The Return of the Royal Hawaiian, Laguna Beach.

Tuesday, December 6th, I stayed at my day job a little longer than usual and found my drive home on the 405 to be absolutely unmanageable. Like total gridlock. Parking lot on the freeway. So I took the first quick exit on to the 133. A highway that runs straight into Laguna Canyon from Irvine. I figured that I could take the coast up through Laguna, Corona del Mar, and Newport, right into my hometown of Costa Mesa. 

As I was going through Laguna, I thought, man, I haven't been to the newly opened and third version of the Royal Hawaiian. So I found myself making a u-turn on PCH and pulling up in front of the place. Here's my account of the newest version of the 1947-built Laguna Beach landmark. 

The Hula Girls played the Grand Re-Opening of the second incarnation of the Royal Hawaiian, so I was prepared to see the whole front of the place changed from when I used to go there. I was expecting the interior to be drastically different from the original too. The second owners had essentially turned the place into an expensive Hawaiian(ish)-themed diner.

No longer are there the three Andreas Bumutay tikis that used to sit under the sign...

Or the Lono tiki on the door... or the Milan Guanko tiki that anchored a railing and guarded the front tropical garden.

The stuff that had been changed before these new owners took over, aside, the place looked nice on the outside. Clean, well manicured...

They even added some new themed outdoor lighting to the place. I would come to find that this pineapple theme runs throughout the whole restaurant.  

Now these next couple of pictures are of the Royal Hawaiian, when the original owners still had it. It was dark, dusty, cluttered, cramped and atmospheric... Layers of art and artifacts...

photo: Sven Kirsten

Everything that we, as tiki-philes, love to see in a proper tiki bar. Well, most everything... The cheap '90s fan stuck to the wall in the picture below could probably go... But look at that Bumatay tiki!

photo: Sven Kirsten

And THIS is what the second owners did to the place. Shocking, isn't it? Devoid of atmosphere...
Are those surfboards on the diner seat backs?? Geeze...

So when I came in to the current version of the Royal Hawaiian and was greeted by a glass case displaying this vintage 1947 Royal Hawaiian place-mat, I had a bit of hope for what was to come. Maybe it meant that they cared about the legacy that they had bought into.

There were also a bunch of great lamps that looked like they had found their way over from our friends at Oceanic Arts in Whittier... some great traditional touches!

I even think their vintage palm leaf wallpaper was an interesting way to cover up some of those white walls. It gave the place a bit of a jungle feel... in an upscale way. When I saw that though, it was pretty clear to me that this wasn't really going to be a 'tiki bar/ restaurant' in the way that I/ we think about them. This is more of a Hawaiian bar/ restaurant. But MAN, is it an improvement from the last version!

View from the bar... Bamboo Ben has recently been brought on board to help with the re-tikification of the building. After I started some big discussion on the internet about the place, I think the owners are starting to get what the place should be.  They contacted me, personally, saying that they will be adding more to get the place to look more like how it used to. Before that, the press on the place had said that their design aesthetic was going to be "woodsy industrial."

Anyhow, Ben's adding of this grass matting, immensely helps with what would otherwise be a big prominent white ceiling. He also recommended the wrapping of the pillars in jute rope. Can you imagine those pillars white? They would be glaring.

Look how great this room looks with the wall paper and Ben's ceiling treatment! Also, the lahala matting to the right of the picture... Not 'traditional tiki', but very nice.

There IS some stuff that I'm not totally sure about though. For example these light up pineapples... 

Whatever this is...

The four TVs in the bar area (in tiki bars, the decor ought to be the entertainment and topic for conversation)... No need for 4 TVs, all crammed into one corner...


...And most, if not all of the tikis are modern, cheaply carved tikis. Usually from Bali. People buy them because they're really inexpensive... but they can also look inexpensive.
Side note: I will, for the life of me, never understand the 'tiki smoking a cigar' thing. 

Authentic tikis exude feelings of adventure, danger, mystery... 
Cartoony tikis just look, well, cartoony. 

Conversely, here is another inexpensively carved modern tiki from Bali that looks pretty good. It's traditional in style. So those can look good, you just have to be discerning about them. In fact, Clifton's has two like these too... but the way that they are treated and displayed, you might never notice them there!

Once I settled in and ordered a Lapu Lapu, I took in the things about the new Royal Hawaiian that were  really great. 

There are four of these carved Oceanic Arts poles along the back of the bar that look really nice.

More vintage-styled giant shell lamps...

A great canoe with the Royal Hawaiian's logo carved into it, hangs in the dining room...

The menu reads like any modern, trendy mixology bar's drink menu. A bevy of different liquors, original concoctions and variations on traditional drinks... Of course I had to try their signature Lapu Lapu. This is the cocktail for which people would flock to the Royal Hawaiian, during the original owner years.                                                             On Facebook I got into a conversation about how it tasted. I said that if you wanted a Chief Lapu Lapu ala the traditional recipe, you are better off making one at home from the Grog Log. But that doesn't mean that this place is getting the recipe wrong, I remember going to the Royal Hawaiian in 2003 and the bartenders there where just recklessly throwing rum and juices into the snifters. There wasn't any measuring going on...                                                         Mixology was yet to really return to tiki at that point. We, as tiki-philes, were just happy to be drinking rum in any vintage tiki bar. Sam's Seafood (now Don the Beachcomber) was the same way. All of the drinks were syrupy, sweet and bright colors... The modern tiki cocktail revival presents the authentic recipes as ingredients delicately balanced and usually in hues of amber or gold... 

The new owners went to the original owners and got the recipe for the cocktail from them. So it should be the way that the original Royal Hawaiian Lapu tasted. It has been ten years since I tasted one, So I can't say for sure.

When modern fans of tiki complain about reasonably well made tiki drinks in places like Don the Beachcomber (pre-batched cocktails) or similar places, I have to laugh. The cocktails in places that are at least trying are all WAY better than it used to be, just 10 years ago!

So, the Lapu Lapu is good.

Ingredient-wise, it could be considered a Marriott mai tai (basically orange and pineapple juices mixed with passion fruit, light rum and a dark rum float) and if you go into it with that expectation, you'll enjoy it. I did.

I asked the bartender if it was pre-batched or if she measured and mixed the drink herself. She said that she measured the ingredients. I should have asked how many ounces of rum was in this drink. It hit me hard... quickly. Like way too much, too fast.

They ought to put some kind of warning on the menu for drinks with really high alcohol content, like they do at places like Forbidden Island. I felt like driving after that one drink was gonna be a risk... so I hung out and had a bunch of water. I like getting snockered as much as the next guy, but one cocktail shouldn't do that to you.

Their menu, coasters, and signature swizzle stick were all nice. As a marketing/ design professional, I do question the 'out-of-nowhere' color of the swizzle when everything else in the bar is green, but that is really kinda getting into the minutia of the place. 

With that giant glass of rum swimming in my head, I explored the bar area. It was decidedly more 'tiki' than the rest of the building! I love how the outside foliage is lighted and seems to 'come into' the dining space.

Remember when the only 'pufferfish inside of a fish float' that you ever saw was at Oceanic Arts in their 'not for sale' collection?? Now it seems like everyone has one of them in their bar! (Ahem) but to be fair, I do include myself in that group.....

What. They look cool..! I'm not critiquing, just observing.

More great lights from Oceanic Arts. And actually, the flatscreen TVs are placed so high in the bar that you can ignore them pretty easily if you're looking to.

Back in the dining area, you can see that the new owners are utilizing the old diorama windows, though they are really just used as tropical flower gardens now. They could go a long way with some vintage-looking tikis or other native artifacts in them.

A nice Leroy Schmaltz-carved panel from Oceanic Arts sits above the diorama window...

There's another great Leroy piece in the bar too!

Here it is, as it's displayed now...

And a clearer picture, taken before they got Ben to put up all of that great thatching on the walls.

I went into the Royal Hawaiian as a cynic. I'm a purist about these places. Especially in dealing with a place that I loved. When I saw it's second incarnation in the mid '00s, it was shocking, underwhelming, a bummer. This place is leaps and bounds beyond what that place was.

I think that everyone should see the new Royal Hawaiian for themselves.

Their intention is good. This would have been an incredible place in the early days of the tiki resurgence. Hell, I remember going to a Hawaiian-themed place in the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas just to see a display case with some tiki mugs in it and a lunch-time floor show. 

                                                                                                                                                                                    Any critique that I have of the new Royal Hawaiian is because of my memory of the original place. It's really not a fair comparison anymore. You need to judge and experience the place as it's own entity.                                                                                                           If we all critique these places right out of business, they WILL be gone forever. That's the same approach that I take with Don the Beachcomber (Sam's Seafood). Not everything there is perfect... but it's the original building and decor from 1960. Complain about them, boycott them, whatever your issues are with them...and they WILL be gone forever.
The owner came up to me in the lobby of the place while I was taking pictures and was super friendly and accommodating. He talked about eventually having theme-appropriate live music there, "not just a top-40 cover band." He referenced the legacy several times while talking to me. The staff seemed attentive and the food smelled good throughout the restaurant.

The more that they allow Bamboo Ben to add to the building, the better the place is gonna be. 
They're off to a good start!


The Hula Girls play, this Saturday, at the incredible 1960-built tiki palace, Don the Beachcomber. We'll be on from 1-4pm during the Tiki Makeke (Marketplace). Free show! Hope you can make the scene!

The Hula Girls return to the Tiki Makeke (Tiki Marketplace) at Don the Beachcomber

We will be back in the Dagger Bar for a special daytime performance at the former International Tiki Marketplace (now, the Tiki Makeke) at Don the Beachcomber in Sunset Beach, CA.

Open to all ages and the Dagger Bar is free!

Also, it's the mug re-release party for the Vicious Virgin mug in brand new colors!

Don't miss your opportunity to get one of these exclusive mugs.

Hope to see you at Don the Beachcomber for the last Tiki Marketplace of 2016!


Inside the Desert Oasis Room Podcast!

About a week ago, the "Inside the Desert Oasis Room Podcast" came to The Breezeway to talk about tiki, collecting, the reasons why some tiki bars 'work' and why others don't, and all kinds of other stuff... It's a free form conversation over cocktails with two of my oldest friends from the tiki world. 

The following pictures are a loose follow-along to our conversation. Click on the pictures to enlarge, if you like... And with that, I guess all you have left to do is to click on the link below.

Hope you dig it!


Sam's Seafood
The Breezeway menu
Kona Lanes
The Breezeway Bar

The Topless Hula Girl

False Idol
False Idol
Clifton's Map Room

Clifton's Pacific Seas
Clifton's Pacific Seas

Clifton's Pacific Seas

behind the Breezeway bar
Lava in the Breezeway
Islands Restaurant

Billys at the Beach
Billy's at the Beach
Trader Vic's Palo Alto
Trader Vic's Palo Alto
Mondo Tiki
Smokin' Menehunes
Estate Sale Haul
Breezeway bar platform
neighbor's tree house
Joyride Vintage
Mike Ness' Black Kat Vintage
Witco Stools
The Breezeway Pond
Palm logs
Hot Rod Luau Tees

Ink n Iron
Viva Las Vegas
Tiki Oasis 1
Tiki Oasis