Every Wednesday night when Tiki-Ti opens, its owner, operator and head bartender Mike Buhen Sr. raises a glass in a toast to his father, Ray Buhen. The elder Buhen opened the tiny L.A. institution with odd tropical signage and exotic pitched roof facade back in 1961. Fifty-five years later, the bar remains minuscule, wildly popular, cash-only and family-owned, with Mike Sr. now joined behind the bar by a third generation of Buhens—his sons Mike Jr. and Mark. Each night Tiki-Ti is open, the three of them work side-by-side, alternating duties as bouncer, bus boy, accountant and barman. All the while, transforming streams of rum, fruit juice and their mysterious syrups into signature drinks like “Ray’s Mistake,” which is named after, of course, Tiki-Ti’s founding father.
Mike Sr.: My dad started making drinks after Prohibition in 1933. He was actually one of the original bartenders at Don the Beachcomber’s when it opened in Hollywood in 1934. He would squeeze limes until his fingers bled. Then he went on to places like the Seven Seas and the Dresden Room, picking up fans along the way.
He opened Tiki-Ti in 1961. Me, him and a couple of other guys built everything in here ourselves — the bamboo, the cork, the nipa hut. I was just starting high school. He would be in here for hours, cutting wood by hand and making sure everything fit tight and looked sharp. He was always good with his hands like that. But while I helped him build the bar, there was never a big plan for me to take over, and I never felt like I was supposed to head straight into working in the business with him.
Mike Jr.: When I was growing up, I never really thought about this place as an institution. Just watching my dad clean, that’s all I remember about it early on. Later on, people would ask me what my dad did, and I’d say, “He runs this little Polynesian place,” and I’d get the response, “Tiki-Ti!”
Mike Sr.: I didn’t think about what I wanted to do for a career. It just sort of happened. My dad was always bartending, and when I got laid off from Hertz Rent-a-Car in Hollywood, I started coming in and learning the drinks. It was just my mom and dad back then. Much later, my son came on. You’ve been doing it for how many years now?
Mike Jr.: Seventeen. I started in 1999. I was 24 or so. I didn’t plan on doing it either. My grandfather got ill, and I thought I would help out. Ray passed away that year at almost 90. But for maybe two or three months, the three of us were all behind the bar — three generations serving together, all from original recipes. People still remember that.
Mike Sr.: I think it was my dad’s legacy that helped keep this place open, even as the tiki trend faded in the 1980s and 1990s.
Mike Jr.: It’s strange to think about there being a decline in tiki in the ’80s and ’90s because our business has been steady and stable for as long as I can remember it. That said, I’ve definitely noticed that tiki’s become more popular in the last year or two. A lot of places are opening up, which is good.
Mike Sr.: I never noticed a decline, either. It’s always been strong. I do wish we had a bigger place — we can only fit 50 people at a time. The building doesn’t need to be big-big, but maybe a place twice the size. It gets so busy sometimes that we have to turn people away. They’ll say, “I’ll have a drink down the street and come back.” But we lose those people.
Mike Jr.: On the other hand, we get a lot of offers to buy the property. There’s been a lot of real estate activity in this neighborhood, and this is a commercial property right on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake. It’s very attractive. But the building has been in the family for a long time.
Mike Sr.: It was built in 1940 by my grandfather on my mother’s side. He came from Czechoslovakia, and he repaired instruments in here for a time. It was vacant for years, too. We’re not interested in selling, though. We just celebrated our 55th anniversary last year. So we’re gonna be here for a little while still.
Mike Jr.: I certainly don’t see myself doing anything else. My wife says that this could go down to a fourth generation. I have a 4-year-old girl and a 9-month-old boy. I’m not so sure, though. If it makes them happy, maybe, but I would rather they not. I guess I wouldn’t mind if they ran the place and hired people to work the bar. Either way, it’s a tough business.
Mike Sr.: The on-site alcohol service business is expensive, with lots of permits and a lot of liability. You also have to be good with people. It’s not like selling something and sending them out the door. They’re in front of you for hours.
Mike Jr.: I think the most positive aspect of the job is that if I didn’t work here, I wouldn’t see my dad as much. It’s not in my nature to reach out so often. So I’m not sure how much I would see him otherwise.
Mike Sr.: Well yeah, and when you were small, I didn’t see you that much.
Mike Jr.: That’s another downside of the business — the hours. But I don’t hold any ill will or anything about it. We could be open more now — seven days a week instead of four — but it’s already so much work. The bar is open Wednesday through Saturday, but on Monday and Tuesday, we’re in here all day, cleaning, setting up and stocking inventory.
Mike Sr.: Preparing the bar is the hard part. Bartending isn’t really work. My own dad tended bar for 60 years. I’m only at 48 years or so.
Mike Jr.: My dad, he wouldn’t not work at the bar. I’m following his lead.
Mike Sr.: When I was young, there was one big difference: My dad worked for other people. He could trade shifts with other bartenders when I had something to do that he wanted to participate in — like a camping trip. But when you have your own place, you can’t do that.
It also, though, gives you a lot more freedom. For years, since we were owner-operated and the only people working here, we were the last bar in L.A. you could smoke in. We hired a friend of the family last year to help out, however, and now you can’t smoke in here. I thought it was going to be a bad thing, but people like it more.
Mike Jr.: I’m not a smoker, but for the last 16 years, I’ve felt like a smoker.
Mike Sr.: We drink, though. Not exactly tropical drinks, either. I’m around them too much. If you work at a hamburger stand, you’re not going out to eat a burger.
Mike Jr.: I’m also not a tropical-drink drinker. I’ll try new things. But on my own time? Maybe a beer. Or a martini.
Mike Sr.: I do enjoy making them, however. And I enjoyed with working with my dad. Occasionally we’d yell at each other for 15 minutes over which way is better or something I did wrong, but afterward, you’d have to settle in and focus on the work if you wanted to get ready for that night’s service.
Mike Jr.: It’s been pretty much the same with us. There’s too many things to do to be mad or to argue.
Mike Sr.: More than anything else, the thing that stays with me from working with my dad all those years is how much he loved his job. The other thing I learned from him is, that as with any family business, you can’t put too much pressure on your kids. You want them to love it as much as you do — not force them to love it. My dad never asked me to work at the bar. I just did. It’s the same with Mike Jr. So I trust him, just as Ray trusted me.
Eddie Kim is the senior writer for L.A. Downtown News. He last wrote about the struggles, and comeback, of L.A.’s Starry Kitchen.