Daily Herald

Friday, Feb. 17, 2006 TIME OUT!  


Tiki revival

Posted Friday, February 17, 2006

Looming, Easter Island-style moai heads peer from a wall. Elaborately carved Polynesian statues stand amid silk greenery, lava rock and replicas of palm trees. Hula dancers gyrate on a small stage.

In Prospect Heights, of all places.

The Tiki Terrace opened in November at 1 S. Wolf Road, the latest entry in the on-going tiki revival.

Strictly speaking, a tiki is a Polynesian idol. The motif, common in pseudo-South Seas style, ultimately came to stand for a whole wave of pop culture. Scores of Web sites, at least two ’zines and a dozen or so books now proclaim the phenomenon’s 21st-century resurrection.

Cookie Sacharski, who with her brother, Stanley, owns the astonishing Hala Kahiki, a classic tiki bar in River Grove that opened in 1965, said she’s seen an upswing in business in recent years.

“People come from all over, all ages — it’s a real good variety.”

“It’s one of the best ones anywhere in the world,” said James Teitelbaum about the bar. Teitelbaum, the Chicago-based author of “Tiki Road Trip” (Santa Monica Press, 2003, $16.95), a guide to tiki bars, has helped lead the surge.

“People actually come to Chicago just to go there. The place is unique. There’s nothing else like it.”

On a recent Saturday night, customers waited an hour for tables in the smoke-filled bar, chockablock with bamboo wall coverings, rattan furnishings, blowfish light fixtures, hanging sea-shell mobiles, parrot figurines, tiki statues and more, most of it dating back to the ’60s.

The tiki resurgence attracts all types.

“That’s what I really like about it. It’s so multi-faceted,” said David “Duke” Carter, author of “Tiki Quest: Collecting the Exotic Past” (Pegboard Press, 2003, $34.99), a guide to tiki collectibles. Carter, 39, and his wife, Amy, had their first date at Hala Kahiki and married at the legendary Kona Kai near O’Hare.

The couple maintain a bamboo-and-rattan-clad room in their Chicago home, crammed with hundreds of decorative tiki mugs, figures and memorabilia.

“The aesthetics — that’s what I love,” he says.

“There are some people who really get into the tropical drinks. They set up whole chemical labs. There’s fashion — people collect vintage aloha shirts and muumuus.”

Scott Zuziak of Hanover Park, co-owner of The Tiki Terrace, continued the list: “Hawaii lovers ... people who love the hula ... then there are the people into Polynesian pop and the tiki bar scene of the 1950s and ’60s.”

“The music got us into the tiki scene,” said George Klingelhofer of Grayslake. Klingelhofer, 44, is lead singer and plays electric ukulele for the Windy City Islanders, the Chicago area’s only professional ukulele band. Together with Chris Carlson of Mount Prospect, Craig Stenseth of Naperville and Eric “Baron” Behrenfeld of Chicago, Klingelhofer performs such numbers as “Menehune Beach Bum Boogie” and his original “Paradise is Only Lake Shore Drive Away” at local clubs, venues like The Tiki Terrace and for private parties. The Islanders recently released their first CD, “Hang Loose.”

Klingelhofer said his band reaches beyond ukulele cliches. “When you think of Hawaiian music, you think of Don Ho, and when you think of the ukulele, you think of Tiny Tim.

“We like to play more contemporary, upbeat Hawaiian stuff. It’s really happy music.”

“What attracts me and my friends,” said Andy Pierce, “we like anything with a good theme.” Pierce, 34, a Chicago enthusiast, takes Teitelbaum’s book along whenever he travels in order to seek out tiki bars. “I like to be immersed in it.”

“I’m more into the pure Hawaiian culture,” said Zuziak, 31, who sports a tattooed tropical scene down his right arm. “I love the Hawaiian stuff.

“My brothers and I, we’ve been involved in Hawaiian entertainment for a while,” Zuziak said. He and his younger brothers, Scott and James, have performed and competed with The Barefoot Hawaiian, a dance troupe and school based in Des Plaines. “We started dancing in 1999. We performed in competitions. We started getting more and more involved. Then we started doing (Hawaiian) props.”

The prop business led to the opening of The Tiki Terrace.

“We made the majority of (the decor) ourselves,” Zuziak said. “We started even before we found a place.”

The family operation employs the brothers as bartenders and sister Kelly Tyree as chef. “We’re very into the theme. We even get up and dance,” Zuziak said. “This has been our dream for years.”

The founders of Hala Kahiki, the late Rose and Stanley Sacharski, didn’t intend to start a tiki bar.

“They just covered the walls with bamboo, because that was the cheapest thing to do,” said their daughter Cookie.

“Then everybody said, ‘Oh, it’s going to be a tropical theme,’ and they decided to carry it out.

“I was 16 when they bought this place. I’ve never been to Hawaii; none of us here have.”

“It wasn’t about authenticity, it was about escapism,” said Teitelbaum.

“Very few people in the ’40s or ’50s could afford to go to Tahiti, to the islands,” said Hans Richter, president and chief operating officer of Trader Vic’s, who has worked for the chain since 1969. “The idea was to bring the islands to the mainland. Maybe not exactly. It’s an escape. It’s a mini vacation.”

In their revival, said Zuziak, “we did want to create a foreign feeling — like you’re transported to another place.” However unlike historic tiki spots such as Trader Vic’s and Hala Kahiki, which shunned windows as interfering with the fantasy getaway, The Tiki Terrace has a large glass front that lets you see the snow on Wolf Road while you sip your Singapore sling. The Zuziaks also eschew non-Hawaiian kitsch.

“You won’t see any leopard skins here,” Zuziak said.

But in the ’50s, nobody cared. The made-up drinks were potent and the kitschy atmosphere was heady. Food was optional. While the high-end Trader Vic’s had a reputation for its cuisine, Hala Kahiki, Chicagoland’s oldest surviving tiki bar, never served more than tropical drinks and salty pretzels. In its early years, it didn’t even offer beer or wine.

Tiki roots run deep

Every city had its share of Polynesian-influenced restaurants, many of them, like Chicago’s Trader Vic’s, in hotels. “‘Trader’ (Victor Bergeron, found of Trader Vic’s) was a friend of Conrad Hilton’s,” said Richter, “and had a relationship with Westin.”

The Marriott chain had its Kona Kai, and Sheraton had Kon Tiki Ports. Chicago boasted branches of both, plus The Tropics at the Hotel Chicagoan, 47 W. Madison St., and Polynesian Village in the Edgewater Beach Hotel, 5349 N. Sheridan Road. These were in addition to scores of other islander restaurants and bars, such as an outpost of Don the Beachcomber, 101 E. Walton Place; South Pacific Restaurant, 28 W. Randolph St.; Shangri-La, 222 N. State St.; Honolulu Harry’s Waikiki, 4541 N. Broadway; Ciral’s House of Tiki, 1612 E. 53rd St.; the South Seas in Lincolnwood; and Hala Kahiki.

By the late 1970s, the Polynesian craze had waned. The 1980s and ’90s saw many closures. Trader Vic’s Seattle, San Francisco, Washington and Portland outposts shut, leaving only four restaurants in the U.S. at the turn of the 21st century. The Marriott O’Hare shut down Kona Kai in 1998.

“So many clubs have come and gone,” said veteran entertainer Gwen Kennedy, owner of The Barefoot Hawaiian, who performed in many of the vanished places, doing the hula on stage at Honolulu Harry’s beginning at age 3.

Hala Kahiki still survives, Sacharski said, because it weathered the rough times as a family business.

But the tide has turned again. Tiki is coming back, perhaps not at the 1950s’ level, but interest continues to rise.

“I keep saying, well, it’s peaked now, and it keeps getting bigger,” said Teitelbaum.

New tiki bars have been opening across the country. The tiki index Web site www.konakai.com lists hundreds of links to restaurants, bars, shops and fan sites. Kennedy says more people are signing up with her to learn the hula.

Even Kona Kai has a new life as a banquet hall. Andrew Weiner, director of sales and marketing for the Marriott Chicago O’Hare, 8535 W. Higgins Road, said the hotel has no plans to reopen it as a restaurant but rents it out regularly for private parties. “We certainly get a lot of mileage out of it,” Weiner said. “Holiday parties love it. Reunions love it.”

Richter attributes part of the new interest in Polynesian escapism to the 2001 terrorist attacks.

“I believe that 9/11 had a big influence on all the restaurants,” he said. “People want to go out, have a good time.”

Trader Vic’s closing

Trader Vic’s is making a comeback. Despite the closure of the venerable Chicago branch at the end of last year, a decision of the Palmer House’s new owners, the chain has opened three new U.S. restaurants since 2001, and plans three more this year. And in partnership with Harry Caray’s, Richter expects to re-open in Chicago as soon as a new location can be found and readied.

All the tiki statues and other decorative items from the Palmer House site await their new Chicago home, safeguarded in a company warehouse.

“It was one of the most beautiful Trader Vic’s ever,” Richter said.

Meanwhile, Trader Vic’s experts have taught bartenders at all three Harry Caray’s, including one at 10233 W. Higgins Road, Rosemont, how to make the signature mai tai, and you can get it there in a commemorative glass during the interim.

The owners expect the new location to be as popular as ever.

“It’s got a strong, strong following of fans,” said Grant DePorter, president of Harry Caray’s Restaurant Group.

“It’s multi-generational. It’s passed the test of time.”

Where to escape to the tropics

Posted Friday, February 17, 2006

The perfect tiki bar provides a place to get away from it all, said tiki connoisseur and author James Teitelbaum.

“A relaxed atmosphere — it’s not a frat-boy environment,” he said.

It also requires Polynesian decor, including tiki statues.

“A couple of palm trees isn’t enough.”

If you’re looking for a little winter escape, here’s our guide to local tropical spots.

The Canoe Club, 15200 S. 94th Ave., Orland Park, (708) 460-9611, www.thecanoeclubrestaurant.com

Although light on tiki statuary, this massive south suburban seafood house nevertheless attracts Polynesian-pop fans with its shark tank, grove of 35-foot-tall palm trees and menu of tropical cocktails.

Chef Shangri-La, 7930 W. 26th St., North Riverside, (708) 442-7080

Cantonese restaurant started in 1976 by Paul Fong, one-time chef of the erstwhile State Street tiki destination Shangri-La. The full-fledged fantasy decor includes a fountain, koi fish pond, bamboo ceiling and rattan-caged booths. It serves appetizers like shrimp toast, egg rolls and teriyaki kebabs on a tiny grill.

Hala Kahiki, 2834 River Road, River Grove, (708) 456-3222, www.hala-kahiki.com

The Chicago area’s oldest extant Polynesian-style bar, “The House of Pineapple” remains a mecca for tiki fans from all over the country. On weekends, eager customers may wait an hour for a table in this elaborately decorated, smoke-filled bar, which opened in 1965.

The menu offers more than 100 different tropical cocktails — but no food. An attached gift shop offers everything from silk leis, Hawaiian shirts and muumuus to Hawaiian-style curry mixes, tiki mugs and Don Ho videos.

Malahini Terrace, 321 W. 75th St., Willowbrook, (630) 325-0520

Another Chinese restaurant with faux-Polynesian decor, including a tiki cactus garden.

Tiki Lounge at the Bamboo Room, 616 E. Golf Road, Schaumburg, (847) 592-5959, www.bamboochicago.com

On the balcony of a big Northwest suburban nightclub, this tiny neo-tiki hideaway serves costly tropical drinks under glowing blowfish, amid hula-girl lamps and vintage South Seas memorabilia.

The Tiki Terrace, 1 S. Wolf Road, Prospect Heights, (847) 795-TIKI, www.thetikiterrace.com

Opened in November, this newest edition to the local tiki scene offers an intimate escape amid lush faux greenery and elaborate statuary, mainly created by the owners.

The full kitchen serves Hawaiian-inspired lunches, dinners and bar snacks, and a full bar turns out 30 types of tropical drinks. Friday nights offer live music; open mics and other events take place on some weeknights.

You’ll need a reservation for the Saturday night Polynesian dance shows and monthly Sunday hula brunches.

Upcoming events include an Elvis tribute with Chicago’s Michael St. Angel on Feb. 24 and a concert by Hawaiian contemporary ukulele artist Jake Shimabukuro on March 12.

Tong’s Tiki Hut, The Courtyard, 100 E. Roosevelt Road #18, Villa Park, (630) 834-7464

A time-warped Chinese eatery with a menu of retro Cantonese-American delights and classic tropical cocktails amid a fantasy island decor of thatched-hut booths, tall tiki statues, bent rattan chairs and a leopard-skin bar.

The “bo-bo” platter comes with a flaming grill for toasting your appetizers, and drinks are served in ceramic pineapples and tiki forms.

— Leah A. Zeldes

Tiki time

Posted Friday, February 17, 2006

Like an island drink festooned with a paper umbrella, the once-ubiquitous tiki mystique grew out of a blend of different events and trends.

Here’s the recipe:

• Don the Beachcomber, a Polynesian-themed bar and restaurant, opened in 1934 in Hollywood. Three years later, Victor Bergeron took off with the concept and transformed his Oakland, Calif., bar, Hinky Dinks, into the first Trader Vic’s. He invented the now-classic rum cocktail, the mai tai, there in 1944, and served adaptations of South Seas food and appealing fakes such as crab Rangoon.

• World War II broke out and America’s fascination with all things tropical grew. The bombing of Pearl Harbor turned the nation’s eyes to Hawaii, and returning servicemen brought home stories of the Pacific islands.

• James Michener won the Pulitzer Prize for “Tales of the South Pacific” in 1948; the story inspired the 1949 hit musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein.

• Bergeron opened a second Trader Vic’s in Beverly Hills in 1955 and a third in the basement of Chicago’s Palmer House hotel in 1957. The chain ultimately grew to more than 30 eateries around the world.

• Hawaii became the 50th U.S. state in 1959.

• Elvis Presley filmed “Blue Hawaii” in 1961.

• The tiki mystique picked up steam as corner bars were decked out in bamboo, tikis and flaming torches and set awash with rum and pineapple juice. The fad spread to bowling alleys, miniature golf courses, beauty parlors and home decor.

• Don Ho hit the pop charts with “Tiny Bubbles” in 1966.

• The TV series “Hawaii Five-O” launched in 1968.

— Leah A. Zeldes