Sweet Leilani Would Love The Paradise I Found On North Grant Avenue

Have you been to Walt Disney World’s “Enchanted Tiki Room,” where scores of exotic birds talk, warble and whistle; carved pagan gods beat drums and chant; totems sing; and orchids croon? How about the Polynesian Village Resort and its “Spirit of Aloha” luau, where hula dancers, drummers and fire-knife throwers perform?

If so, you’ve experienced Tiki style, a popular phenomenon celebrating Polynesian culture, personified by a “tiki,” or a carved image of a man. This kitschy style developed in the 1930s, reached its height in the 1960s, and continues to tide people over until they can experience wearing an aloha shirt that matches the tablecloths at a real-live luau, like my dad did when he and my mother honeymooned in Hawaii.

Here in Columbus, Tiki style was synonymous with the Kahiki Supper Club, which once stood at 3583 East Broad Street near Whitehall.

Modeled after a New Guinea meetinghouse, the fabulous Kahiki (meaning “sail to Tahiti”) was a five-story A-frame structure with a roof patterned after a war canoe. The ridge on the top of the roof was topped by a plywood pelican skeleton symbolizing good fishing and plenty of food, followed by fish the entire length of the roof. To see what the Kahiki’s exterior and its iconic sign on bamboo poles looked like, click here and here.

Kahiki floor plan as seen on the reverse of the Kahiki cocktail menu, Archives/Library, Ohio History Connection (PA Box 748 4)

The restaurant opened in 1961. First, diners passed two towering 16-foot-tall concrete moai guarding a moat-spanning bamboo bridge, fire spewing from their tops. Opening a pair of giant bronze doors, you entered a passageway with waterfalls on either side and passed passed a wishing-well fountain known as “George the Monkey,” with iridescent water that glowed as it spilled over coral cliffs. You entered the faux-palm tree-lined main dining room, walking on an exposed aggregate floor strewn with shells and sand, passing aquariums filled with tropical fish. Some dining huts had rattan peacock chairs. Other booths overlooked a rainforest of exotic plants where a thunderstorm would strike or a shower would fall as live tropical birds flew. Watching you from the end of the room was a fierce-looking 28-foot-tall moai with glowing green eyes and a flaming fireplace mouth.

Postcard of Kalua, the Kahiki Mystery Girl, Archives/Library, Ohio History Connection (SC 5846)

Next came the Outrigger Bar, where bartenders served exotic drinks under a full-size outrigger canoe as live musical performers played steel guitars and ukuleles. When the bartender struck a large brass gong, the beautiful Mystery Girl named Kalua would appear, carrying a brandy-and-rum concoction in a large ceramic bowl that had a smoking volcano in the center. She would go up to the huge tiki, bow, and deliver the drink to the four diners who ordered it. Other classic Kahiki drinks included The Backscratcher, The Headhunter, The Mai-Tai, The Scorpion, Blue Hurricane and Fog Cutter.

The Kahiki’s chefs practiced Polynesian-style cooking, known for its French broiling and English roasting techniques, Portuguese use of spices, and Oriental dip-boiling. Diners chose from traditional stir-frys and Asian dishes to island-inspired entrees like Malagasy garlic chicken, from the island of Madagascar; Samoan flaming chicken; mahi mahi; Hawaiian barbecue ribs; and broiled ham steak served with sauteed pineapple and banana. For dessert, they finished their meal with Sinful Wahine, an orange creamsicle cake; banana fritters; and even a crowd-pleaser called Big Fat Mamasan.

Kahiki dinner menu showing the fireplace moai, Archives/Library, Ohio History Connection (PA Box 748 3)

Trips to the restrooms were a must, so you could turn the cowrie-shell faucet knobs and watch the water flow from the mouth of a tiki into the conch-shell sinks.

Even the Kahiki’s billboards were cool. They featured the face of a Polynesian woman who would “wink” at passers-by. My great-aunt Mary took me on several trips around town to see “the lady who blinks.”

The restaurant even inspired Columbus Coated Fabrics, manufacturer of Wall-Tex, to create a “Kahiki” wallcovering pattern.  

Boy, that place was neat.

Although the Kahiki was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997, it closed in 2000. The iconic building was razed to make way for a Walgreen’s.

To keep Tiki style from fizzling out in Columbus, the Kahiki lives on. In 2010, the Hills Market held a Kahiki tribute day with food samples, cooking demonstrations and a special three-course dinner. A “Kahiki” line of Asian-inspired frozen foods is produced locally and available in several grocery stores. And in 2011, local restaurateur Elizabeth Lessner and her Columbus Food League converted a small brick building on North Grant Avenue near East Long Street and opened a kitschy little place that’s becoming one of my lunchtime hangouts of choice.

Wahines, slip on your muu muus and leis; kanes, pull out your aloha shirts and Tiki talismans. At long last, let’s finally set sail for the Grass Skirt Tiki Room.

The Grass Skirt Tiki Room

With “Sweet Leilani,” the Academy Award-winning song Bing Crosby sung in the 1937 film, Waikiki Wedding, playing in my head, I arrived for my first visit. With just one glimpse of the sign, I liked what I saw.

Inside, I saw walls decorated both with glowing lava and with stenciled torches and tikis with sparkling eyes.  Vintage Hawaiian album covers are pasted on restroom walls and behind the bar.  Fake skulls hang from a ship’s wheel that has been converted into a chandelier. Tiki statues and Kahiki souvenirs are everywhere.  Wow, is it swanky!

I took a seat on the patio, amid lush tropical plants, next to “George the Monkey.” The Kahiki’s fountain was rescued from extinction by the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Moai, which loaned it to the Grass Skirt Tiki Room. In tiki-style custom, you can even order a drink in a souvenir “George the Kahiki Fountain” mug. Besides Spanish, English and French-style rum, the bar serves its version of the Kahiki’s Port Light cocktail, a blend of Maker’s Mark, lemon juice, passionfruit syrup and house grenadine. There are plenty of other tropical concoctions with nifty names, too. 

You are my paradise completed, you are my dream come true,” I hummed, as I wondered how Sweet Leilani would have handled the dilemma that was before me on the menu. Should I start with house-made crab rangoon, or save room for fried pineapple with honey syrup? How about a handheld sandwich, like the Grass Skirt Grilled Cheese (Spam, swiss and grilled pineapple, on King’s Hawaiian bread, served with red pepper coconut bisque); a pulled pork, melted swiss and pineapple hoagie; or my standard hamburger, fancied up with a Hawaiian twist? Or should I choose one of the six entrees, such as crab cakes with yellow rice and steamed broccoli, or coconut shrimp and grits.  The sesame barbecue chicken salad sounded pretty tasty too.

On that visit, I decided on the crispy fish with sweet potato wedges and hush puppies.  Today I chose the pulled pork tacos, topped with roasted red pepper slaw and fresh cilantro and served with spicy black beans and saffron rice. Both times, I was a clean-plater.

I’m sure I’ll be back before then, but when October 1 rolls around, guess where I’ll be going for my birthday lunch with my coworkers?  

For more on Tiki culture and the Kahiki, check out The Book of Tiki: The Cult of Polynesian Pop in Fifties America and Tiki Style: A Pocket Bible Version of The Book of Tiki, both by Sven A. Kirsten. Kahiki Supper Club: A Polynesian Paradise in Columbus, by David Meyers, Elise Meyers Walker, Jeff Chenault and Doug Motz, includes some authentic Kahiki recipes, like the “Tahitian Mermaid,” beef tenderloin stuffed with crabmeat and cream cheese. The Ohio History Connection’s archival collection also includes a postcard of Kamaainas (old-timers) and Malihinis (new-friends) dining “Island-style” at the Kahiki. Other Kahiki artifacts like a matchbox, cup, wall hanging of a tiki mask and tiki charm bracelet are in the History object collection.

To explore how Tiki culture is represented in literature, film and music, see Marlon Brando portray real-life 18th-century mutineer Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty, the 1962 film based on the novel of the same name by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Thor Heyerdahl’s best-selling Kon-Tiki, the true story of six men’s adventures on a raft across the Pacific Ocean to Polynesia, inspired a 1951 Academy Award-winning documentary and was followed by Aku-Aku, Heyerdahl’s 1955 book about his expedition to Easter Island. James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific won him the 1948 Pulitzer Prize and inspired the Broadway musical South Pacific. Other Michener works with Polynesian settings are Return to Paradise, Rascals in Paradise and Hawaii. Pippi in the South Seas, the children’s classic by Astrid Lindgren, inspired a film by the same name. Earlier classics include Herman Melville’s Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life; Mark Twain’s “Letters From Hawaii” and Mark Twain in Hawaii: Roughing It in the Sandwich Islands; Robert Louis Stevenson’s In the South Seas, Jack London’s South Sea Tales; and W. Somerset Maugham’s fictional biography of Paul Gaugin, The Moon and Sixpence. Catch reruns of classic tiki-culture television shows like Gilligan’s Island, Hawaii Five-0 and Magnum P.I.  Hear “Sweet Leilani” on Ray Conniff’s Hawaiian Album from 1967; Ports of Pleasure, recorded by Les Baxter and his chorus and orchestra in 1957, is another classic.  Both are played to death here at home.

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