The May issue of Travel + Leisure magazine features an article about Trader Vic’s, the old school tiki restaurant. The article even credits Vic Bergeron, the founder of the restaurant, with giving Americans the travel bug starting in the 1930s, when his first Trader Vic’s opened in Oakland.
I remember the Trader Vic’s in Chicago, my home town. Walking down State Street, I always looked for the giant wooden tiki standing by the entrance on Monroe Street to welcome people to Trader Vic’s in the hotel.
It’s said that Trader Vic’s spread tiki culture around the world. They’ve even been a part of history: opening a restaurant at the Havana Hilton a year before the revolution, an outpost in London where the Beatles hung out, and one in Munich just before the ill-fated 1972 Olympics.
I went out for a post-theater drink with my friend Carolyn at Trader Vic’s a year before it left the Palmer House (it has since been reestablished a mile away in the foo-foo Gold Coast area).
But Trader Vic’s wasn’t the only place to go for tiki time in Chicago back in the day. Not by far.
When I worked at the University of Chicago, I often drove by a dilapidated bar called Ciral’s House of Tiki. Long deserted, the neon bulbs were missing and the windows shuttered. The sign remained for years after it had closed, leaving a reminder of a bar with a 30+ year history on the South Side of Chicago.
Then I noticed other remnants from a lost tiki culture in Chicago: the old Pago Pago painted advertisement on the side of a building on Wabash Street in the Loop and the boarded up Tiki Room near a bundle of crumbling Chicago Housing Projects.
Up north, beyond the Chicago city limits, my family and I used to go to a Polynesian restaurant in the suburb of Evanston, where I grew up. Pali Kai had an outdoor garden, but before we reached it, a hostess clad in a grass skirt would place a plastic lei, the crinkly, non-flower type, around our necks. Once we sat down, our waitress took our drink orders. My brother and I always ordered a bright red Shirley Temple with an umbrella toothpick pierced through a piece of canned pineapple and a maraschino cherry. Unfortunately, the drinks were the highlight of the meal and the restaurant didn’t stay in business past the early 80s.