When you’re a tikiphile from the Midwest, you support Midwest tiki. It’s what you do. Especially being from Minneapolis – where some of our most historic bars and restaurants are routinely and tragically swallowed up by whatever the next new instagramable, “it” establishment is, which might then vanish just as quickly as it came up – you learn the importance of supporting what you love. Even if that means hitting the road for a 6 hour trip through two states!
“History” might be one of the most ubiquitous words associated with tiki. Afterall, tiki extends long before mai tais or zombies. Before traders or beachcombers. Even well before there was rum, lime, or the sailors who consumed it, there was Tiki. Hopefully, by now, you know well the history I speak of. But that’s for another post. The history I want to discuss in this post, is of the tenured variety.
I recently paid a visit to Hala Kahiki, in River Grove, Illinois. Just a hop and a skip from downtown Chicago. Hala Kahiki has a very understated history, but it’s still the type of longevity that is becoming increasingly rare these days. Officially christened in 1964, Hala Kahiki has been a family operation through 3 generations! Back then, the Sacharski family was mainly interested in opening a tavern as an escape from their previous career as funeral home operators, and so, escapism it was. According to their website the decor started mainly as a way to spruce up an aging structure. Presumably bamboo matting made for an economical way to hide unfortunate plaster. (Either way, Bamboo Ben would approve: “No white walls.”)
Now more than 50 years on, their decor has continued to mature. Fortunately for me, I arrived early in the evening on a weekday so there was still relatively few patrons which gave me full exposure of the establishment. I couldn’t find a nook, a cranny, or even a restroom that wasn’t replete with exotic ephemera. Their patio has several large, carved tikis, tropical plants, and thatched umbrellas to set the mood. Inside there’s bamboo, grass matting, lanters, plants, wicker, witco – Hala Kahiki has it all. Furthermore, throughout our visit we enjoyed a very pleasant selection of exotica, hawaiiana, and surf vibes piped in, outside and in, which really helped set in that relaxing mood.
So you’re not too concerned with ambiance. How about a cocktail? Hala Kahiki boasts over 100 unique creations. By my count, their menu extended a whopping 12 pages, broken into categaries such as “sweet drinks, tart drinks, coconut drinks, chocolate drinks, ice cream drinks” and many more. You are encouraged to find your fancy. Several were tiki classics and homages, and still many more totally original. Their twenty-something foot long bar back is completely lined with liquor, so it would be pretty hard not to find something for you. Unfortunately we only had time for a single cocktail during this visit but we paired it up with some sweet potato chips – a small selection of bar snacks makes up their edible options – which hit the spot. My wife and I both went with traditional cocktail selections. A mai tai for her and a navy grog for me. I rather liked the flavor of my navy grog though it seemed maybe on the week side, but given that the drinks are almost half the price of some of the higher end joints I enjoyed it just as well. My wife cautions against the mai tai but she also likes to boast how spoiled she is by our home selection, so your mileage may vary.
As a last resort, Hala Kahiki also has it’s very own tropical gift shop. In the shop you can find your average resort town bric-a-brac. Bamboo wind chimes, aloha shirts, cast tiki figurines and such. If you’re like me and just passing through you might opt to pick up a souvenir of your visit, or a gift for mom. I was hoping to pick up a new tiki mug but their selection of actual unique collectables was pretty slim. Still, odds are good you could find a little something to add to your home tiki bar.
In closing, I would say that Hala Kahiki is not to be missed if you find yourself in the Chicago/River Grove, Illinois area. If for no other reason than just to express your love for a tiki establishment that has managed to keep the spirit alive, seemingly effortlessly, when so many others failed, through the decades.
I’ll leave you with this excerpt straight from their menu which sums up their story pretty well, and ties into my opening sentiments. I hope they do manage to have many more generations of success, as their website proclaims. By then they’ll have to change their moto from “We were tiki before it was cool.” to “We were tiki, before it was cool, then wasn’t, then was again, and whatever comes after that…”
Cheers to Hala Kahiki!