Two men who are remembered by their noms de guerre – Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic – launched tiki bars and restaurants in the 1930s, a decade before the tiki movement gained traction in the aftermath of the war. It is fitting that the two elders started in California, Don in the south, Vic in the north.
Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt was born in Texas in 1907. He opened his first-tiki themed restaurant in Hollywood in 1934.
Over the years he legally changed his name to Don Beach-Comber, then to Don Beachcomber, and finally to Don Beach.
At the height of his business success, he operated about 20 restaurants throughout the United States. He also built a Polynesian village at his home in Encino where he entertained the rich and famous of Hollywood.
Trader Vic was our local Tiki pioneer.
Trader Vic’s in Emeryville is the third or fourth iteration of the original Trader Vic’s. Victor Bergeron started the Trader Vic’s legacy in 1934 – well before the war and the post-war romance with all things Polynesian and of the South Pacific.
Vic started with the Hinky Dinks saloon at 6500 Telegraph, just across the border in Oakland. Its name came, of course, from the World War I ditty “Hinky Dinky Parlay Vous.”
A few years later, and a trip to Cuba (not exactly Polynesia) – later, Bergeron began the transformation of Hinky Dinky’s into the Polynesian-themed Trader Vic’s, which began his new persona.
In 1972, Bergeron moved the flagship restaurant from San Pablo Avenue to Emeryville. He opened restaurants all over the world. At the peak of the tiki boom, there were as many as 25 at one time, all with the Polynesian themed decor and menu.
Tropical drinks played a central role at Trader Vic’s, and like Don the Beachcomber, Vic claimed that he invented the Mai Tai.
So who invented the Main Tai, Don or Vic? The drinks taste different. From what I can tell, they didn’t really care. It would appear that they enjoyed the rivalry and the competing claims, which they understood were good for business.
My friend looked through these photos and then decided he had to find his file of recipes for Mai Tai’s and try them all. What did he think of Don and Vic?