Tiki perfection from one of the original kings of tiki drinking.
The intersection of tiki bars and dives isn’t quite a single concentric circle, but the overlap is considerably, everything about tiki a tribute to the authentic, the time-honored, the tradition of what it means to operate as a tiki bar and serve tiki-style drinks. Tiki-Ti is Los Angeles’ still-operating tribute to tiki culture, opened in 1961 and family-owned and operated ever since.
Most dive bars boast a pretty reasonable crowd level thanks to an out-of-the-way location or slightly intimidating structure. In contrast, a trip to Tiki-Ti takes some planning, the timeless bar open at 4 PM only Wednesday through Saturday, often attracting a pre-opening line for those eager to grab a seat among the 12 bench stools and limited tables inside. Unsurprisingly by the look of Tiki-Ti, the Los Angeles dive bar spans a single room, the bar counter taking up roughly half of the available square footage, leaving precious little room that is quickly absorbed by an often above-capacity crowd.
Founder Ray Buhen opened Tiki-Ti in 1961, initially hoping to open a bartending school in a former violin repair shop owned by Buhen’s father-in-law. When the space was signed over to Buhen it was done so with the sole condition that a bar occupy the space rather than a school. Buhen operated the space as a more traditional bar albeit with tiki undertones until 1965 when the closure of a nearby movie studio that had supplied a stream of customers prompted Buhen to embrace his tiki credentials more fully.
Originally born in the Phillipines, Buhen was one of a number of Filipinos working in the bar and restaurant business in Los Angeles at that time, often in tiki-style establishments. Buhen had the good fortune to join the original Don the Beachcomber in 1934, learning from the iconic founder Donn Beach himself, an education and collaboration that would prove the basis for Tiki-Ti’s aesthetic and menu. Today, the Tiki-Ti drink menu includes over 90 selections, many of them Buhen-created originals. The list is so extensive that a checklist was published by the bar to encourage a full trip through all selections.
As with any good dive bar, a bit of mystery and rumor swirls around both Tiki-Ti and its founder, including a claim that Ray himself was the inspiration for Yoda and Tiki-Ti the foundation for the Mos Eisley Cantina thanks to early-career visits from George Lucas. The shooting of Mutiny on the Bounty included a Clark Gable-bankrolled bar erected on set to serve the remote production. Legend has it Ray kept the bar alive post-production as its barkeep. And of course the typical laundry list of celebrity sightings is attached to Tiki-Ti, a list that includes Burt Reynolds, Marlon Brando and Nicholas Cage.
Buhen eventually brought on son Mike and grandson Michael to assist in operating the Los Angeles dive bar before passing away in 1999. Every Wednesday evening, all operations at the bar cease to pay tribute to patriarch Ray through a communal toast. The communal events don’t stop there, of course, as two signature drinks are accompanied by ritualistic chants. An order of Blood and Sand includes rhythmic chanting of “Toro, Toro, Toro” as a small, mechanical, wind-up bull travels around the bar. Similarly, ordering an Uga Booga results in a chant of the drink’s name as its preparation finishes up at the bar.
Tiki-Ti is, of course, unmistakable from its exterior, the name attached to the structure in large letters next to a massive tiki-style sculpture. In true dive bar fashion, there are no windows here, a plain brown exterior hiding the rich palette inside. Limited street parking is available outside of Tiki-Ti but just like the bar itself, parking spaces fill up quickly around opening time, so again, planning accordingly in recommended. Though several online sources refer to Tiki-Ti as a cash-only establishment, credit cards have since been introduced.
Inside, the environment could not feel more vibrant, a series of handwritten placards attached to nearly every available surface as a sort of tiki tribute to dive bar-standard stapled dollar bills. The Tiki-Ti space is too dense to describe, a kaleidoscope of decorations creating a dazzling tiki display. String lights, glowing lamps, flower necklaces, tiki mugs, framed photos and an extensive collection of mounted tiki carvings create an unmatched drinking atmosphere worth the wait. Drink prices run $12 and up, pricey tiki mugs available both at the bar and online to further memorialize a trip.