Just about every aspect of Latitude 29 is meant to evoke the exotic. Yet at the same time, this new tiki restaurant and bar, which is slated to open today (Nov. 12), is mining a richly nostalgic seam of American pop culture, one that’s now seeing a resurgence and that may have particular resonance for New Orleanians of a certain generation.
Located in the Bienville House hotel, in the former Iris restaurant space, the design and decor is a lush, enveloping mosaic of carved wood, bamboo, toothy tiki characters, hut-shaped booths and hanging glass floats. Bartenders will mix up rum drinks like the Hawaii 504 with a syrup made from honey and Chinese five spice. Order a steak and it will arrive with whipped purple sweet potatoes topped with golden mango and mint for a color scheme reminiscent of LSU fanfare.
For some, talk of tiki will conjure images of dusty thatch, oily pu pu platters and sugar headaches waiting in hollowed coconut mugs. But that’s what tiki became “after the fall,” said Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, who with his wife Annene Kaye developed Latitude 29.
“The cheap knock-offs were what gave tiki its reputation as tiki tacky, that shabby beach bar thing,” said Berry. “That was miles removed from the original tiki aesthetic. In the heyday, every square inch of a tiki restaurant had something to engage your eye and make you forget whichever city you were in, to put you in a Polynesian adventure. That’s what we’re trying to bring back here.”
From the 1950s through the 1960s, tiki was the epitome of popular escapism, an all-American midcentury mash-up of South Seas imagery, souped up Caribbean rum punches and quasi-Cantonese cooking.
In New Orleans, the grand tiki palace of this era was the Bali Ha’i, part of the former Pontchartrain Beach amusement park on the lakefront. Opened in 1952 and destroyed by fire in 1986, the Bali Ha’i was a top dining destination for festive, and sometimes quite formal, outings.
“Anyone who remembers the Bali Ha’i from their prom night or from first dates will feel right at home here,” said Berry, of Latitude 29. “We’re going back to the roots of this stuff.”
Though he’s a first-time restaurateur, as an author and historian Berry is revered by cocktail professionals and enthusiasts as something like the Alan Lomax of tiki culture. Through his field work (conducted mostly in bars), he collected original tiki drink recipes from the bartenders who created them and those they trained on the job firsthand.
“Before they got dumbed down to those really sweet drinks people remember now, tiki drinks were like early, farm-to-glass craft cocktails, but before these terms existed,” said Berry. “They were made with fresh juices and syrups, premium liquors.”
His research fueled a series of books, starting in 1998 and including his latest, “Potions of the Caribbean,” which was published late last year. He’s also developed a cocktail app for tiki intel on demand. The recipes, lore and tricks of the trade he uncovered laid the framework for the current tiki revival.
Built on bamboo
Berry and Kaye have been planning their own tiki temple for years, though initially they envisioned opening more of a bar than a restaurant. But after Iris closed, and they learned the Bienville House was keen to bring in another destination restaurant, the couple began expanding their concept with a full menu.
For this they turned to Chris Shortall. Most recently, he ran a barbecue operation inside the Mid-City bar 12 Mile Limit, though his cooking experience runs from Thai restaurants in his native Dallas to contemporary cuisine at Restaurant August and Coquette. The tiki framework gives him plenty to work with at Latitude 29.
“I’ve been able to use all these things I’ve picked up along the way,” Shortall said.
The menu starts with a “dumpling program,” with varieties like chicken in a Sriracha hot sauce wrapper and pork in a mushroom wrapper. A shaved bamboo salad with pea tendrils is one of the many vegetarian dishes.
The Cuban sandwich is reconfigured with fried ham, pork belly, cream cheese and pineapple mustard on a semi-sweet pineapple and vanilla bread the chef bakes in house. The burger is pretty straightforward, except for a bun made with seaweed.
“Tiki is a made-up American thing, and that’s what this is,” Shortall said. “Tiki food should be playful, it should make you smile.”
While Berry is a tiki drinks expert, he’s never been a professional bartender. So while he serves as Latitude 29’s host and impresario, the bar is run by Steve Yamada, a well-known local craft cocktail practitioner. The drink list of more than two-dozen cocktails initially revolves around recipes from Berry’s research, and his own reinterpretations, along with other classic cocktails from outside the tiki mode. This lineup will evolve, and the bar’s happy hour (from 3-6 p.m.) will double as research and development time as bartenders test their own ideas for modern and revised tiki drinks with their customers.
“This place is Jeff’s baby, and a big part of it comes from his drink (recipes),” said Yamada. “That’s the natural place for us to start, and it’s a great opportunity for us to learn.”
Whatever direction the chef and bartenders take the food and drinks, however, Latitude 29 begins and ends with the classic trappings of tiki, from the tropical design motifs to elaborate garnishes spilling forth from tall cocktail glasses. It’s these touches, said Berry, that anchor the tiki appeal.
“Tiki is a mini vacation, and people always need an escape,” said Berry. “That’s one thing that hasn’t changed.”
321 N. Peters St., (504) 609-3811
HOURS: Tuesday-Thursday 3 p.m.-11 p.m., Friday -Sunday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
*This story has been updated to add that Latitude 29 is scheduled to open today, Nov. 12.