Tiki culture thrives in Las Vegas at Frankie’s, Golden Tiki

Updated August 23, 2017 - 10:50 am

Sit right back and you’ll hear a tale — not of a fateful trip, but of an escape from reality, your own three-hour tour.

It comes by way of tiki culture, which had disappeared from Las Vegas but came roaring back thanks to Frankie’s Tiki Room, which is approaching its ninth anniversary, and The Golden Tiki, which just marked its second.

But while the two spots share a clear appreciation for all things tiki, they’re really about as dissimilar as a toddler and an almost-tween could be.

Frankie’s filled a void that was absolute. Tiki tradition started in Las Vegas in the ’60s with Aku Aku at the Stardust and Don the Beachcomber at the Sahara, but both closed in the ’80s. Taboo Cove, The Venetian’s attempt to revive the genre, lasted only from 2001 to 2005.

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Frankie’s Tiki Room

Enter P Moss, owner of the Double Down, the venerable Paradise Road dive bar. While Moss said he “wasn’t a fanatic or anything” in regard to tiki culture, he knew a niche when he saw one.

“It’s escapism,” he said. “It’s tropical-looking. It’s not a beach bar, but it’s like you’re on a desert island … without a care in the world.”

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Frankie’s Tiki Room

Moss snapped up the old Frankie’s bar on Charleston Boulevard near University Medical Center and after extensive renovations, Frankie’s Tiki Room opened in December 2008. Moss hired tiki icon Bamboo Ben — grandson of tikidom founder Eli Hedley, who designed the exterior of Aku Aku and did extensive work at Disneyland — to do the interior, which is covered with bamboo matting, jungle and rainforest artifacts and much, much more.

The Golden Tiki came along in summer 2015. Partners Seth Schorr, Jeff Fine and Joe Cain wanted to do something different with their Little Macau in Chinatown, and Branden Powers went to work.

Powers was a tiki fanatic. He’d long been a fan of exotica music — what Americans hear when they think of island music — which came to be associated with tiki bars. Powers, too, came to be associated with tiki bars, at the Hanalei Hotel in San Diego in the early ’90s.

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The beach-inspired bar at Golden Tiki. Benjamin Hager Las Vegas Review-Journal

After watching the decline of tiki culture, Powers came to Las Vegas in 2000 to open a bar that didn’t happen, and ended up working as a consultant and at the Hard Rock Hotel. Then the owners of Little Macau came along. And, well, The Golden Tiki isn’t as much a bar as it is a backstory — Disneyland in miniature, or at least the Enchanted Tiki Room writ large.

The story of The Golden Tiki — which is on the back of the menu — is the story of the golden tiki, a holy grail-like object that was the fervent desire and eventual undoing of the fictional Capt. William Tobias Faulkner. Walking into the bar brings you to Flaming Skull Island, with Headhunters Village, Mermaid Cove and on and on.

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Old-world, tropical decor at Golden Tiki. Benjamin Hager Las Vegas Review-Journal

On a walk-through Powers, never one to let facts get in the way of a good story, recounts the history of each item, such as “the only known taxidermied head of Bigfoot in existence,” a mummified mermaid and, jabbed through a picture of Richard Nixon, a dagger Powers swears once belonged to Hunter S. Thompson. A clamshell-shaped chair is, he asserts, the seventh-most-photographed spot in Las Vegas, not that anybody’s counting (nobody is).

 

 

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Easter eggs — those unexpected little surprises — abound. Open a treasure chest attached to the wall and you may find pirate booty in the form of plastic rings and similar items. Open the portholes in the Pirates Room and you’ll see little vignettes, and maybe a photo left by a guest.

“You can come here and touch,” Powers said, and some take that to heart. The walls are adorned with shrunken heads of local celebrities; Carrot Top’s mysteriously disappeared — and just as mysteriously returned.

Drinks lean to tiki classics such as the Scorpion Bowl, and Powers plans to start food service Sept. 1. He said The Golden Tiki sold 15,000 tiki mugs in its first year, and if you want to be sure of getting a table on weekends, reservations are advised.

Frankie’s offers tiki classics, too, but a point of pride is the 24 original drinks on the menu, most of them crafted of house-made ingredients. Moss is so serious about the 60 originals created by his bartenders that he published them in a book, “Liquid Vacation,” which is in its second printing. He also has a line of original tiki mugs, with eight or so available at a given time.

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Cocktails at Golden Tiki. Benjamin Hager Las Vegas Review-Journal

Moss said the appeal of tiki culture is its universality.

“The orbit of this touches everyone else’s orbit,” he said. “That can be said for bars in general, but not as much as this.”

And the draw extends far beyond American shores. Moss said Frankie’s gets lots of European customers, especially those from Scandinavia, the U.K. and Germany. One of its busiest times, he said, is the Viva Las Vegas rockabilly weekend in the spring.

“Nine in the morning and it’s slammed,” he said, “sometimes out to the street. And half are European.”

While he opened a second Double Down in New York, he has no plans for another Frankie’s.

“It’s not the kind of place where you can franchise it and give the new guy a handbook,” he said. “The drinks are very complicated.”

But he doesn’t see the culture going away anytime soon, and is confident Frankie’s will remain a destination for tiki fans from all over the world.

“Tiki bars in general have really caught fire in the last few years,” he said. “That, and it’s in Las Vegas.”

Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at Hrinella@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0474. Follow @HKRinella on Twitter.

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