Foundation Tiki Bar’s Tropical Oasis
Trips to the South Seas have helped create its unique style.
With WWII soldiers stationed in the South Pacific, the U.S. saw a period of romanticism regarding newfound exotic lands and an unknown culture of tikis, semi-nude hula dancers, grass skirts and tropical drinks.
“Our grandparents really had a romantic version of what the South Pacific was,” says Don Nelson, bar manager and the man responsible for recreating this time period at the Foundation Tiki Bar, 2718 N. Bremen Street.
Even before the war, the tiki bar craze had begun as people like Donn Beach (born Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt) opened Don the Beachcomber, a restaurant in Hollywood, in 1934, and Victor Bergeron opened Trader Vic’s in Oakland in 1937.
The popularity of this style has ebbed and flowed, in the 1990’s seeing a revival of popularity with Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s release of cocktail recipe books revealing the “long lost” drinks of the era.
“All of the tiki bars in the world owe it to those guys, not only the décor and style but the drink recipes,” says Nelson. Nelson and his childhood friend, Charles Jordan, the owner of Foundation, didn’t officially enter the tiki scene until 2004.
Nelson travels to Hawaii every year and continues to collect and make tiki apparel, which can be seen throughout the bar. He also attends tiki conventions and festivals, as well as working with local artist, Dave Hansen, on many of the woodcarvings.
“It’s a labor of love,” says Nelson regarding the décor, which is a major component of any tiki-themed bar done right. “You have the nautical, the tropical and the Polynesian all rolled into one nice package.”
From the entrance door to the inside of the bathrooms, the whole place is decked out in tiki decor and “bathed in flickering light,” as Nelson puts it. It has been solely his responsibility to add all the pieces over the last 18 years, and he plans to continue doing so.
“Forgive the pun, but I think Don and I are carved from the same mold,” says Hansen, a self-taught woodcarver for the last 12 years with a bachelor’s in graphic design from MIAD. Hansen lives on the South Side, where he primarily works on Oceanic Art or “Tiki” pieces with a variety of hand-held tools.
“I live a West Coast lifestyle,” says Hansen. Nelson and Hansen are both heavy into Polynesian Pop culture, he notes, and attend some of the same tiki events around the country. Sometimes he’ll just stop into the bar for a few drinks and shoot the breeze about tiki stuff.
“Don and the staff at Foundation have become good friends over the years, it’s much more than just a working relationship,” Hansen says. He has about 50 pieces that decorate the bar, his most notable being the 7-foot Marquesan Poles.
Another thing that makes the bar more authentic than many tiki-themed venues is the drinks, Nelson says. He works with Michael Kotke, a classic cocktail expert and enthusiast, to create drinks using natural ingredients and a variety of rums to create what Nelson refers to as “classic drinks from the heyday of the tiki era.”
Both men have done a lot of research into what was in the original recipe of the classic Trader Vic’s 1944 Mai Tai or Don The Beachcomber’s 1934 Zombie for example. Most people don’t know what the original drinks should taste like, according to Nelson.
“The Mai Tai is probably the world’s most popular tropical drink, although most people don’t know how to make it right,” he says. “We’re true to the traditions. When you order a drink here you’re getting the drink that was originally meant to be.”
Foundation eschews the high fructose corn syrups found in many of today’s “tropical” drinks. Instead, they use pure pomegranate for grenadine and pure sugar cane or honey for sweetener. They also use a blend of different rums, mixing the flavors of the islands.
“We don’t advertise,” says Nelson. “We’ve been here for so long, and we have an established crowd of regulars and tourists already so there’s no need.”
The bar “rivals the classics,” Hansen contends, but “there’s nothing forced and gimmicky about it.”
“Everybody here is just low key,” says Nelson. Customers soak up the tropical ambiance and sip on some of the many exotic cocktail offerings, such as the Bora Bora Headhunter or Doctor Fu, both of which come with a specialty cup, a little piece of paradise to take home with you.