Escape To Tiki Tom's
few places are truly magical. Generations of former visitors to Disneyland can attest to the effects of twinkling pixie dust, the smell of the wild Caribbean seas, and the excitement of a parade of lights swirling with all your favorite characters waving. It’s all about appealing to your senses and making a lasting impression, giving you a memory you want to repeat over and over. There is such a magical place, hidden in plain sight among the suburban sprawl of the Downtown Walnut Creek shopping district. You will notice it by the outdoor waterfall emitting steam. Once inside, you will become intoxicated by the sights, scents, sounds, and vintage vibe of this true tiki bar, complete with Hawaiian and nautical artifacts selectively procured by passionate owners, Darrin and Rick Derita. It’s a star among the 18 tiki-themed bars in our Northern California area. Yes, there is a resurgence of the tiki culture happening, but this place is on fire—as are most of the gorgeous, flora-festooned drinks and delicacies.
Darrin and Rick are brothers borne of Detroit Rock blood. Their father was a restaurant owner and recording artist from Motown and raised his children with a love for music that led his boys to stardom. Their band TRAK gained notoriety in 1984 after winning the MTV Basement Tapes contest with a video for their song Dancin’. It was the height of MTVs popularity, and the young band caught the attention of the industry. Throughout the late ’80s to ’90s, the Derita brothers Darrin, Todd, Rick, and Kurt, were managed by Bill Graham.
They toured with Eddie Money and opened for many San Francisco Bay Area bands. Says Darrin, “We didn’t go on to college. Our path was playing rock and roll. As we got older, we started families and our vision changed. We kept playing together as Thicker than Water. We all started working in the construction field. Still, I had always wanted a place for me and my brothers to play our music. I went in as part-owner of 680 Lounge in Danville, eventually opening Spin Ultra Lounge and Gourmet Pizza in Walnut Creek. With a bigger bar came bigger problems. I had daughters, and some of the things that I was seeing inside a nightclub didn’t feel good to me. My brother Rick heard about an opportunity to purchase Tiki Tom’s from its former owner and once I stepped inside, I could see its full potential. I completely envisioned what Tiki Tom’s is today.”
Time was effervescent for the Derita’s. Caught up in raising their families, there never seemed to be a good time to convert the bar into the oasis it is now. They had purchased it with future generations in mind. They would train their children in the hospitality business and eventually they would take over the reins—but their children expressed no interest in operating a “dive bar.” COVID-19 hit and with it came the time they needed to bring the tiki spirit to full fruition. Darrin says, “Rick and I were in here the very day of the lockdown, ripping things apart.
“Once inside, you will become intoxicated by the sights, scents, sounds, and vintage vibe of this true tiki bar, complete with Hawaiian and nautical artifacts selectively procured by passionate owners, Darrin and Rick Derita.”
There is this super-star tiki bar builder I followed, he regularly appeared in Tiki Magazine. His name is Bamboo Ben. I had wanted him to come help me redesign my bar for years, and he was always booked. I called him up after we started the demo job during COVID, and he finally had time for us. We are great friends now; he gave us such a gift here. He incorporated every touch I wanted our revamp to have. His expertise, coupled with my wife Tina’s creative vision, brought Tiki Tom’s to life! She was a big inspiration throughout the remodel. I am so proud of what we have created here, it’s exactly what I always knew it could be.”
The Derita children cut their teeth in delivering stellar service at Ruth’s Chris Steak House. With the Disney Tiki Room feel and vacation scenery and sounds emanating throughout the building, this is a chill, upscale experience for patrons and a fun-filled job for the Derita children. Darrin’s daughter is general manager and Rick’s daughter works the front desk. The Derita brothers trained their team based on the same principles as Disney employees. They create the perfect setting for a night out, an escape replete with exotic drinks and superb foods served with style, and a bit of a fire show!
The history of the tiki bar goes back many generations. A night on the town in the 1930s meant dressing up—pearls and gowns for women and suits for men. The grandeur was elevated with the introduction of themed bars, starting right here in California. Donn Beach, otherwise known as Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, is considered the godfather of the tiki bar culture, having founded Don the Beachcomber bar in 1933. Donn’s grandfather was a bonafide rumrunner, making many trips and telling tales of Polynesia, while bringing back pieces of its culture. He brought his grandfather’s passed-down knowledge of rums with him to his Hollywood establishment, making it and all the rum recipes that spilled forth, legendary. Stars clamored to get in, and its heyday ran well into the ’60s. In Oakland, a bar owner who had visited Don the Beachcomber and bought some of his décor, implemented some of the floats and tikis into his bar Hinky Dinks. If a customer came in, they could trade a Polynesian-themed decorative item and get a free drink. That bar in Oakland became Trader Vic’s and is the home of the original Mai Tai.
“The drinks at Tiki Tom’s are based on the original recipes from Donn the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s, with the very passionate Chris the Bartender pouring his love for rum into each tiki mug.”
Darrin’s interest in the culture has put him in touch with many who embrace it fully. There are tiki bar enthusiasts who have created lavish bars at their homes with Darrin as their guide and inspiration. Darrin is fast to give credit to Alameda’s Forbidden Island for reviving the current resurgence of people hanging loose at a tiki bar. The new tiki bar owners across Northern California have become urban archeologists, seeking related décor, and digging up old drink recipes. Embracing tiki fully entails being completely authentic when reproducing drinks. Tiki Tom’s menu had input from the very same person who helped launch Golden Tiki in Paradise, Nevada.
The drinks at Tiki Tom’s are based on the original recipes from Donn the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s, with the very passionate Chris the Bartender pouring his love for rum into each tiki mug. Rum-soaked sugar cubes within hollowed limes flame atop tiki mugs on nearly every table inside this small piece of paradise. The flickering glow and wooden walls entrap the ambiance just perfectly and bounce the smell of flaming coffee-soaked wings and pineapple between booths. This is the essence of tiki, and it is alive and breathing here.
Next on the menu for these brothers is Tiki Oasis in San Diego where they will meet with tiki enthusiasts the world over. One very important meeting is sure to bring a tsunami of interest to Tiki Tom’s, as Darrin has been in touch with a well-known rocker who is excited to become part of the tiki scene! With links to the rock world still tight, Darrin reached out to Sammy Hagar to invite him to collaborate on a surprise addition to Tiki Tom’s, and they will be discussing it in San Diego. You are going to want to witness the eruption that occurs when the Red Rocker gets in the mix! If things keep in motion at this pace, there will be more Tiki Tom’s to explore throughout our area, or at least that is the goal. Darrin shares, “We didn’t create this special place for the money, we have jobs. This bar is a passion project that we get to share with everyone. Tiki now crosses over so many cultures and groups. It mixes in with the mid-century and vintage, rockabilly, tattoo, and hot rod scenes, but it’s more than a fad. You walk in that door, and the first thing you are going to feel is Wow; the next thing you will feel is welcome.”