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Where Y'Eat: Relighting The Tiki Torch

Ian McNulty
A modern tiki cocktail with retro roots at Latitude 29 in the French Quarter.

Food writer Ian McNulty on a new trend coming ashore in New Orleans with drinks, food and ambiance all set to the tone of tiki.

When you walk into the new French Quarter restaurant Latitude 29, you notice lots of details and each one is meant to evoke the exotic. Latitude 29 is a tiki restaurant, after all, and tiki is a byword for the bizarre.

Yet, at the same time, Latitude 29 is mining a familiar and even richly nostalgic vein of American pop culture, one that’s now seeing a resurgence nationally and one that may resonant for New Orleanians of a certain generation.

Located in the Bienville House hotel, in the former Iris restaurant space, Latitude 29 is designed as a lush, enveloping mosaic. Everywhere you look, it’s carved wood and bamboo, totem poles, toothy tiki characters and hanging glass floats. Bartenders mix up rum drinks like the Hawaii 504 with a syrup made from honey and Chinese five spice. Order a steak and it arrives with whipped purple yams topped with golden mango and mint for a color scheme reminiscent of LSU fanfare.

For some, talk of tiki will conjure images of dusty thatch, oily pu pu platters and sugar headaches waiting in hollowed-out coconut mugs. But that’s what tiki became, not how it started out. And it’s the roots of tiki that Latitude 29 is out to rekindle.

In its hey day, from the 1950s through the 1960s or so, tiki was the epitome of popular escapism, an all-American midcentury mash-up of South Seas imagery, soupped up Caribbean rum punches and quasi-Cantonese cooking.

In New Orleans, the grand tiki palace of this era was the Bali Ha’i, part of the former Pontchartrain Beach amusement park on the lakefront. Opened in 1952 and destroyed by fire in 1986, the Bali Ha’i was a top dining destination for festive, and sometimes quite formal, outings, a place for prom night parties and anniversary dinners.

Latitude 29 is trying to bring some of this back, revised a bit for modern tastes. And it’s all curated by someone uniquely qualified for the task. That would be Beachbum Berry, the penname for the author and historian Jeff Berry. Latitude 29 is his first outing as a restaurateur, but among cocktail professionals and enthusiasts Beachbum Berry is revered as something like the Alan Lomax of tiki culture. Through his field work (conducted mostly in bars), he collected original tiki drink recipes from the bartenders who created them back in the tiki golden age, back when making these drinks involved fresh juices and syrups, layered, nuanced flavors and a high degree of industry secrecy. Recipes followed bartenders from one tiki establishment to another, in a way that presaged today’s modern craft cocktail circuit. 

Beachbum Berry’s research fueled a series of books, and the recipes, lore and tricks of the trade he uncovered laid the framework for the current tiki revival underway across the country. Others, inspired by this trove of tiki intel, have started their own tiki bars in other cities, some of them quite grand. And in New Orleans you can see tiki creeping back on fine cocktail lists and even in dedicated tiki bars, like Tiki Tolteca, which happens to be located just a block away from Latitude 29 in the French Quarter.  Now, with the Beachbum, the master preservationist of the style, ensconced at his own Polynesian-themed palace, it looks like tiki is back for another round.

Tiki temples mentioned above

Latitude 29

321 N. Peters St., New Orleans, 504-609-3811; www.latitude29nola.com

Cane & Table

1113 Decatur St., New Orleans, 504-581-1112; www.caneandtablenola.com

Tiki Tolteca

301 N. Peters St., New Orleans, 504-267-4406

Ian covers food culture and dining in New Orleans through his weekly commentary series Where Y’Eat.

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