By John Greenfield
Last Friday was the last call at Cirals' House of Tiki, and news of its closing brought out plenty of fans. "To me it was just a bar and a restaurant," said owner Ted Cirals, "but I guess it turned out to be more than that." He described the outpouring of gratitude as "amazing"--phone calls came from "all over the country."
A lifelong Hyde Parker, the 78-year-old Cirals looks a bit like Captain Ahab in a flashy Hawaiian shirt. He opened the original lounge in the late 1950s on 51st Street. That place was torn down in 1966 to make way for Kenwood Academy, back in the days of urban renewal.
"At that time they wanted to eliminate the bars and they were gunning for us," recalled Cirals. "They never figured we would be relocating. The people in urban renewal were constantly calling us, trying to figure out where we were going to be because they realized I was trying to do something." By 1967 the Tiki had reopened on 53rd. Cirals still has orange pins imprinted with the words "There will always be a Tiki!"
"Everyone in Hyde Park was wearing these buttons at the time," he said.
The Tiki became a neighborhood landmark. Like Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap and the Valois restaurant, the bar brought color and a sense of community to an area dominated by the University of Chicago's gray Gothic architecture. Patrons were drawn to its Henri Rousseau-like fantasy of the tropics, with its hanging beads, red-tinted lighting, and bamboo fixtures. The ceiling was adorned with stuffed puffer fish, a wicker monkey, and a Budweiser lamp with revolving Clydesdales. The Tiki appealed to people of all races and classes, attracting folks from the neighborhood as well as the university.
It had a colorful and sometimes famous clientele. The bar was a hangout of the Chicago Seven and lawyer William Kunstler. Around the same time, it was a no-man's-land for members of the rival Disciples and Blackstone Rangers street gangs. "When they were fighting on the outside, this was neutral territory," recalled Cirals, whose small stature never stopped him from keeping his patrons in line. "Somehow we always seemed to get the respect of these people." More recently, the Tiki was a favorite of athletes like Scottie Pippen and Chris Zorich and musicians like R. Kelly (a graduate of Kenwood Academy) and Urge Overkill. Ex-Cosby kid Malcolm-Jamal Warner was spotted there a few weeks ago. The bar was also featured in the movies Love Jones and The Package.
The Tiki's closing will reduce the number of public taverns in Hyde Park to three (the Falcon, the Cove, and the beloved Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap, which reopened this year after briefly closing its doors). But when the Tiki opened, "there were about 50 bars in Hyde Park," Cirals said. "There used to be 11 bars on this three-block stretch. Now that we're going out there'll be one."
The Tiki was Hyde Park's only 4 AM bar, making it a favorite after-hours haunt. Bartenders at the blue-collar Falcon Inn, the 2 AM bar across the street, were known to announce "It's Tiki time!" as they pushed customers out the door after last call.
Cirals and his wife of 53 years, Bea, had three children, but none of the kids was interested in taking over the business. Bea, who also tends bar and whose wardrobe matches her husband's, wanted to retire. So when someone wanted to buy the bar and its decorations, they accepted. "When the offer came out, I figured I haven't got that many years ahead of me anymore, so I might as well go ahead with it," Cirals said. "I'm not happy about it, I can say that honestly. I still enjoy the business and she realizes that."
As part of the sale, the couple can't name the buyer--they're not even sure if the place will remain a tavern. Cirals expected the new incarnation will not keep the name, though that means the buyer, he said, "is losing thousands of dollars in advertising. The Tiki has been in every kind of newspaper imaginable."
Tiki partisans appreciated the cheap, tasty food. The menu featured hearty pub grub like fish-and-chips and chicken wings with mild, hot, or "Oh My God!" sauce, as well as "Polynesian" entrees such as ham with pineapple and "Hawaiian Salad." But the real stars were the giant tropical drinks with names like Malahini, Mauna Loa, and Wahine's Delight, served in glasses shaped like wooden idols with fruit garnishes and plenty of alcohol. The Tiki's notorious Zombie--seven shots of liquor served in a tall "naked lady" glass--was so potent customers were limited to one per visit.
Cirals had hoped for a nice, quiet finale, but a disturbance broke out around midnight. "It was two ugly women fighting over one ugly man," reported a StreetWise vendor outside the bar. By 12:45 the management had cleared out the rowdiest portion of the crowd and locked the doors, allowing the remaining well-wishers inside to party in peace. University of Chicago and city police officers shooed away stragglers.
Creston McKenzie, an off-duty security guard, was one of those who left after the fracas. A Tiki regular for ten years, McKenzie said there had been pressure on the bar from local authorities because of the occasional fights and criminal activity on nearby street corners. But he waxed nostalgic about the good vibes inside the tavern. "It was a place you came to after work. You mellowed out and shared your problems with other people. No one cared if you were black or white. No one cared if you were young or old. It was just like Cheers, where everybody knew your name. Seeing this place close down after 33 years of business is just like being in the last episode of Cheers. It takes away a part of you."
McKenzie was a fan of the Tiki's jukebox, dominated by hits from the 50s and 60s like "Fever" and "Goodnight Sweetheart" (played while clearing the bar at the end of the night). McKenzie's personal theme song was the easy-listening chestnut "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)" by Rupert Holmes. "I would come in on Fridays and play that song and order a piña colada. I would always tell Ted, 'You know what I need 'cause I'm about to play the jukebox.' One time I came in the bar and he just handed me a piña colada and gave me a quarter and said, 'Go ahead, play your song.'"
A few blocks away at the Cove, a sports bar with a wide-screen TV, a large table of graduate students in economics complained about being turned away from the Tiki and lamented the loss of their kitschy oasis. "It was an institution," said Kelly Ragan, who came to the U. of C. from San Francisco. "Every now and then you need a little umbrella in your drink."
The tropical lounge had also been a favorite of a student from Sweden. "There are no Tiki bars in Stockholm," he sighed.
Alejandro Rodriguez, an Argentine, was more ambivalent about the Tiki. "I didn't like the fake Polynesian stuff," he said. "But actually, at 3:45 in the morning, I guess it was OK."
On Friday the last guests had left the Tiki by 2 AM. Cirals said he'd intended to shut the bar early because he'd heard that people would try to steal souvenirs. Nonetheless he was touched by the turnout. "I've never shook so many hands and been kissed so many times in my life. I had people coming in that I haven't seen in 10, 15 years. You had real tough guys in here with tears in their eyes. That just floored me."
John Huss, a PhD candidate in history and philosophy of science, summed up the neighborhood's loss. "I don't know where people in Hyde Park are going to go now for Scorpion Bowls."