Destinations

How a Polynesian Paradise Ended Up in Cleveland, Ohio

The interior of a tiki bar.
Walk inside the Porco Lounge and you're instantly transported to an authentic Polynesian pop paradise, replete with coconut cups and Tiki mugs, outrigger canoes, pufferfish lamps, a carved Kon Tiki statue and a truly Instagram-worthy swizzle stick collection. Photo by Sam Twarek.

The Porco Lounge & Tiki Room in Cleveland, Ohio is more than just a bar with a kitschy motif. It's a bona fide exotic retreat that pulls in every type of bar client you could imagine, and it just so happens to be the first authentic tiki bar in the city since the historic Kon Tiki closed its doors in 1976.

Stefan Was and his wife, Anne-Marie — who both had zero bar-operating experience at the time — opened the Porco Lounge & Tiki Room's doors to the public in October 2013. Since then, they've earned an overwhelming stamp of approval from Cleveland residents and accolades from the likes of Travel + Leisure, CBS, Thrillist and Food + Wine, among others.

Walk inside, and you're instantly transported to an authentic Polynesian pop paradise, replete with coconut cups and tiki mugs, outrigger canoes, pufferfish lamps, a carved Kon Tiki statue and a truly Instagram-worthy swizzle stick collection.

A drink garnished with a mermaid swizzle stick and umbrella. The Jungle Bird, a signature drink at Porco Lounge, accented with a mermaid swizzle stick and umbrella, represents the kind of authentic tiki vibes this bar is all about. Photo by Kurt Hernon.

The Porco Tiki Collection: It Takes a Village

We were curious about how one establishment comes to own such an impressive collection of veritable tiki trinkets. Turns out, the saying, "it takes a village" is pretty accurate in the case of Porco.

"We honestly had very little in terms of fixtures and large items," says Stefan. "It wasn't until we finally decided on opening the bar that we went to seek out some more substantial pieces."

Unfortunately, Stefan and Anne-Marie ran into a problem: there's a pretty big demand for vintage tiki paraphernalia and a low supply of the real deal. Without a large budget, trimming the entire bar started to feel like an onerous task.

Together, they scoured Craigslist and enthusiasts' websites, but by the time they found a good deal, the item was often already spoken for. In one promising case, they found a dilapidated and dismantled bamboo shack that was once a beachside tiki bar stationed at a North Carolina hotel. However, when they saw it in person, they realized it was pretty far gone.

The owner was willing to work out a deal, though, and Was was able to utilize parts of the shack that still had life. Usable panels currently outfit the interior of the private Tiki room, and bigger pieces can be found in the lounge as accents.

Others played a role in dressing the bar, too. For example, a friend in Detroit helped them transport chairs from the Chin Tiki bar (closed in 1980) that showed up in a Michigan Craigslist listing, and other friends traveling to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. helped arrange a shipment of old stock chairs originally housed in the historic Mai Kai.

"Eventually, a gentleman by the name of David Jackman approached us saying he had a number of items from Cleveland's own Kon Tiki," says Stefan. "We were very excited at the prospect of having a historical connection to Cleveland's past, and immediately made friends with Dave and his wife, Donna."

Stefan describes the Jackman's home as an incredible, tropical oasis with a lushly appointed backyard patio. Amidst foliage and multiple bars throughout, there were shelves of priceless tiki mugs, Witco woodcarvings, and baubles from now-closed tiki bars. It was an amassment that'd impress any true collector.

"I'll never forget the day Dave showed up with a handful of lamps that hung from the ceiling of the Kon Tiki,” says Was. “He handed them over and said, 'A gift. Just make sure you ‘do it right.' [That] philosophy has always resonated with me since that day.”

That was the first gift of many from the Jackmans' personal collection. Dave also promised to hold on to some key items in his possession — namely the "Princess Kaiulani" outrigger canoe and a stately tiki statue that once adorned the Kon Tiki — until Was had enough cash to pay for them. On the day of Porco’s opening, Dave showed up with the outrigger canoe in his trusty red Ford pickup truck.

“I said, ‘There's no way I can pay you for this,’ and he said, ‘Don't worry. Just make sure you do it right,’” recalls Was. They also cut deals for the pufferfish lamps hanging in Porco, as well as bamboo and other original items from the Cleveland Kon Tiki.

Dave passed away unexpectedly, and weeks later Donna contacted the Was family to tell them she had something else for them: Dave’s cremated remains, housed inside a tiki container carved by Dave’s nephew, Mike.

“[It was] arguably the most humbling experience to date for Porco,” says Was. “Dave remains with us on the backbar every day above a sign [that says], ‘W.W.D.D.’ — What Would Dave Do? It’s a constant reminder to ‘do it right.’”

A kayak with the name "Princess Kaiulani" painted on it, hanging above the bar. The "Princess Kaiulani" outrigger canoe once adorned the Kon Tiki — until Was had enough cash to purchase it. Now Surf Rider (the other Kon Tiki original outrigger) and Princess Kaiulni are reunited above the Porco bar. Photo via Stefan Was.

Over the years, Porco has continued to have others present them with gifts and offers. For example, Tim Shuller, a tiki enthusiast from Detroit, purchased the only other outrigger canoe (named “Surf Rider”) that hung in the old Kon Tiki. They negotiated a deal and now Surf Rider and Princess Kaiulni are reunited above the Porco bar.

“We are proud and humbled to be stewards of these artifacts. They not only connect us to Cleveland's past, but that of an era of mid-century American tiki and Polynesian pop,” says Was. “It's so easy to discount things like this when you can go to a party store and buy plastic grass skirts and tiki mugs. We have great reverence for these items and continually share with our guests their historical significance and provenance.”

Wendy Rose Gould is a freelance lifestyle reporter and photographer based in Phoenix, Arizona. From Tel Aviv to Miami, from Prague to NYC, she enjoys sipping on well-crafted cocktails in all corners of the world.

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