Before there were Polynesian restaurants, there were Polynesian bars.
America had its first Hawaiian craze in the 1920s, when hula skirts and ukulele music were the cat's meow. Prohibition was in force, and some speak-easies provided faux Hawaiian decor using bamboo, palm fronds and seashells. After liquor was legalized in 1933, "Island bars" with names like the Hotsy Totsy Club popped up around the country.
Los Angeles was particularly fertile ground for them. At the time, most Angelenos were immigrants from somewhere else, so the city had little of the sort of shared traditions and conventions that governed how things were done elsewhere. Into this gap stepped Hollywood, because another thing L.A. always had plenty of was out-of-work set designers. The "theme restaurant," designed to look like a romantic environment out of a movie, was born in L.A. during the '20s.
In the '30s, there might have been a dozen Hawaiian-themed places around town, some of them very elaborately done. Hawaiian Paradise had parrots, a dance floor surrounded by a tropical fish pond and a bandstand with two waterfalls. Several of these places featured periodic "rainstorms" on a tin roof to give the appropriate tropical feel.
Most of them served some kind of food, and there was a sense that it should suit the theme (though not necessarily--The Tropics served steaks and chops, and Clifton's Pacific Seas was an ordinary cafeteria, apart from the decor). The Zamboanga South Sea Cafe and Nite Club offered American dishes such as corned beef, but you could get pineapple ribs there.
Eventually the characteristic choice was Cantonese cuisine, which was roughly appropriate and certainly easy for a West Coast restaurateur to provide. It was familiar to diners by then, because Americans had started seeking out little ethnic "hole in the wall" restaurants during the '20s.
A few of these early restaurants lasted till the '50s. But by the end of the '30s, the Polynesian scene was already dominated by two towering figures, Hollywood-based Ernest Beaumont-Gantt and Oakland-based Victor Bergeron.
Why these two? One reason was that they were so good at it. They were both obsessed with creating flamboyant cocktails based on their favorite liquor, rum. Some of the cocktails they invented are still alive, notably the Zombie and the Mai Tai.
More important, they were creating something new--not just an exotic bar or restaurant, like their rivals, but a seductive vision of the good life. Look at L.A.'s other Polynesian places of the '30s: the Tropics, Ken's Hula Hut, Marti's Club Hawaii, the Seven Seas, Hawaiian Paradise, Zamboanga; essentially, they were all named after places. Beaumont-Gantt and Bergeron named their restaurants after themselves. Or rather, after the fantasy identities they had created.
Don the Beachcomber was Beaumont-Gantt's vision of himself as a mellow, dropped-out aesthete, a sort of Gauguin who'd moved to Tahiti permanently without bothering to bring along any paints or canvases. In 1934, when he opened his original Don the Beachcomber bar in Hollywood (it started serving Chinese food in 1937), he'd never been to the South Pacific, so he was probably under the spell of Don Blanding, a writer popular in the '20s for his poems about Hawaii. Certainly Beaumont-Gantt didn't name his restaurant Ernest the Beachcomber.
Beaumont-Gantt loved this tropical identity so much that he legally changed his name to Donn Beach. The beachcomber image on his menu was originally Beaumont-Gantt himself, down to the widow's peak and little mustache.
In 1937, Bergeron added Polynesian decor and Chinese food to his Oakland bar, Hinky Dinks, and renamed it Trader Vic's. His own new persona was a roguish South Seas wheeler-dealer--early menus offered to trade drinks for ship's stores, Tahitian curios, tapa cloth or shrunken heads. The Trader was a gruff, swaggering Ernest Hemingway type, a hearty partyer endlessly at war with stuffiness and pretense.
Beneath the bluster, Bergeron was also a serious foodie who knew something about the world's cuisines (though contemptuous of the fussy parts, of course). His menus never quite settled into a formula--he was always searching out novel ingredients like green peppercorns and kiwi fruit--and this may be why some Trader Vic's restaurants survive to this day.
During World War II, Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic's were popular with servicemen heading for, or returning from, the South Pacific. After the war, of course, they came home full of warm memories of Polynesia--and of the Polynesian theme restaurants and bars they'd encountered.
One of L.A.'s first postwar Polynesian joints was Kelbo's, which opened in 1947 as a takeout stand named for its owners, Tom Kelly and Jack Bouck. It ended up a huge, ramshackle place crammed with tropical tchotchkes. For a while, it had five franchises. The original West Los Angeles location finally turned into a strip bar in the '90s.