Don the Beachcomber celebrates the Aloha culture
Meet Delia Wu Snyder, the Goddess of Tiki
As in fashion and music, trends in dining and cocktails recycle with the times. Voracious mixologists, having already mastered those speakeasy-style cocktails made popular during the Prohibition era, are forever seeking the next hot trend.
Take tiki, for example. Liquor snobs who once regarded these drinks for being too kitschy are now reconsidering. Ground zero for the next “new” cocktail trend might just be located on PCH on the cusp of Sunset Beach, where stands Don the Beachcomber.
At first glance, the exterior looks like any other dive bar. A blue neon outline of a swordfish glows against the shadowy night sky with the letters “D – O – N” emblazoned on the gut in red neon. It signals a booze legend that started eight decades ago with a Southern California transplant nicknamed Donn Beach.
Beach, born Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, scrimped by during the Depression with odd jobs that included stints in Los Angeles’ Chinatown restaurants. He also dabbled in bootlegging and charmed Hollywood starlets such as Marlene Dietrich into landing him work as a technical adviser on films set in the South Pacific. Those endeavors helped manufacture the foundation of his dream bar: Don the Beachcomber.
Gantt simultaneously honed his legendary Donn Beach character while concocting signature rum drinks such as Don’s Mai Tai, which came out in 1933, and the original Zombie, which made its debut when the Hollywood bar opened in 1934.
Most photographs of him show a dashing Rhett Butler-type mustache ornamenting his ruggedly handsome face. He lived the part, dressing in “costume” – half-unbuttoned Hawaiian shirts, head-to-toe safari gear à la Indiana Jones and fresh orchid leis. Few could predict that this impresario legacy would live on for more than 80 years and finally find a haven in Orange County.
Don the Beachcomber’s current owner, Delia Wu Snyder, holds fond memories of the auspicious godfather of tiki, often regarded as a suave distributor of mind-dizzyingly potent rum drinks. He is credited with inventing 84 mixed drinks, which requires a dictionary’s worth of space to house all his recipes.
But for Snyder, Beach was a mystic figure who doubled as the ambassador of fun.
“I remember, one time my sister and I climbed up a big tree house with Donn,” Snyder says. As the girls hoisted themselves up onto the wooden platform, they caught whiffs of a Cantonese-style feast, complete with a whole fried fish, waiting just for them.
The thought of Beach’s quirky gesture still makes Snyder smile with delight. Other tales of Beach’s cocktail experiments evoke images of a witch doctor-cum-mad scientist conjuring magic potions in a thatched hut set in paradise.
Keeping the doors open at Don the Beachcomber allows Snyder to fan the flames of memories of two men who greatly touched her life: Donn Beach and her late husband, former Los Angeles councilman Arthur Snyder, who helped his wife relocate the establishment in April 2009.
If Art Snyder was the eatery’s Wizard of Oz, then Delia was the one working behind the curtain to keep the illusion going. After her husband’s death in 2012, Delia Snyder took over as owner and continued her role as executive chef.
“Our kitchen sometimes serves 1,000 people and there only seven of us working back there,” she says. “I make the desserts. We make sauces and syrups for the drinks. And I mix most of the drinks because that’s Donn’s secret.”
Beach was notoriously elusive about his cocktails. His biggest fear was that once his trade secrets were released, copycats would quickly tarnish his Polynesian fantasy. He was right.
In the ’70s and ’80s tiki culture waned. With just a few wooden masks, a box of paper leis and a few pieces of bamboo furniture, any place that served Chinese food could technically transform overnight into a tiki hut. This was a serious problem. Instead of associating tiki cocktails with fresh-squeezed juices, the American public grew accustomed to the bastardized version. Tacky drinks, which were artificially sweetened and colored to unnatural maraschino cherry hues, became synonymous with the culture.
“People used to say to Art, ‘You must make a lot of profit because you serve a lot of drinks,’ ” says Snyder. “But it’s not like that. We use fresh juice, the best ingredients; everything is the best. That is what my husband wanted, so we make it that way.”
Vietnamese cinnamon is used for its pungent flavor and aroma. “It’s the best,” Snyder affirms. Durian syrup, used in several Don the Beachcomber cocktails, takes at least six weeks to prepare. The pungent fruit is banned on public transportation in many Southeast Asian cities and has a disturbingly gag-inducing texture and taste that can best be described as rotten melons blended with sour onions. But Snyder swears it’s a key ingredient. “Just a drop or two is enough.”
Any future guardians of Don the Beachcomber must trust their judgment if they want to be successful, says Snyder: “It’s not all in your hands. Some people can juggle all the jiggers, but the syrups we make can be very different depending on the season.”
Since the cocktails require fresh juice, at certain times of the year, it becomes difficult to stay consistent, Snyder says. “We might get a batch of oranges and they can be really sour. Or some limes come in very small. Well, what if the recipe calls for five limes? But they don’t have as much juice as limes we get during the peak of the season. A good cook will be able to recalculate how much to use to get the right taste.”
Since Delia and Art spent so much time together at the restaurant, friends wondered how she could continue after he was gone. “It’s difficult in a sense that I don’t have that kind of support from Art anymore,” she says. “I’ve made the drinks since the beginning. But the day he passed away, I couldn’t come in and make them.”
The space, the smells, the drinks all reminded Snyder of her husband. “What keeps me going now is that I have to have happy thoughts when I go in to make the drinks,” says Snyder, who speaks to Art’s spirit with a private invocation before returning to the kitchen. “I just tell Arthur, ‘I am sad now, but I have to go into the kitchen to make some good,’ ” she says.
The most important thing for Snyder is to keep the experience at Don the Beachcomber consistent.
But the spry 66-year-old knows she can’t keep up the tiki dream forever on her own. She needs a partner at the bar.
“I’m looking for someone with passion.” Snyder lets out a sigh. “This old grandmother needs effort to keep her going.”