By John Greenfield
You might say that Mai Tais run in my blood. When I was a kid in the 1970s, my family used to hang out at a tiki hotel called the Hawaiian Isle, owned by my dad’s cousin Leo Frank. It was located at 17601 Collins Avenue in the Sunny Isles section of North Miami Beach. Don’t look for it; it’s not there anymore.
Images of Polynesian deities were plentiful at the inn, including a twelve-foot-tall, backlit mask by the front door, with eyes that alternately glowed green and pink. A talking parrot greeted guests in the lobby, and there was a floorshow featuring hula and other South Seas dance forms. The place was frequented by everyone from French-Canadian snowbirds to Jewish Mafia figures.
Those early days at the Hawaiian Isle must be a factor in why tiki culture resonates with me so much nowadays. Along with strolling through the steamy Garfield Park Conservatory and soaking in the hot tubs of King Spa in Niles, visiting faux-Polynesian lounges and restaurants is one of my favorite ways to take a brief vacation from the grim realities of a Chicago winter.
What exactly is tiki, you ask? It’s a playful interpretation of Pacific Island culture, borrowing imagery from Hawaii, Tahiti, New Zealand and Easter Island. A faux-Polynesian venue’s décor should feature carved idols and replicas of moai, Easter Island statues, as well as “beachcomber” ephemera like glass floats, fishing nets, plastic starfish and puffer fish lamps.
Music in tiki bars and restaurants should be traditional Polynesian, Hawaiian hapa haole (“half Caucasian”) songs—old-timey pop music with island themes sung in English featuring ukulele and lap steel, or else postwar “exotica” tunes by composers like Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman. The staff should be dressed in Hawaiian shirts, muumuus, sarongs and the like, and there should be a welcoming spirit of aloha—peace, affection and happiness.
The restaurant Don the Beachcomber, opened in Hollywood in 1937 by New Orleans native Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, who renamed himself Donn Beach, is generally considered to be the first tiki venue. It featured palm trees and paintings of beautiful Polynesian women, as well as beachcomber décor. Not long afterwards, Victor Jules Bergeron, Jr. renamed his Hinky Dink’s bar in Oakland Trader Vic’s, adding tiki idols, masks and spears to Beach’s concept. A friendly competition ensued.
The two men were talented mixologists. Beach invented classic drinks like the Zombie and the Missionary’s Downfall. Trader Vic created the Mai Tai—the archetypal tiki cocktail, composed of dark and light rums, orange curaçao, Orgeat almond syrup and lime juice. Both empires eventually expanded into dozens of other cities in the U.S. and, in Trader Vic’s case, around the world.
The tiki craze went into overdrive after World War II, when GIs returning from the South Pacific grew nostalgic for the sights and sounds of the islands. The aesthetic went on to influence many areas of American design and pop culture, including everything from hotels like the Hawaiian Isle to miniature golf courses and laundromats. However, by the late seventies, the fad had run its course, and many classic venues fell victim to changing tastes and the wrecking ball.
Fortunately, eight longtime Chicago-area tiki venues have survived. In 2013, Polynesian pop-culture fans rejoiced when ex-Whistler mixologist Paul McGee joined forces with the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant group to open Three Dots and a Dash, a sleek, clubby tiki bar in River North (435 North Clark, 312-610-4220, ThreeDotsChicago.com). Recently, McGee jumped ship to collaborate with Bay Area tiki kingpin Martin Cate on a new, more intimate tropical bar called Lost Lake, which opened in January in Avondale (3154 West Diversey, 773-293-6048, LostLakeTiki.com).
To celebrate Chicago’s recent tiki revival, and to try to shake myself out of the mid-winter doldrums, I resolved to visit eight different bars and restaurants over the course of a week via train and bicycle only. The two that I didn’t make it to are Malahini Terrace, a tiki-Chinese eatery in southwest suburban Willowbrook (321 West 75th Street, 630-325-0520, MalahiniRestaurant.com) and The Breakers, a similar establishment in far-northwest Crystal Lake (7728 U.S. Highway 14, 815-459-9860, BreakersTikiBar.com).
Before setting sail, I checked in with my personal tiki guru, local author James Teitelbaum. He wrote the Polynesian pop culture bible “Tiki Road Trip” (2003 and 2007 Santa Monica Press), an encyclopedic guide to island-themed establishments in North America and beyond.
Teitelbaum feels the escapist fantasy that faux-Polynesian venues offer is sorely needed in Chicago. “Tiki is not from Polynesia but from California, the land of make-believe that gave us Hollywood and Disney,” he explains. “The Midwest needs tiki more than California. They’ve got the Pacific Ocean, mountains and beaches. We’re surrounded by cornfields, and we’ve got crappy weather most of the year.”
To Teitelbaum, a good tiki bar is a place where people from various walks of life can come together for relief from the stresses of modern life. “The best tiki venues aren’t high-energy party bars,” he says. “I like the mid-century concept of the ‘lounge,’ a bar where you can relax with friends in a soothing environment.” To that effect, he says loud music and televisions are anathema to the tiki experience.
One thing Teitelbaum likes to see in a faux-Polynesian venue is a high “TiPSY Factor,” an acronym for “Tikis Per Square Yard.” “It’s a term I came up with after a few too many Zombies,” he says. “When it comes to tiki bars, more is more. The more faux-Polynesian and nautical artifacts you can cram in there, the better.” With those words of wisdom, I began my experiment to see how the human mind, body and spirit would be affected by seven straight days of tiki hedonism.
Saturday: Chef Shangri-La
On a chilly night in early February, I roll my three-speed aboard a CTA Blue Line train and ride west to the end of the line in Forest Park, then pedal a couple of miles south to Chef Shangri-La in North Riverside (7930 West 26th, 708-442-7080, ChefShangriLa.com). This Chinese restaurant with an attached tiki bar was established in 1976 by Chef Paul Fong, a veteran of the local branch of Don the Beachcomber, and his wife Suzie, nicknamed “The Fierce Hawaiian Tiger.”
Unfortunately, I arrive just as Elvis impersonator Rick Saucedo is finishing his set. Other weekend entertainment includes Polynesian dance by Aloha Chicago Entertainment, plus exotica, surf and rockabilly bands. The dining room is packed with suburban Baby Boomers as well as a few younger tiki revivalists, identifiable by their aloha shirts, horned-rim glasses and porkpie hats.
There’s a good-sized koi pond in a corner of the room, presided over by a large Easter Island head, grass mats on the walls, plenty of bamboo, and numerous lamps made by the venerable tiki décor workshop Orchids of Hawaii. The adjacent lounge features a round bar with a thatched roof and a fish tank with a snapping turtle.
I sit down and order a very tasty Mai Tai, which arrives in a hula dancer mug, and some wide, toothsome chow fun noodles with beef, chicken and barbecued pork. My fortune cookie slip says, “You will be showered with good luck.” In keeping with the old joke, I mentally add the suffix, “in bed.”
Sunday: Lost Lake
As I pedal over to Lost Lake the next evening, the streets are glazed with a treacherous layer of sleet. That may be why there’s no wait to get in the lounge, although I’ve heard the line often goes around the corner. Kevin Monahan, a friend of mine from the bike scene, is waiting for me at the bar. The room is comfortably full of attractive young hipsters.
Strictly speaking, the bar has a low TiPSY factor—there are few idols, save for the tiki mugs themselves. However, there’s plenty to look at, including a chandelier made of puffer fish and a fish tank filled with skulls and live piranhas. Mellow 1920s jazz is playing on the sound system. The only thing that diminishes from the vibe is harsh white light filtering in from Thank You, the attached Chinese takeout place.
Paul McGee, a pleasant, soft-spoken fellow, is there looking dapper as always in a wrinkle-free, tucked-in aloha shirt, but his beard is impressively unruly. One of his lieutenants fixes me the bar’s eponymous drink, a concoction of rum, Maraschino liqueur and Campari with passion fruit, pineapple and lime juice. This being a McGee tiki bar, all of the libations are beautifully garnished with accoutrements like edible flowers and swirls of citrus zest.
I leave the lounge in a much better mood than when I came in. Back home in my kitchen, I dig into some scrumptious Mongolian beef and petite, spicy chicken wings from Thank You. My fortune reads, “I was a subliminal advertising executive, but only for a second.” “In bed,” I add.
Monday: New China Tea
Monday’s mission takes me to Chicago’s Southwest Side and the largely Mexican American and Polish-American West Elsdon community, where Playboy Playmate and noted anti-vaxxer Jenny McCarthy grew up. I ride the Orange Line toward Midway Airport with my bike, get off at Pulaski, and pedal a few blocks to New China Tea (4020 West 55th, 773-284-2268, NewChinaTea.com), a hole-in-the-wall eatery with a few tiki vestiges.
The centerpiece of the room is a long, rectangular fish tank, topped with a pagoda. There’s a small bar with a bamboo roof. Some of the light fixtures are decorated with seahorses; others feature tiki faces wearing Chinese straw hats. A single tiki mask hangs on the garish red wall of the bar room. There’s no music, but a sitcom blares on a television.
I order a Fog Cutter, which arrives in a mug shaped like a stalk of bamboo, with a paper umbrella. For sustenance, I get the Oriental Plate, featuring fried shrimp, barbecued pork, spare ribs and teriyaki beef skewers, plus a bowl of fried rice. It’s basically an excuse to have a pupu platter—the quintessential tiki appetizer—for dinner. My fortune reads, “You should be able to make money and hold onto it [in bed].”
Tuesday: Tong’s Tiki Hut
By this point, I’m not only wondering if my liver will be able to tolerate a week’s worth of rum drinks, but also whether my arteries can withstand the onslaught of red-glazed char siu pork. However I’ve got one more Chinese eatery to hit up, Tong’s Tiki Hut in west suburban Villa Park (100 E. Roosevelt, 630-834-7464, TongsTikiHutVillaPark.com.) I haul my cycle on Metra’s Union Pacific-West line and ride to the Villa Park stop, and then pedal two-and-a-half miles south to the restaurant, tucked away in a strip mall.
Inside, the TiPSY factor is quite high. Fishing nets—filled with plastic starfish and lobsters—and fake seagulls hang from the ceiling. There are a few large carved tikis, several smaller ones, and a number of Balinese masks. A painted mural of palm trees and volcanoes, and a photo mural of a beach scene, create the illusion that you’re taking a tropical vacation, and the bar is covered with leopard print. Hawaiian music plays softly in the background.
I get a Scorpion to drink and a bowl of yaka mein as an appetizer. This satisfying soup, featuring roast pork, noodles, hard-boiled egg and green onion, is especially popular in New Orleans, where it’s known as “Old Sober” and used as a hangover cure. A respectable Szechuan shrimp entrée rounds out my meal. My fortune cookie flatters me: “You are a thoughtful and sensitive person [in bed].”
Manager Yvonne Russo comes over to my table and volunteers some family history. In the early 1960s, her mother Kay Stark—the restaurant’s co-owner—was a Taiwanese girl working in the commissary of an American military base on the island. Russo’s late father was stationed on an aircraft carrier that refueled there. “Mom said that Dad was the only American who took showers and didn’t drink,” she told me. Her mother was eighteen and her dad was thirty-six when they met—both lied about their ages until shortly before their wedding. They remained married until his death, forty-one years later.
Wednesday: Three Dots and a Dash
I get a break from long-distance travel this evening, since Three Dots is located smack dab in the middle of River North. However, the bar is not easy to find, as the entrance is in an alley, east of Clark and north of Hubbard. As I descend a staircase to the basement space, I’m greeted by a wall of skulls, bathed in an eerie blue glow.
Even on an off night, the place is packed with revelers, mostly well-dressed young professionals. I seem to be the only non-employee wearing an aloha shirt. Rather than nostalgic Pacific Island-style music, the DJ is playing modern reggae and funk, which seems to be at odds with creating a vintage tiki feel, but perhaps that’s not the goal here.
As at Lost Lake, the drinks are unimpeachable. I get a Port Light, based on a recipe that was created in 1961 at Columbus’ Kahiki. It features bourbon plus pomegranate, passion fruit and lemon juices, and it arrives in a tall glass, garnished with an orchid, an orange peel rose and an octopus-shaped swizzle stick. A nearby table is sharing a zombie punch, served in a crystal skull with half a dozen extra-long straws. Although McGee no longer works here, his tikified face remains on the menu, mugs and swizzles.
On my way home, I consider stopping at Aloha Eats (2434 North Clark, 773-935-6828, AlohaEats.com) for an authentic Hawaiian plate lunch. However, I fear that the combination of tiki drinks and macaroni salad might stir up memories of a charming Tokyo resident I once dated, and the time we rendezvoused in Honolulu. I met her while researching the Tokyo bike scene for an article, and we carried on an absurdly long-distance relationship for several months afterwards.
After I flew in from Chicago and showed up at the hotel in Waikiki, the desk clerk said, “Ah yes, Miss Nakamura [name changed] has already arrived.” I felt like James Bond. Among the highlights of the trip was the evening we spent on the lanai (terrace) of The House Without a Key, an elegant establishment that feels like a throwback to the 1940s. We soaked in the view of Diamondhead to our left and the sun sinking into the Pacific to our right, while sipping absolutely perfect Mai Tais. Alas, like Nelson Algren and Simone De Beauvoir, we ultimately could not sustain the trans-oceanic love affair.
Thursday: Hala Kahiki and Paradise Club
The temperature dips into the single digits on the night I’ve chosen to bike out to Hala Kahiki in River Grove (2834 River Road, 847-456-3222, HalaKahikiLounge.com.) This multi-room bar and gift shop, opened in 1966 by Stanley and Rosa Sacharski and named after the Hawaiian word for pineapple, is the granddaddy of the Chicago tiki scene.
Bundled up in multiple layers and big mittens, I ride from Logan Square with my friends Kevin Womac and Gareth Newfield. Gareth grew up in Honolulu, and his father once bought and lived on the Beachcomber, a Hong Kong-built junk formerly owned by tiki godfather Donn Beach himself.
When we step inside Hala Kahiki, it feels like we’ve gone back in time. The TiPSY factor is off the charts, with tons of idols, masks, spears and musical instruments on the grass mat walls. Especially cool is a large fountain in the back room, which also has a carved outrigger canoe hanging from the ceiling. There’s also a big Easter Island statue on the outdoor patio.
Soft lighting and tranquil island music creates a romantic mood, and I feel serene as I sip my Blue Hawaiian, which looks like Windex, but tastes far better. However, someone soon plays a potty-mouthed rap song on the jukebox, which kills the vibe. We retreat to the gift shop, where an enthusiastic saleslady named Maria sells Gareth a shirt with Pearl Harbor-era American warplanes on it, and I buy a tiki mug shaped like a parrot.
On our way back east, we stop at Paradise Club (7068 West Belmont, 773-794-9081), an odd Polish-Polynesian hybrid. Founded sometime in the fifties as an island-themed bar called Gene Kamp’s Island Home, it eventually became Gracie Dee’s Sneaky Tiki. It was purchased about twenty years ago by the current owner, a Warsaw native.
The tropicalia has been toned down in recent years—behind the bar, there’s a Patrick Nagel print of a spiky-haired blonde who bears a striking resemblance to the proprietress. However, there are still some tiki vestiges, including tanks of tropical fish, a photo of Diamondhead, and a day-glo fountain. Although most patrons prefer Zywiec or Okocim beer to Navy Grog, you can still get a mean Banana Spider here. If you’re curious about this unique watering hole, be sure to visit ASAP, since the owner is trying to sell the business.
Friday: The Tiki Terrace
There’s no better place to end my journey with a bang than at The Tiki Terrace, an over-the-top Polynesian dinner theater in northwest suburban Des Plaines (1591 Lee Street, 847-795-8454, thetikiterrace.com). The place was opened in 2005 by the Zuziak brothers, champion fire knife dancers who also ran a business making Island-themed props and set pieces. Not surprisingly, the venue is chock full of carved tikis and fiberglass Easter Island statues.
I put my bike on the O’Hare branch of the Blue Line, get off at Rosemont, and then pedal four miles northwest to the venue, hidden in a shopping center. There I meet up with Newcity dining and drinking editor David Hammond, his wife, and a friend of theirs for dinner and libations. The food is Hawaiian-style, with entrees like kalua pork, poke marinated tuna, and loco moco—a hamburger on a bed of rice, topped with fried eggs and brown gravy. I order a Suffering Bastard, an appropriately bitter beverage served in a Fu Manchu mug.
After dinner, the emcee blows a conch to start the show. On a stage flanked with giant moai, performers from the troupe Barefoot Hawaiian execute a number of impressive dances from the archipelago, Tahiti and New Zealand, with numerous costume changes and audience participation. A skinny guy with multiple tattoos accepts the challenge to take his shirt off and perform a haka, a Maori war dance that involves stamping your feet, slapping your chest, rolling your eyes and sticking out your tongue in order to scare your enemies. There’s even a cameo from a jump-suited Elvis impersonator, who croons the “Hawaiian Wedding Song” while couples slow dance.
After I bid farewell to David and company, I roll off into the dark and reflect on the bittersweet end of my tiki odyssey. On the one hand, I’m glad that I no longer have to schlep all over greater Chicago in brutal weather in search of Mai Tais and flaming pupus. But the pleasing sights, sounds and flavors of the many faux Polynesian establishments I’ve visited have certainly raised my spirits and made a week of winter go by quickly. As I relax aboard a warm Blue Line car once more, a feeling of aloha washes over me.
See also David Hammond’s review of Lost Lake: House of Tiki: Lost Lake is Still Finding Itself, but Thank You is Welcome