The Tonga Hut in Palm Springs Is Like a Vacation from a VacationPhotos by Garrett Martin Travel Features
It’s 2022, and the Tonga Hut in Palm Springs has a phone booth. Not the freestanding kind Superman changes clothes in, but the old-school phone booth you’d find in bars or restaurants, set directly into the wall of the joint like a permanent, immovable monument. You’d be excused for thinking it’s just another part of the midcentury affectations found in pretty much every tiki bar, and yeah, that’s definitely a part of it. More importantly, though, that phone booth is a passage into the mystery and mystique of the entire tiki experience. It’s not a phone booth but a hidden portal into a forgotten world—the entrance into the Tonga Hut’s secret room.
When you step through the other wall of that phone booth you’ll step back through time into the post-war peak era of the tiki bar. Kevin Murphy, the owner of both the Palm Springs Tonga Hut and the original bar in North Hollywood, festooned the secret room with tchotchkes and artifacts recovered from the myriad of tiki bars that dotted California’s nightlife from the ‘40s into the ‘70s. In a bar already fully committed to the classical tiki experience, that secret room is the ne plus ultra—a beautiful distillation of what Donn Beach and Trader Vic were aiming for when they first opened their bars in the 1930s.
You don’t just go to a tiki bar to drink. You go to a tiki bar to escape the mundane, messed-up world we all have to toil through every day of our lives. Los Angelenos have been escaping to the original Tonga Hut since 1958. The Tonga Hut in Palm Springs has only been around since 2013, and although it lacks the years it doesn’t lack the details; you’ll feel like you stepped back into the past once you bound up its stairwell. And as a tiki bar in a town almost entirely devoted to leisure, the Palm Springs Tonga Hut has a unique spirit of its own; it’s like a vacation from a vacation.
Palm Springs is a straight-forward town. You go there to relax, have fun, and hang out at the pool. Most places worth visiting are situated on Palm Canyon Drive, or within a block or two in either direction. The Tonga Hut is right there on the main drag, a beacon of tiki splendor amid a variety of generic bars and restaurants. Despite its earnest devotion to the theme, it’s a pliable space open to the whims and desires of any audience; the night I was there, I saw guests playing board games while drinking beer and non-tiki cocktails, and the tiki soundtrack gradually made way for a disco playlist better suited for the bachelorette party on the balcony.
Don’t let that worry you if you’re a tiki traditionalist, though. The Tonga Hut takes its job seriously, with the theming and decor you expect from a top notch tiki bar. The cocktail list is full of the classics—your Mai Tais, your Zombies—but also sports a deep bench of originals, some of which can stand right alongside any of the old favorites. The Bermuda Dunes was my favorite of the bunch; it’s a mixture of rums (of course) with citrus, almond, and the all-important addition of allspice, which gives it a bit of a kick that cuts through the sweet burn of the rum. Make sure it’s on your drink list if you ever swing by the Hut.
The Tonga Hut also crucially checks off a major tiki box that too many of today’s bars steer clear of. It serves food, and its menu isn’t just full of the typical Chinese restaurant staples, but has a few dishes inspired by Hawaiian cuisine. Yes, you can order egg rolls and potstickers, but you can also enjoy Kalua pork in convenient slider form, and even get a couple of different Spam dishes. There’s no Spam musubi, unfortunately, but the Loco Moco serves up a Spam patty on top of steamed rice, which might be close enough for you. You can also get an order of two Spam sliders, alongside fries dusted with some kind of tangy spice and sriracha mayo for dipping; I tore through a couple of those sliders while downing my first Mai Tai, and washed down the fries with a Bermuda Dunes.
Although the Tonga Hut absolutely nails the fundamentals of a great tiki bar, don’t expect anything too extravagant. This isn’t one of those super Disneyfied tiki bars, like Tiki Tatsu-Ya in Austin or the Golden Tiki in Vegas, or Disney’s own Trader Sam’s. The lights don’t quiver and the room doesn’t shake when you order a certain cocktail. I love that stuff, but I also love a bar that’s well-designed and confident enough to forgo the flashy tricks. And although those places all have their own secrets, none of them have a private party room that looks like the cargo hold of a pirate ship hidden behind a fake phone booth. That’s the Tonga Hut promise.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.