What it takes to tiki
Welcome to Shameless Plug, a new series in which writers tell us about a creative/arts experience in Charlotte that they love – but have no personal stake in. (So, not that shameless.) Rebecca Henderson, humorist and unrepentant millennial, begins.
In my opinion, one of the unofficial cultural signifiers of a “big city” is the presence of at least one well-established tiki bar. So, with the exception of a distinct but short-lived concept off of Woodlawn, Charlotte’s tiki drought has always served as an indication that to me, while Charlotte may talk the big city talk, it often times does not walk the nuance of a big city walk. That is, until I came across Lost Cargo.
When Marta Suarez Del Real began this monthly pop-up tiki social club, she says, it was inspired by her experiences at tropically inclined bars throughout the Chicago area. She hosts this in the back room of Petra’s on the last Tuesday of every month, and takes great care in crafting almost all of her concoctions from scratch. Squeezing mountains of limes by hand, fusing hibiscus syrups, she often begins prepping the drink mixes two or three days in advance.
But to truly bring out the best of the tiki cocktail menu, she must research and purchase various niche liquors and liqueurs, and that needs to happen much further in advance, to ensure they arrive in time. Some of these critical boozy ingredients are so uncommon she is forced to source them in inconveniently large quantities from the supplier.
So with current cocktail prices at $10-$12 apiece, these custom liquid marvels are arguably more an act of cultural benevolence than a real profit garner. And yes, they all come complete with fresh fruit garnish — and paper umbrella.
I would say it’s as close as you can get to the real thing here in Charlotte, except for the fact that there is no such thing as a “real” tiki bar. As we know them, these themed nightlife destinations emerged in the 1930s as a fusion of nostalgia and novelty, a conceptual cocktail that many find as intoxicating as the drinks themselves. But like many iconically American institutions, the tiki bar is merely a pick-and-choose romanticization of South Pacific or Caribbean cultures, not an actual import.
But although a “real” tiki bar is nonexistent, what certainly does exist is a tiki bar aesthetic, which blurs the inexplicable line between kitsch and grotesque.
The modern tiki bar presents as a kind of conundrum, seeing as the very characteristic of what makes it “authentic” is its ability to continue and deepen a tradition of non-authenticity. It’s an experiential palindrome, the same backwards as it is forwards, residing on a plane of non-time and non-place like some kind of tropical purgatory.
Personally, I savor the honesty of tiki culture in the sense that it leans into its own lie. It embraces the fake flower leis and plastic hula skirts like a clown painting on its smile, but significantly less scary, and with much, much more rum. In reality, the falsehood of American tiki culture is rooted in a very pressing need to escape.
That is what brings me to Lost Cargo again and again. After swinging open the front door of Petra’s, I walk towards the back hallway on the right, which is filled with swirling disco lights. As I travel toward the end of the hall, I begin to hear the sounds of tropical lounge and Polynesian funk. Occasionally, I am greeted by a 4-foot-tall plaster volcano, like a surreal butler whose sole job is to ooze a consistent fog onto the floor. The drinks are sweet but strong, the music is decidedly smooth and everyone feels like a friend you’ve just yet to meet. The search for an escape is momentarily over.
Tonight, I get to pretend that I don’t live in a society verging on a full-on dystopian coup. I can forget about how, once I close my tab and walk out on the street, still adorned with a colorful lei, I will instinctively hold my keys between my knuckles as I walk alone in the dark. I can ignore the fact that when I do arrive home, I am turning the knob of a one-bedroom apartment in a city where living costs are rising at a rate which dramatically outpaces my income. For one night, I can pull a sensational veil over my eyes and indulge in a smooth and fruity spectacle. Outside, yes, that world still waits, an inky, undulating sea of uncertainty and mistrust. But for a short time, on the last Tuesday of every month, I can feel like my feet are on the shore in paradise.
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This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.