Luau LA: Rum Goes Upscale, Tiki Tags Along

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A new tiki joint opened this week in Beverly Hills, and there’s nothing ironic about it: Luau is taking itself seriously, from the food to the décor to — yes — even the huge rum drinks served in coconuts. What gives this restaurant the right to indulge in pupu platters and glass puffer fish hanging from the ceiling with nary a smirk in sight? Well, besides the fact that the fish are actually pretty cool, it all comes down to the rum.

Last year, gin was the tipple of choice among dedicated scenesters and the barkeeps who keep them lubed up. But now, rum is now taking over as the booze to get picky about. Jeff Berry, the mastermind mixologist behind Luau and other tiki temples around the world, says “Hip, cutting-edge bars in Manhattan like Death & Co, Please Don’t Tell, and Milk and Honey are all now putting tiki drinks on their menus.” The drink menus attest to that: At Death & Co, rum shares space with gin on the first page of the cocktail menu, and Milk and Honey offers rum pours for tasters.

“Boutique, artisanal rum distilleries are popping up all over the country,” adds Berry. Said distilleries are in such decidedly non-tropical climes as Oregon and Delaware, attesting to the (nationwide, perhaps?) desire for a more full-flavored liquor than vodka or even gin. But purists, don’t stress: Some of the best-selling new sipping rums are coming from the highlands of Guatemala.

Back up north, everything’s in place for tiki to make its comeback as a straightforward bastion of cool, as it was in the Rat Pack days. Call it the “Mad Men” effect. Everything mid-century is hip again, from the umbrella-ed drinks to the juicy Vargas girls on display at the Mahiki in London. And on a more contemporary note … pupus are really just tapas, are they not? So Luau’s got the food factor going for it as well.

Luau will be joined in tiki glory by the upcoming Trader Vic’s Downtown, which will be met with outpourings of joy. When the original in Beverly Hills closed down recently, there was genuine grief. The new Downtown location speaks to high hopes for the new Trader outpost, as only the insane, the brave, and the cool venture into that part of town, business-wise. In the South Bay, Kona is trying its very hardest to become a viable restaurant, with a new menu matching the drinks and giant wood totems in exuberance. (If only Damon’s, with its profound love of coconutty secret rum recipes and fantastic faux-Gaugin murals, could rouse itself to give a damn about the food. Which is vile.)

Those who haven’t been clued in to the tiki trend will no doubt embrace it now that it’s going mainstream and awesomer than ever. Just start slow, as rum is one grog that the liver needs some getting used to.