By Laura Randall
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 8, 2006
It's a long walk from the Maria Cristina metro station to Barcelona's oldest tiki bar. After exiting onto busy, tree-lined Avinguda Diagonal, you must head east past several modern high-rises, one of the city's biggest shopping malls and a branch of the department store El Corte Ingles.
Just when you're ready to give up and duck into the nearest tapas joint for a glass of vino tinto, the neon "Hawaiano Bar" sign and carved wooden doors of Kahala finally appear.
That's when you leave the Barcelona most travelers know -- the one of high-end cuisine, classy wine bars and 20th-century Gothic palaces -- behind. Far behind.
It may seem hard to believe, but this sophisticated European city has three tiki bars with the kind of beach-hut decor and ambiance that make the knees of Polynesian culture devotees buckle in delight. Tiki bars, with their tropical environments and umbrella-topped drinks, have long been icons of island living and the good life. The bars, which flourished in the 1940s and 1950s after the return of U.S. soldiers from World War II tours of duty in Asia, have experienced a resurgence in the past decade as a new generation of plugged-in fans discovered their retro-hip allure.
When Tiki Central, an online network for all things tiki, asked its members last summer to rank cities with the best tiki environments, Barcelona's name came up as often as Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco. And in a 2002 article about the comeback of Polynesian culture, Fortune magazine included all three of the city's bars on its short list of worldwide tiki bars -- right between San Francisco's Tonga Room and Trader Vic's London.
Besides Kahala, there is Kahiki, centrally located near Las Ramblas promenade, and Aloha, not far away on a quiet urban street in the L'Eixample district. As a resident of Los Angeles, home to Trader Vic's and a handful of other thriving, well-known tiki bars, I was curious to see if Barcelona lived up to its reputation as a city with a great tiki vibe. The answer turned out to be yes -- and no.
With their dizzying expanses of bamboo, Hawaiian-shirted servers and huge variety of exotic mugs (most of which are manufactured in Toledo, Spain), the bars would make even the late Victor J. Bergeron (founder of Trader Vic's) drop his swizzle stick in admiration. At Kahala, the doors give way to a carved stone wall and a bridge that crosses a murky pond that must have once housed some pretty unhappy koi. The main room is dominated by a long wooden bar flanked by carved wood masks and an aquarium full of puffer fish and other tropical marine life. Waiters deliver trays of Ponche de Plantador (Planter's Punch) and Ciclones de Azores (Hurricanes) to customers lounging in semidarkness on rattan sofas.
On the Thursday night I was there, the amount of dry-ice mist drifting from the drink prep area bordered on the obscene. Young couples and boisterous groups of office workers dominated the crowd, and as my husband and I studied the drink menu and gawked at the wall hangings, we felt like the only tourists in the place.
A dozen blocks away at Aloha, parakeets, canaries and turtles live in a glass-fronted cage under a yellow neon sign that resembles a vintage movie marquee. With a billiard table near the entrance and American pop music (think Madonna circa 1985) on the jukebox, the atmosphere reminded me more of Bennigan's than a South Seas hula hut, but the Aloha has a strong following among the out-of-town tikiphiles who've visited the bars. It's the site of tiki-themed fiestas organized by American expat Andrew Burns, a guitar technician for David Bowie, Patti Smith and other performers. For a $3.60 cover fee, Burns distributes floral leis, screens movies from the late 1970s and brings his own DJs to spin Martin Denny and other tiki-friendly crooners.
Burns's favorite tiki bar is the Aloha, for its bamboo decor and street-front aviary, but he admits the Barcelona bars don't have a Norm-from-"Cheers"-like following as many in the United States do. "They are hangout joints for the younger set . . . who find the drinks a bit pricey," Burns said. "So there is not really a daily scene."
Unlike many American tiki bars, which began as one-room establishments and grew with their popularity, the Barcelona bars haven't expanded or changed much since their opening, said Otto von Stroheim, the San Francisco-based founder of a tiki newsletter who has visited the Barcelona bars.
The tiki bars have been around since the mid-1970s, when the collapse of Gen. Francisco Franco's dictatorship opened the country to political and cultural freedoms it hadn't known since the early part of the century, he said.
"The concept [of tiki] already existed before they built, so they could build [the bars] whole," von Stroheim said. "They have this weird different take on things. It's a little more funky, disco-y, hip. It has a little more soul" than many of the U.S. bars, he said.
The bars' architects probably drew on the fanciful work of Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi, rather than on the nautical and trader themes favored by American tiki bars, von Stroheim said. "You have this weird weeping willow-looking stuff -- waterfalls dripping and craggy, with plants hanging off them, and all these textures and colors."
In my elbow-bending tour of the bars, I found Kahiki to be the most accessible of the three, with the tastiest tropical drinks and most affable bartenders, though some have criticized its faded floral-print furniture and sleepy environment on Tiki Central chat rooms. Located near the University of Barcelona, Kahiki attracts young couples who like the bar's quiet alcoves and unique drinks such as the Copa Tikaroa (a semisweet concoction of champagne, rum and fruit juices), bartender Eduardo Lopez told me on a quiet Wednesday night.
"They like it because it's different from the other bars and they think the drinks taste good," said Lopez, a middle-aged man who wore thick glasses and an oversize Hawaiian shirt purchased at El Corte Ingles.
As he mixed an $8 mai tai, Lopez told me he has worked behind Kahiki's bamboo bar for 20 years. Noting my interest in the bar's origins, he dug out a wrinkled yellow drink menu from New Year's Eve 2004 and a city map that shows Kahiki's location.
"Take these," he said with the faintest of smiles. "Tell your friends Barcelona has a good tiki environment."
Then he went back to waiting amid the bar's flickering puffer-fish lamps and red-eyed tribal masks for the next customer to step into the semidarkness.
Laura Randall last wrote for Travel on Ojai, Calif.