Tiki bars — inspired by Polynesian culture and décor — reached the zenith of popularity in the United States in the 1960s, right after Hawaii became a state. In addition to the tiki wood, tiki statues, and tiki torches that were ubiquitous in these establishments, tiki bars became famous for their variety of exotic cocktails, typically featuring rum and tropical fruit juices. By the 1980s, many of the trendsetting tiki bars (some of which dated back to the 1930s and 40s) were showing their ages. Tiki soon became virtually synonymous with tacky and many bars went out of business over the next couple decades, like Ciral‘s House of Tiki in Hyde Park. The good news is that those tiki places that survived represented the crème of the crop and with tiki enjoying a bit of a romantic revival these days, many are doing better than ever.
The Tiki Terrace
1591 Lee St.
Des Plaines, IL 60018
The Hawaiian cuisine here doesn’t always get rave reviews, but on Friday and Saturday nights the food is secondary to the Tiki Terrace’s renowned “Echoes of Polynesia” revue. The Tiki Terrace website promises that the show “is nearly identical to a luau show one would experience in Hawaii.” Dancers wearing costumes from Hawaii, Samoa, Tahiti, and New Zealand entertain patrons as they enjoy dishes like Kahua pig or Mahi Mahi while sipping on Mai Tais.
7930 W. 26th St.
North Riverside, IL 60546
Entertainment also is a key component of the fun at Chef Shangri-La. The second Friday of every month is “Island Adventure and Fire Dance Friday,” featuring Aloha Chicago Entertainment performing dances from the South Pacific islands, including the popular fire dance. The fourth Friday of every month is reserved for Elvis impersonator Michael St. Angel, while every third Saturday bands offer Hawaiian music as part of an “Evening in Shangri-La.”
Chef Shangri-La was founded here in 1976 on a spot that came to co-owner Suzie Fong in a dream. Chinese with Polynesian ancestry, she already was a successful restaurateur before marrying her husband, Paul, a master chef of Cantonese background. Their collaboration produced the Chinese/Polynesian fusion that still permeates the menu at Chef Shangri-La, now owned by the Fongs’ youngest daughter Betty and her husband.
Tong’s Tiki Hut
100 E. Roosevelt Road, Suite 18
Villa Park, IL 60181
Tong’s bills itself as a Chinese and Polynesian restaurant, but the Polynesian part is almost exclusively limited to the décor. About the only Polynesian item on the menu is the Polynesian beef appetizer, a generous helping of tangy, tender beef strips skewered by bamboo sticks crowned with cherries. The cocktail menu does feature a number of tropical drinks, including, of course, Mai Tais. The restaurant menu recommends that cocktails be accompanied by a Bo-Bo Tray of appetizers that includes egg rolls, shrimp, beef, barbecued ribs, and fried wonton.
Ray’s Tiki Bar
1233 N. Hoyne Ave.
Chicago, IL 60622
A visit to Ray’s Tiki Bar probably would be worth it just to see its famous flabongo. That’s right. A flabongo — part flamingo, part bongo. Then when you throw in nickel beer nights and mix it with a dash of Jimmy Buffet and Bob Marley, you can see why this Wicker Park establishment has its fans, even if those guys aren’t exactly Polynesian and the food here is more reminiscent of the Emerald Isle than South Pacific isles.
2834 River Road
River Grove, IL 60171
Hala Kahiki is a tiki bar with the emphasis on “bar.” Hala Kahiki offers more than 100 tropical drinks, like “King Kamehameha’s Royal Chocolate Drinks,” made with rum and cocoa and a variety of fruits, the “Scratch Me Lani,” a strong, spicy concoction featuring Grand Marnier and rum, and the “Honolulu Lulu,” a blend of rum, crème de menthe, and orange juice.
Hala Kahiki founders Stan and Rose Sacharski didn’t set out to start a tiki bar in 1963 when they opened a neighborhood tavern at Fullerton and Lockwood in Chicago called The Lucky Start. They covered the building’s dilapidated walls with outdoor fencing resembling bamboo and soon customers began expecting tropical drinks. The popularity of the bar grew and soon the Sacharskis moved it to larger quarters in a former greenhouse in nearby River Grove.
Dennis D. Jacobs is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in scores of newspapers and magazines and on multiple websites. For the past four years, he has been the Chicago International Travel Examiner for Examiner.com. He lives in west suburban Chicago.