Glitz and glamour weren’t the only things that fueled the guys and dolls of old Hollywood. From award-winning pastry chef George Geary comes a historical look at Los Angeles’s most talked-about restaurants and dishes from the 1920s through the 1980s. Packed with vintage menus, photos, recipes and trivia about Marilyn Monroe and Bob Hope’s eating habits, L.A.’s Legendary Restaurants will delight history buffs and food nerds alike. Geary has updated over 100 famous recipes for today’s home cook, allowing us to re-create the chili Elizabeth Taylor once craved and more. We take a look at one of the country’s first tiki bar.
“Donn Beach” was born Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt in Texas in 1907. After traveling in the South Pacific and the Caribbean, he landed in Hollywood and worked as an illegal bootlegger, making moonshine during Prohibition for a number of years.
After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Donn opened Don the Beachcomber, a small café and bar in the corner of a small hotel bar at 1722 N. McCadden Place, where he concocted powerful rum drinks for his customers. With his business growing in popularity, Donn had his eye on a larger space across the street, at 1727 N. McCadden. He and his girlfriend, Cora Irene “Sunny” Sund, raised the money together to move into the new location three years later.
Inspired by his travels, Donn filled the new place with Polynesian flair, including a bamboo bar with matching barstools, fishing nets draped on the walls, large glass fishing weights in every shade of blue and green imaginable, and the now-ubiquitous cocktail umbrellas adorning his drinks. Thus, Donn Beach became the founding father of the Polynesian “tiki” bar. Donn could also rightly claim that he was the first cross-marketing restaurateur, with a rum shop, gift store and Chinese grocery just inside his bar’s front door.
A shrewd businessman, Donn installed a sprinkler system on top of the bar’s tin roof so customers would think it was raining and stay for another drink. The food Donn served paired perfectly with the drinks he developed. His dishes were mainly hyped-up Chinese fare, with pineapple and coconut flavors and island flair in the presentation.
Donn was, above all, a creative bartender. His cocktails were mostly rum-based; rum was the drink of the islands, and it was very accessible. Many say that Donn created the mai tai in 1934 (Trader Vic’s of San Francisco claims that they were the drink’s original creators, but not until the 1940s). Also first shaken, stirred and blended by Donn were the PiYi (served in a miniature pineapple), the Missionary’s Downfall, the Vicious Virgin, the Never Say Die, the Cobra’s Fang, the Zombie, the Tahitian Rum Punch and the Navy Grog (said to be Frank Sinatra’s favorite drink at the Don the Beachcomber Palm Springs location). Donn created a total of 84 different cocktails.
Donn served in the U.S. Army during World War II, leaving his beloved tiki bar under Sunny’s management. She helped expand the place into 16 locations from coast to coast. Upon his return, Donn and Sunny filed for divorce, and she gained full control of the business.
Under the terms of his divorce from Sunny, Donn was not allowed to open a Don the Beachcomber in the United States. Since Hawaii was not a state at the time, Donn moved to Waikiki, where he opened a Don the Beachcomber location on Waikiki Beach and fully immersed himself in tiki paradise. He also built the open-air International Market Place in the center of Honolulu’s tourist area, where his offices were located above an enormous banyan tree. (The International Market Place was closed in 2014 to make way for a Saks Fifth Avenue.)
In 1958, the Don the Beachcomber franchise was sold to Joe Drown, owner of the Hotel Bel-Air. At the time, the area had become a haven for tiki bars, such as the Zamboanga South Seas Club, the Pirate’s Den, the Tonga Hut, Tiki Ti and many others, all frequented by celebrities.
Donn died of liver cancer in Hawaii in 1989, at the age of 81. Today, only three locations still carry the name Don the Beachcomber. In 2001, Disney’s California Adventure in Anaheim, California, opened a small Don the Beachcomber that served food without the rum drinks; it closed a few years later. Today, Marisol, LLC, owns the rights to the bar and its name. They opened two locations in Hawaii in 2005 and struck a licensing deal with Huntington Beach’s Sam’s Seafood in 2009 for the use of Don the Beachcomber signage and many of the original recipes.
Donn Beach reportedly created this drink as a cure for a friend’s hangover. It didn’t help.
- 1/2 ounce white rum
- 1 ounce dark rum
- 1 1/2 ounces golden rum
- 1 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
- 1 teaspoon pineapple juice
- 1 teaspoon papaya juice
- 1/2 ounce 151-proof rum
- 1 cherry
- In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, blend the white, dark, and golden rums with the lime, pineapple, and papaya juices. Shake well.
- Fill a collins glass with ice. Strain the drink into the glass. Top with the 151-proof rum. Garnish with a cherry. You can also light this drink on fire for a dramatic effect.
Excerpted from L.A.’s Legendary Restaurants: Celebrating the Famous Places Where Hollywood Ate, Drank and Played by George Geary