Tiki Temples

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These are the houses that Tiki built. Part restaurant, part bar, part nightclub; all aloha spirit. This partial list of Tiki temples represents the Meccas for Tiki geeks, like me, to visit as often as possible. If possible. Some of these places are gone now, torn down or closed up in the name of … progress?

A proper Tiki temple is a place you can go (or could have gone) to escape the real world for a little while. Enjoy a strong, rum-based drink with many layers of flavor. Chow on some Pu-Pu, typically Asian fare with some Polynesian flair. Listen to some cool music, like Exotica, Lounge, Hawaiian, or Surf, preferably performed live. If you’re lucky, catch a performance by a Polynesian dance troupe, including the amazing Samoan Fire Knife dance.

Here are some of the places I’ve been fortunate enough to see for myself, either in-person or through some second-hand tales that inspired me.

 

imageThe Mai-Kai, Fort Lauderdale FL (1956-present). This is the granddaddy of them all, 58 years old and still going strong. The Mai-Kai is the perfect Tiki temple: great drinks, fine food, wonderful atmosphere, and the most authentic Polynesian entertainment outside of the South Pacific. I’ve been there a handful of times now and can’t wait to go back. You don’t have real Tiki cred until you’ve stamped your passport at The Mai-Kai.

 

imageThe Kahiki, Columbus OH (1961-2000). Full disclosure: I’ve never been to The Kahiki. A few years before I started my Tiki journey, this temple was torn down to make way for a Walgreens store. A fucking Walgreens! However, I do feel a connection to this historic place, as I described in one of the many “worlds colliding” segments of my Whenceforth A. Panda’s Tiki Lounge blog post last year (24Nov2013). Jeff Chenault just published a new book, Kahiki Supper Club: A Polynesian Paradise in Columbus, which chronicles the history of how a cold Midwestern town came to host one of the most elaborate Tiki temples ever built. I look forward to checking it out.

 

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Walt Disney World’s Polynesian Village Resort, Orlando FL (1971-present). This is my happy place. My family has vacationed at WDW four times, and we always stay at The Poly. We’re going back for our fifth trip next month! The Polynesian Village Resort takes the Tiki temple to another level: an escape for an extended stay. All of the elements are here, with the addition of authentic Polynesian architecture and amenities. This is a South Pacific paradise conveniently located in Central Florida.

 

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Painkiller, New York NY (2010-13). At the other end of the spectrum, we have this wonderful Tiki bar nestled into an unlikely neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Sadly, PKNY closed their doors when they lost their lease last year, but not before I had the chance to visit. I joined my friends Jack Fetterman and Gina Haase of Primitiva in Hi-Fi for a night of merriment with fantastic Tiki drinks, great music, and surprisingly authentic Polynesian decor. Mahalo, Jack and Gina!

 

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Disneyland’s Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Room, Anaheim CA (2011-present). Disney strikes again, this time in Disneyland with the opening of their own Tiki bar with a Jungle Cruise twist. I wrote all about my visit to Trader Sam’s last year in my blog post Aloha Spirit: Los Angeles (02Jan14). This place has become so popular that Disney plans to open another version of it at…wait for it…The Polynesian Village Resort at WDW. Oh, happy day in my happy place! If only it was open in time for my trip next month. Oh, well.

 

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Three Dots and A Dash, Chicago IL (2013-present). Another great new Tiki temple in an urban setting, this gem opened just over a year ago. Owner Paul McGee has already won awards for his upscale Tiki bar Three Dots and A Dash in downtown Chicago, which looks like a speakeasy from the outside. Inside, down a flight of stairs, you’ll find a sprawling restaurant and bar with meticulously crafted Tiki drinks, great food, and lush Polynesian decor. And the waitresses are pretty cute 😉

 

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The Yachtsman, Philadelphia PA (2014-present). Somewhere between PKNY and Three Dots and A Dash lies the latest urban Tiki bar I’ve visited. The Yachtsman just opened last month in the Fishtown section of Philly, and it has the feel of a cool neighborhood bar. Don’t let that description fool you, though; this place is steeped in Tiki culture. The owners are veterans of the Philly restaurant scene, but they take their Tiki drinks very seriously, with fresh, homemade ingredients and expert craftsmanship. The decor is spot-on Tiki, and they plan to start serving food soon. The Yachtsman has all the makings of a proper Tiki temple, and should become a great one in time. I look forward to my next visit!

So these are the Tiki temples I know or have some experience with. There are many other great places I haven’t been to that are just as wonderful: Don The Beachcomber, Trader Vic’s, The Tiki Ti. I need another trip to California! There are also some brand new places I need to check out, like Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 in New Orleans and Suzanne Long’s Longitude in Oakland. I hope to do that soon, in my continuing Tiki journey. I hope you’ll join me there for a Mai-Tai, some Pu-Pu and a great escape. Mahalo!

Aloha Spirit: The Mai-Kai

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As I mentioned before, I believe karma introduced me to Tiki, and it continues to swim in my bloodstream. I’ve seen many signs in my travels that have confirmed this for me. Here is an example of what I’m talking about.

Fort Lauderdale FL, November 2012. So, 9 years into my Tiki journey, I came to realize that the Mai-Kai Restaurant and Polynesian Show was the Mecca of the Tiki universe. The Mai-Kai is the grandaddy of all Tiki bars/supper clubs in America, opened in 1956 and still going strong. This destination quickly rose to the top of my bucket list. But how to get there?

My original plan was to take a side trip to Fort Lauderdale during one of our Walt Disney World vacations in Orlando. This turned out to be easier said than done, as the 2 cities are not all that close to each other and dragging my wife Jess away from Disney property is like selling an anchor to a drowning man. Add to this the notion that she just wasn’t that into Tiki (yet) and it became apparent to me that this would have to be a solo trip over a long weekend.

A funny thing happened as I started planning my excursion to The Mai-Kai: Jess decided she wanted to come with me! It turns out she really loves to travel to new places, as evidenced by her willingness to accompany me on past business trips to Amelia Island and New Orleans, and although we now have kids at home, we’re lucky enough to have my mother-in-law and sister-in-law living 10 minutes away and willing to watch the kids for a long weekend, so this means Jess can go with me on these kinds of trips, so she came with me to Fort Lauderdale. Which was a good thing.

The focal point of this trip was dinner and the Polynesian show at The Mai-Kai on Saturday night, but since we were going to be there from Friday night until Sunday morning, we needed some other stuff to do. We stayed at a hotel right on the beach, but Jess isn’t much of a beach person and it was unseasonably cold that November weekend in Florida. Fortunately, Jess had planned ahead and scouted out Las Olas, the “Rodeo Drive” of Fort Lauderdale. My ladyfriend knows her shopping! We had a nice afternoon dining and (window) shopping at some pretty tawny joints, driving through some very ritzy neighborhoods, and gawking at some of the biggest yachts we’d ever seen. High-end living.

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Finally it was Saturday night, time to head over to the Mai-Kai. Jess agreed to drive so I could sample as many Tiki drinks as necessary. What a wonderful place! It was nondescript on the outside, right along US1, but inside the fence it was a sprawling Polynesian paradise. We spent a long time wandering through the gardens, where we discovered a whole world of Tiki statues, waterfalls, palm trees, and tropical flowers. Inside, we settled in for happy hour in the nautically-themed Molokai Bar, where the lovely maidens enchanted us with half-priced appetizers and drinks. Best Mai-Tai I’ve ever had! We were then seated for the 6pm dinner show, where the wonderful Polynesian/Asian food and Tiki drinks kept flowing as the singing and dancing began. Now I’ve never been to Hawai’i, and the closest I’d ever gotten to seeing a Polynesian show was at Luau Cove at WDW’s Polynesian Resort, but the show at the Mai-Kai blew me away! It was amazing watching the dancers and musicians take us on a journey through the Polynesian islands, including the mesmerizing Samoan Fire Knife Dance. This show is not to be missed!

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After the dinner show ended, Jess & I returned to the Molokai Bar for one more drink. She then insisted we take another walk through the gardens, and that’s when it hit me: Jess was having as great a time as I was! How did we get from her not even wanting to come on this trip to her being fully engaged in the Tiki spirit? Karma. Or maybe just her wanderlust for travel, who’s to say? In either case, mahalo Jessica Montero – my soulmate, best friend, and favorite travel companion. I love you!

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