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Alas, reports of the rebirth of tiki were premature; I'm not sure how long Rock-A-Tiki lasted, but I know it was long gone by the time I picked up a copy of Tiki Road Trip (second ed., 2007). You could tell pretty much the same story about an initially loving revival of Trader Vic's near Rush Street in 2008, the decline of which Rob Christopher chronicled in Chicagoist a few years back.
Yet just a few years later here we are, in the midst of what might be the biggest tiki revival since Disney built the Polynesian Village Resort in Orlando in 1971. We have Paul McGee's new neotiki bar, Lost Lake, in Logan Square, which opened last night; for at least the time being we still have his previous effort at tiki revival with the Melman brothers, Three Dots and a Dash, and coming sometime this year we have another (unnamed as yet) Logan Square neotiki spot coming from another group, the folks behind the Scofflaw. Could tiki be back less as a momentary novelty and more as a permanent flavor on the bar scene?
To get some perspective on this latest tiki revival, I reached out to an expert with long experience in the scene, Caroline Roe. OK, actually I was searching Flickr for some pics of Rock-A-Tiki and found her collection of tiki photos from the Chicago area. Now a resident of Austin, Texas, Roe grew up in the Chicago area but didn't really discover tiki until she went to college in Columbus, Ohio, and went to the now-gone Kahiki, bulldozed for a Walgreens despite its spectacular A-frame Polynesian building being on the National Register of Historic Places. Today she's one of the organizers of the Chicago Area Tiki Tour, which brings tiki enthusiasts from all over the nation to the area for an all-day drinking bus tour of tiki heritage; it'll be back this April.
I asked her if anywhere else was having as much tiki activity, a tiki renaissance, like we're having. "Chicago is booming with tiki right now. The west coast, you've got a fair amount of tiki, but you don't have a lot of resurgence going on right now," she says. "And the east coast is a little bit of a tiki void, so Chicago is its own little tiki island right now. You've got lots of good stuff going on with people who know tiki well and are doing it really really well."
It's easy to see how the South Pacific influence reached California, but how did tiki become so prominent at one time in Chicago and other parts of the landlocked midwest? Part of the answer is that in postwar America, guys from all over the country had actually been to the South Pacific, and tiki represented the better, sexier, more bohemian part of their wartime experiences. "It's a getaway, from work and life and all those things you worry about. Tiki has the environment and the cocktails to help you get away from it," Roe says. "It's also fun, it's a fun thing with the drinks served in silly mugs with big garnishes."
Ah, but the drinks. There's the dividing line between old tiki and the new tiki places, which are fundamentally an outgrowth of the craft cocktail movement. Where too many old tiki places eventually became part of the crap cocktail movement, as you quickly learn reading about vintage tiki online—visitors may rave about the decor and so on, but they're forced to admit that the drinks are often badly made, using cheap spirits and bottled mixers. "It is really variable in the vintage places. They may have been really good back in the day, but it's a couple of generations later if they're family owned, or even a couple of generations later in ownership if they're not," Roe says. "You don't have the mixology skills that transfer, and you don't necessarily use the best ingredients which can make all the difference in a cocktail experience."
They're also just sometimes tired after running with the same theme for 40 years. "It's the hospitality. You go to Three Dots and the decor is nice, not that vintage but nice new tiki, and the experience with the bartenders and the servers, everything is top-notch. It's more than just the cocktails, or the decor." Perhaps for that reason, she makes sure to mention that when the Chicago Area Tiki Tour fires up its bus, the tour will include on-board cocktails mixed by modern mixologists, in case you have a bad taste along the way you need to wash out with a classically crafted Scorpion.
Even so, she says there are several surviving tiki spots in the area that are must-visits, most in the suburbs straight west of town and south of O'Hare. First is, not surprisingly, the well-known Hala Kahiki in River Grove. "It's a really great vintage experience in terms of decor," Roe says. "There was an old-school carving company called Witco, and a lot of the decor is from Witco. It gives you this really authentic vintage vibe when you're there."
Another is Tiki Terrace in Des Plaines. "It's a newer tiki place, and they're the only ones who still put on a Polynesian dinner show, authentic with their own Polynesian Elvis," she says. I mention that I've heard that, but I find it hard to believe that there's a place that still makes a go out of a style of entertainment last seen in mainstream culture on a Dean Martin summer replacement show. "They've been at it for several years now," she says. "They get a lot of celebrations, birthdays and things like that, but other times it's just like, hey, it's cold, it's Chicago where it's winter for way too many months. Let's go somewhere that doesn't feel like winter."
Well, there's a reason that the tiki revival might stick this time—we certainly are an area with a winter-to-tropical weather ratio very far from Polynesian standards. If tiki lasts this time, weather will likely be right up there with the cocktails among the reasons. Rounding out her list, Roe also cites Chef's Shangri-La, a Chinese restaurant owned by the same family for four decades in Riverside—"It's a Chinese restaurant with a lot of tiki decor and they do the tiki drinks," and Tong's Tiki Hut in Villa Park, also a Chinese restaurant, heavy on the thatched-hut decor. She's looking forward to revisiting some of those—but she's also eager for whatever's opened since her last visit.
"Three Dots is a great experience, and I'm sure Lost Lake will be at the top of that list too," she says. "I can't wait to go."