Every tiki aficionado knows of Don the Beachcomber’s, the original tiki restaurant. Founded in 1934 in California, this restaurant chain owned by Donn Beach became known as the birthplace of the mai tai and dozens of other fruity tropical drinks. Though the restaurant is closely associated with its founder, its success depended on the bartenders who mixed up these inventive concoctions night after night.
Ray Buhen is just one of the legendary bartenders to have worked at Don the Beachcomber’s. He started in the restaurant’s original Hollywood location in 1934. On any given night, he could be serving Charlie Chaplin, Howard Hughes, or Joan Crawford, just to name a few of the celebrities frequenting this popular bar. After a 90-minute wait to order, most drinks were made right at the bar. Others, however, like the Zombie or Missionary’s Downfall, were concocted behind the scenes and served in specialty glasses shaped like a tiki statue or a cauldron. Buhen, particularly, was known for mixing these mysterious drinks for Don the Beachcomber’s.
Born in the Philippines, Ray was in his mid-20’s by the 1933 end of Prohibition and the first signs of the tiki craze. Getting his start at Don the Beachcomber’s, Buhen soon moved on to other tiki bars in the area. By 1937, Buhen began working at South Seas, another Hollywood restaurant known for its tiki ambiance. There he was responsible not only for mixing drinks, but also playing the soundtrack of thunder and lightning to give the bar a distinctly outdoor flavor. Later he became the bartender at The Luau, The Palms In The Jungle, China Trader, and several other well-known Los Angeles-area lounges founded to capitalize on the tiki craze. While at The Dresden Room, he invented Blood and Sand, which would become one of his most well-known drink concoctions.
By the 1950s, Ray had worked at nearly all of L.A.’s Polynesian-themed lounges, with the notable exception of Trader Vic’s. He was ready to try his hand at his own bar. In 1961, Buhen used his experience as a tiki bartender to open the Tiki Ti. Build by Ray and his son Mike, this restaurant features bamboo molding, a waterfall, and such tiki artifacts as a puffer fish and glass fishing floats.
This Los Angeles bar soon became known for its dozens of unusual tropical drinks. Because of his extensive experience serving up tropical drinks, Ray already had a following by the time Tiki-Ti opened in April of 1961. No beer or wine is offered here — just the Shark’s Tooth, Navy Grog, the Pearl Driver, Blood and Sand, and more than 80 other drinks Ray had learned or concocted during his three decades of bartending at other tiki establishments.
In 1968, the restaurant’s signature drink was born. An accidental variation of the Anting Anting, or “Witches’ Brew,” it became known as “Ray’s Mistake.” The Blood and Sand, Uga Booga, and the Hawaiian Twist are three other drinks popularized here.
By the 1970s, the mid-century tiki craze was winding down. While other Los Angeles tiki bars, including the China Trader, the Luau, and Don the Beachcomber’s closed, Tiki Ti continued on, becoming even more popular as tiki aficionados flocked to the only tropical destination in town. Though Ray Buhen passed away in 199, his legacy lives on, with his son and grandson running the Tiki Ti.
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