Photos: Tiki-Ti In Los Feliz Is The Tiki God Of Bars
From decades-loyal regulars to first-timers, Los Feliz's iconic Tiki-Ti has been winning over the hearts of Angelenos for years—one strong tiki drink at a time.
We admit, we were tremendously relieved when we heard that the legendary tiki bar—one of our favorites—was reopening after a short closure for "restructuring and stuff" earlier this spring. And we weren't alone. Undoubtedly an institution of L.A., the tiny, family-run tiki bar has been a favorite destination for tropical cocktails since it was opened by Ray Buhen in 1961. You've likely seen the line out the door, which happens almost every night they're open when the small bar fills up. More than just a watering hole for rum-soaked shenanigans and kitschy Polynesian collectibles—though it's great for those, too—Tiki-Ti has a community with plenty of history and one that we hope won't be going anywhere anytime soon.
"In terms of L.A. bars, everything turns over so much, to have a strong hold like this in the neighborhood is great," Tiki-Ti regular John Markovich tells LAist. "It's great to have these long-lasting, old Hollywood bars." Markovich—a film set decorator by trade—has been coming to Tiki-Ti since not long after moving to L.A. in 1989.
The small, windowless rectangular building of Tiki-Ti is like a last-chance outpost for the thirsty along Sunset Boulevard. It's situated in a standalone building just east of Hillhurst Avenue. From Wednesday through Saturday, you'll typically see a small group of regulars—a different crew depending on the night—waiting for the bar to open. Once inside you'll find the colorful tiki ephemera crowded on every wall, illuminated by lanterns, red bulbs and strings of Christmas lights. There's elaborate tiki mugs kept for regulars, tiki masks, artwork, a glowing fountain behind the bar, tiki and Hawaiian-themed license plates, a surfboard and plenty more to take in. You'll also see small white placards with the names of regulars—some who have been coming for decades and some who have passed on to the tiki bar in the sky—crowded along the hut-like awning that runs atop the bar and along the walls.
"We get a lot of people from all over town, other states and now a younger crowd," Tiki-Ti owner and often-Hawaiian-shirted bartender Mike Buhen explains to LAist. Mike helped his dad, Ray, build Tiki-Ti when he was 18 and then worked alongside him until he passed away in 1999, serving drinks almost to the end. "Every bar has the regulars that hangs out from 1 to 5 years, and then a new crowd moves in. But we still have people who come in from way back, which is nice. We even have some people who always come in for New Year's Eve, even ones who have been coming since the '60s and they want to be here at 12 o'clock because they say, 'You know what? We want to bring in the New Year right.'"
Mike now works alongside his son, Mike Jr., serving up the colorful and powerful tiki drinks that have made the place a world-famous destination. They also recently hired their very first employee, longtime regular Greg Bansuelo, which brought an end to smoking in the bar. From classic concoctions like the Zombie and Mai Tai to Tiki-Ti's signature Ray's Mistake or one of our favorites—the Bayanihan—the 90-plus list leans heavily on rum-based drinks, but there's also plenty with tequila, vodka and other liquors. Just don't come to Tiki-Ti looking for beer, wine or non-tiki cocktails—you'll be out of luck. Though they do occasionally have a cheap tall boy with the words "Last Beer" emblazoned across it available for $20, which people do occasionally purchase, likely for the novelty.
"My dad was there at the beginning with Ernest Gantt who started Don the Beachcomber and our drinks stem from there," Mike says. His father helped develop some of the first tiki drinks in the 1930s along with Gantt—aka Donn Beach—the Prohibition bootlegger credited helping to launch the Tiki craze. Ray—who immigrated from the Philippines when he was 21—was first trained as a bartender at the Beverly Hills Hotel. After about a year at Don's, Ray soon went on to work at many of the era's most famous tiki bars and restaurants around L.A., including Trader Vic's and Seven Seas. Once a huge part of Hollywood nightlife—where Ray served his elaborate cocktails to the stars—most of them have been lost to time. "It's too bad, I mean, these places were huge—big tropical places," Mike says. "Not just bars, but whole restaurants with the Tiki theme, but those places are long gone."
Using recipes developed by Ray—which often contain multiple liquors, liqueurs, tropical juices and family secrets—the Buhens masterfully mix icy blends that are usually the strength of two typical cocktails. And if you're ever having trouble deciding, you can always use the Wheel Of Tiki-Ti Drinks to pick yours at random or consult the video screen showcasing the offerings. And if you really want to be part of the Tiki-Ti show, order the Uga Booga and get ready for the entire bar to chant "uga booga" as they add an extra dose of booze to your already strong drink. Or order the Blood Sand—originally developed by Ray at another nearby classic bar, The Dresden—where the crowd shouts "Toro, Toro, Toro" as tequila is poured into your drink from a bull-shaped bottle cap. Most of the drinks will run you $10 to $12 dollars—and the bar is cash only—but on Wednesdays you can grab a Ray's Mistake for $6.
Every Wednesday night at 8:30 p.m., you can also join Mike as he raises a glass to toast a photograph of his father, Ray, hanging on the wall. "To my dad, the Master Ninja," Mike recites. "Thanks to him for the Tiki-Ti, the last of the Mohicans, the original in tropical drinks.”
While Ray initially wanted to open a bartending school in his father-in-law's old violin shop on Sunset, his father-in-law insisted that he open a bar to share his tiki skills. With the help of his son Mike, Ray converted the shop into Tiki-Ti in a few short months. Since then the bar has accumulated legions of passionate regulars over the decades—along with plenty of tiki collectibles over the years. "The little kitschy pieces, people bring in, but we rotate them through because we only have so much space," Mike Jr. tells LAist. "Everything in here is pretty organic, we don't really buy anything for the bar to decorate." Mike Jr. also hopes to bring back the classic tiki soundtrack and jazz that once played more often at the bar.
"This place is great because it's not like any of the new themed bars where there's sort of an intentional thing where they want to put a vibe on it. Here, this is what is and it's always been that way and they've only ever been a tiki bar since 1961, and that's kind of cool," explains Markovich, who has contributed a tiki mask that he carved to the bars decor and has amassed a personal collection of nearly 200 tiki mugs, which he brings one-by-one to the bar. "It's not going for kitsch for kitsch sake, it's doing it because it's what they love and for the history, and it's been in the family for generations."
Markovich is just one of many longtime customers who have since become part of the Tiki-Ti family, regulars who are invited along for special Tiki-Ti fishing trips and Christmas parties. It's also those fishing trips and other vacation time that causes the family-run operation to periodically close. "If you're invited to those things, it's like you're a part of the family," he says. "Especially in a big town like this—it's a rarity—it becomes even more special. And then it becomes a bigger thing where you can use Tiki-Ti as the central hub of all the tiki culture [in Southern California]. It's a small bit of the bigger picture and this is a small anchor in a bigger culture."
Mike tells us that he's happy that tiki culture has seen a recent resurgence with new bars and customers popping up more often. "It's great, that there's a lot of new places because for a while the tiki thing was going downhill and a lot of places were closing," Mike says in his consistently calm manner. "Now the younger generations are getting into this tiki stuff, and there are new places opening up and that's good."
But as he heads out to light the tiki torches on top of the building—a ritual that's continued since 1961—Mike tells us he's also happy to report that the longtime regulars still have a place at the bar, including one customer who has been coming since the bar's opening. "We have one guy and he's the original guy who had Ray's Mistake and he still comes in once in a while. He's got a card up on the board."
Tiki-Ti is located at 4427 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, (323) 669-9381.