Destinations

Chicago's Ever-Thriving Tiki Scene

While the tiki scene has dwindled in some places, the Windy City's tiki culture continues to evolve and expand.
Chicago's Hala Kahiki celebrates its 53rd year this October. Photo courtesy of facebook.com/thehalakahiki
Chicago's Hala Kahiki celebrates its 53rd year this October. Photo courtesy of facebook.com/thehalakahiki

The line at the bar on a recent Friday night at Three Dots and a Dash is three and four people deep. Unless you have a dinner reservation, the only way you’re going to be drinking the bar’s elaborate rum is standing, and that's standing crunched up against dozens of other people.

The scene replays itself across town at Lost Lake, and it can be similarly hard to get a table or seat at the bar at Hala Kahiki, but Hala Kahiki boasts more square footage and a tiki torch-lined patio space.

While the tiki scene has dwindled in many places, Chicago’s tiki culture continues to thrive. In fact, while several of the original tiki bars closed (Trader Vic’s, Ciral’s House of Tiki, even a Don the Beachcomber), Hala Kahiki, is celebrating its 53rd year this October, and there are more than half a dozen bars or restaurants which can be considered tiki in or around Chicago. Besides Hala Kahiki, Three Dots and a Dash, and Lost Lake, there’s Chef Shangri-La, the Tiki Terrace (with a Polynesian dance revue), Tong’s Tiki Hut, Malahini Terrace, the Orbit Room, and even a tiki party boat called the Island Party Boat, with its own thatched hut on board.

Take your tiki on the road with the Island Party Boat. Photo courtesy of http://www.islandpartyboat.com/ Take your tiki on the road with the Island Party Boat. Photo courtesy of www.islandpartyboat.com

James Teitelbaum, Chicago-based author of Destination: Cocktails: The Traveler’s Guide to Superior Libations and Tiki Road Trip: A Guide to Tiki Culture in North America, says at one time, there were a dozen different tiki bars in downtown Chicago alone, but those original tiki bars have long since closed up shop, the last one being Trader Vic's. It survived into the new millennium but finally closed in 2011 after it had relocated from its original location in the basement of the Palmer House Hilton.

“Since tiki was rediscovered and contextualized in the 1990s by people like myself, Jeff Chenault, Sven Kirsten, Otto von Stroheim, and Jeff Berry, tiki has ‘come back’ about five times,” Teitelbaum says. “Each time, it’s a little different. The latest wave of the tiki renaissance has come on the heels of the craft cocktail movement, so this version of tiki is very drink-focused.”

It’s not, he says, as focused on mid-century modern pop, Exotica or “deep tiki décor.” “Tiki is a drink style for the current batch of enthusiasts, rather than a lifestyle,” Teitelbaum says. “One positive effect of this is that some of the remaining classic bars across the country are noticing this and trying to update their bar programs.”

Kerrie Oppedisano, who with her husband Jim owns Hala Kahiki, says Chicago’s tiki culture is going strong right now, but Hala Kahiki almost closed its doors in the 1970s. “When the disco age came into effect, tiki fell out of favor,” she says. “My husband, when he was just a kid, remembers there were times when there was literally nobody here — just his Uncle Sonny bartending and his mom Cookie serving. They didn’t get paid because they were family, so they were able to keep the doors open and struggle through the hard times.”

Those hard times continued in the 1980s, but in the 1990s, tiki resurged in Chicago, and it’s still going strong. “We recently hosted a great-grandmother’s birthday celebration, and her family did a whole tiki-themed birthday extravaganza, where they went from tiki bar to tiki bar, and we were the last stop of the night,” she says. “We had multiple generations sitting there. We get a lot of that carryover from one generation to the next.”

Summer cocktails at Three Dots and a Dash. Imaginative and colorful cocktails flourish at Three Dots and a Dash.While tiki is sometimes just thought of as thriving on the coasts, Chicago remains a fertile ground for faux-Polynesian delights. “Although tiki is clearly a California phenomenon first and foremost, it is actually better suited to the colder parts of the country,” Teitelbaum says. “Californians have access to the Pacific Ocean, mountains, forests, and deserts. Midwesterners have access to corn fields and snow. We need the escape fantasy that tiki was meant to provide.”

Teitelbaum, whose next book will be In Sound: Lessons from the Music Industry, says he’s excited to see the two worlds of tiki and craft cocktails come together. “After writing books about both tiki bars and craft cocktail bars, it is nice to see these worlds embracing each other,” he says. “When I started researching Destination: Cocktails in 2006, it was rare to find a great cocktail bar even in a big city. It was equally rare to find a vintage tiki bar. Today, great classic cocktails and great tiki drinks can be found all over the place. It’s an exciting time.”

Jeanette Hurt is the author of Drink Like a Woman and is an award-winning writer focused on spirits, food and travel.

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