As soon as the TikiCat lounge opened in April, reservations for its cute little grass shacks booked up faster than you could say “Gilligan’s Island.”
Landlocked Kansas Citians who had been waiting impatiently for the return of an island-themed oasis in their own backyard rushed in to sip classic tiki drinks such as the Mai Tai, Zombie and the Fog Cutter, as well as a next wave of signature concoctions such as Daylight Come, The Cat Bird Seat and Gin on You Pisco Diamond.
Tiki’s renaissance is wrapped up in nostalgia, but it’s also speaking to the craft cocktail generation, who are new to the escapist pleasures of fruity rum and coconut drinks made with fresh fruit juices and house-made syrups and garnished with orchids and tiny paper umbrellas.
“It appeals completely across the spectrum,” says Marc Modrow, “tiki ambassador” at TikiCat, a “secret oasis” in the basement of HopCat in Westport. “Many people who were here this weekend heard about this new place that opened and they didn’t have any specific interest in tiki, but they came in and they walked out with giant grins, raving about their new favorite place.”
Tiki — which started in the 1930s to disguise harsh-flavored rums and had its heyday in the 1960s — “kinda borrows from different parts of the islands and kind of merges it together because it was actually created in Southern California,” said Modrow, himself a transplant from California.
Kansas City’s earliest tiki names included an all-star cast: The Tropics, Castaways, Kon-Tiki, Trader Vic’s and two Kona Kai restaurants — one at 45th and Main and another by KCI. But by the ’80s and ’90s, local tiki connoisseurs like Corey Whitworth were forced to take their passion underground. According to the Daily Beast, the “death knell” for tiki happened when Donald Trump closed Trader Vic’s in 1989 at his Plaza Hotel in New York, saying it had “gotten tacky.”
But its fans never wavered.
In 2008, Whitworth began creating The Flora Lounge, a basement hideaway in his modest Kansas City home. The eye-catching space features a carefully curated collection of memorabilia, including ornate ceramic tiki mugs, wood carvings, ukelele and exotica LPs, and yards of fish netting.
Although initially inspired by Polynesian island culture, tiki reinterpreted influences from Hawaii, the South Pacific and Asia to create subcultures of art, music, decor and fashion. The hang-loose vibe creates an alternate universe where velvet Elvis paintings can peacefully co-exist with pirate paraphernalia and plastic hula dolls.
When it comes to decor, the only rule seems to be more is, well, more.
“If I buy anything more I have to take something down,” Whitworth says, “but each thing has a little story to go with it.”
Although his tiki hideaway is undeniably cozy, Whitworth has become one of TikiCat’s instant regulars. It’s part of his commitment to the tiki lifestyle that includes moderating MOKANtiki, a private Facebook group he created with co-moderator Amber Jennings to rally other tikiphiles to support the new venture.
Tikiphiles also are finding their way to the island through vintage fashion, a taste for the midcentury modern aesthetic, surf rock and rockabilly, hot-rod culture and burlesque.
“The tiki subculture is alive and as strong as it’s been for a long time,” says Mandi Murray, a 27-year-old TikiCat bartender whose bar handle is Mai-Ven Katikii.
To meet people from all walks of tiki, Whitworth invites me to a Friday night gathering at The Flora Lounge.
As is the custom, everyone (including yours truly) is dressed as if they are headed for a luau, but Devyn Lundy of Olathe stands out in her ’50s vintage Alfred Shaheen dress with fitted waist.
Shaheen was responsible for creating the Hawaiian garment industry, turning aloha shirts, sarongs and sundresses into fashion statements. Elvis Presley wore Tiare Tapa, a style of Alfred Shaheen shirt, on his “Blue Hawaii” album cover. Many of Shaheen’s designs made their way to the pages of Vogue magazine. The rare originals I look up on eBay have starting bids of $1,200.
As a child, Lundy recalls her grandparents would bring back a hula doll or a piece of sugarcane as a souvenir from their trips to Hawaii. But she was “sitting out on an island by myself” until she discovered MOKANtiki.
It’s a sentiment shared by many tiki lovers who thought they were the last surviving castaway.
“I had no idea there were this many people who were into tiki. You think it’s your own secret shame,” says Caroline Roe of Austin, Texas.
Roe and her husband, Rob Fertig, flew to Kansas City to experience TikiCat and buy a $499 signed print by pop artist Shag, the California-based artist who illustrated “Tiki Drinks” and “Shag Party” (Surrey Books) by Adam Rocke. The mod print will hang in the couple’s swank new tiki oasis created by reigning tiki bar designer “Bamboo Ben” Bassham, who is based in California and also worked on TikiCat.
Across the room, Paul Hutinett is showing other MOKANtiki enthusiasts photographs of the 8-foot tiki carving that graces his Blue Springs living room. The elaborate tiki totem was carved by Oceanic Arts of Whittier, Calif., for Kona Kai.
Hutinett’s wife located the rotting wood totem and convinced her husband, a hobby woodworker, to refurbish it. Along the way, he and tiki buddy Brad Finch, a professional photographer who specializes in historical building preservation, uncovered a second 8-foot tiki. Around his neck, Hutinett wears a miniature rendition that he carved.
The history of such artifacts from Kansas City’s first wave of tiki are hard to come by. “Nobody really documents the death of a place,” says Huttinett.
But the lack of a paper trail hasn’t stopped Huttinett and Finch from trying to trace the history of Kansas City tiki using Tiki Central, a national online forum to research and document their finds.
“You can’t stop, but this is what it becomes,” Hutinett says with a laugh as he waves his hand toward the collection of artifacts displayed on the walls at The Flora Lounge.
Like a memorable TikiCat cocktail, Finch admits “half the fun of (tiki) is chasing it down.”
Jill Silva is The Star’s James-Beard award-winning food editor. Full disclosure: Her grandfather had a basement tiki bar when she was growing up. Reach her on Facebook, on Twitter @kcstarfood and on Instagram at @jillwsilva.