted to make our own version. Every rum is as complex as whiskey is, and I think it’s a very underrated category.” Lost River has built its rum list over time and now boasts a carefully selected list of more than 150 rums to sample from all over the world. This fall, they’ll be launching rum flights.

 

Another tiki launch this summer was the hotly anticipated Aloha Tiki Tours, a waterborn version of the ubiquitous downtown pedal pubs. Up to six guests per craft are allowed and can bring their own drinks, supervised by U.S. Coast Guard-certified guides, for two-hour floats launching from Detroit and St. Clair Shores. Although the obligatory thatch and bamboo are present, since it’s BYOB, the tropical nature of the drinks is up to guests.

 

A few other tropical drink oases have been around a bit longer. Ferndale’s Honi Honi first set up shop in 2012 behind The Oakland Art Novelty Company, one of metro Detroit’s earliest craft cocktail incarnations. The popup runs summer weekends and whenever weather permits. Attesting to the popularity and ease of tropical popups, this summer downtown Detroit’s The Skip took a turn for the tiki, with a décor overhaul and the addition of a few more specifically tropical drinks to the already summery lineup. And Royal Oak’s Black Lotus hosted a Goth Tiki popup in July, with whimsical mermaid and flamingo plastic skeletons, black light, and new takes on some of tiki’s classic drinks.

 

Metro Detroit’s most successful tiki bars, however long they are around, playfully model themselves after the classics of the 1930s and again 1960s, while leaving room for innovation.
 

Slapping a string of grass on top of a patio bar and serving a painkiller does not a tiki bar make, of course. Tiki culture does indeed have a defined aesthetic; just check out the black-backed bright floral murals at Lost River and Chin’s, or the cocktails marrying pineapple, Falernum, and other unusual ingredients at Mutiny.

 

And while there’s some debate over the difference between tropical drink and tiki drink, or even whether “tiki” can be considered a form of cultural appropriation, Livonia staple Chin isn’t too concerned.

 

“I just think it’s great to see everyone having fun again,” he chuckles, as he looks around his perfectly maintained establishment, suddenly in fashion again after 66 years in business. “That’s what’s really important.”


Photos by Nick Hagen.

Read more articles by Mickey Lyons.

Mickey Lyons is a Hamtramck-based writer and historian. She is the creator of Prohibition Detroit, a blog about Detroit's historic drinking establishments.
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