Kahiki Restaurant Tiki Bar

A Tiki Tragedy

The tiki revival came too late to save the world’s greatest tiki bar, wiped out by a Walgreens and a line of frozen egg rolls.

When the world’s greatest tiki bar closed in 2000, not too many people cared.

The Kahiki Supper Club in Columbus, Ohio, was the largest tropical-themed restaurant in the country. It opened in 1961.

With an illustrated menu of fruity, overpriced drinks in novelty mugs served against an exotic backdrop, it had all the hallmarks of a tiki bar. And so much more.

diners at the Kahiki restaurant in Columbus, Ohio
Vintage postcard from the Kahiki Restaurant in Columbus, Ohio

The Kahiki “experience” included dining in an immense, boat-shaped ceremonial house dominated by a giant tiki fireplace, where birds flew overhead, thunderstorms broke over lush jungle dioramas, and a famous “Mystery Girl” waitress danced tableside. A moat greeted visitors as they entered the restaurant, crossing the threshold from middle America to Bali Hai.

Yes, it actually rained in the Kahiki. And the birds were real. The Mystery Girl was an item on the menu.

The girl came with the famous Kahiki Mystery Drink – a smoking, “family-style” punchbowl of juice and enough rum to stagger four unsuspecting Midwesterners – that was danced to the table at the sound of a gong.

The Kahiki was ridiculous. The Kahiki was glorious. By the 1990s, though, it mostly just baffled the younger locals and transplants to the fast-growing city.

Is this place for real? How could this place have ever been profitable? Why the hell is it in Columbus, Ohio?

Rich and I went to the Kahiki on one of our first dates. I was both thrilled by the theater of it and saddened by the state of it.

Sitting at our table, I took in the spectacle as I calmed my new-boyfriend nerves and observed kitsch coming apart at the seams: Fountains that were turned off; fish tanks only half-filled; an uninspired waitstaff who couldn’t feign enthusiasm. The bartender on duty seemed irked when we walked up to order a drink; he’d been talking to his girlfriend, who was keeping him company.

In its heyday, Mia Farrow, Bob Hope, and Zsa Zsa Gabor visited the Kahiki. On our date night, we were some of the only customers.

A few days later, I shared my Kahiki “experience” in the newsroom of the Columbus Dispatch, where I worked as a reporter. The Dispatch created a nice collection of pictures from the Kahiki’s glory days, and this book chronicles its rise and fall.

Low and behold, one of the graphic designers at the paper revealed she had, in fact, been a Mystery Girl waitress. It was her first job as a teenager, she said, with an eye roll signaling more embarrassment than pride. From that moment on, I pictured her in a grass skirt at the back of the newsroom, creating infographics in Adobe Illustrator with a lei around her neck.

As a reporter, I was tuned into the local battles fought by preservation groups to save historic structures as the city’s economy boomed. The Kahiki wasn’t one of them.

It’s not that the Kahiki went down without a fight: a group of old-timers did wage a limping effort to save the aging mecca of mid-century Polynesia. But the owner was tired and wanted out.

Historic trusts can preserve old farmhouses and flour mills. They’re not cut out to run tiki bars.

The restaurant changed hands, and the owner sought to capitalize on the famous Kahiki name by launching a line of frozen egg rolls. He saw more money in packaged food than running an aging restaurant in need of costly repairs.

What makes the Kahiki’s final sunset all the sadder is that it probably would have only needed to hold on a few more years to survive long-term.

A few more years squeaking by with part-time bartenders, mediocre Chinese food, and sad fountains. A few more years until the wheel finally came fully back around, the Tiki Revival

I’d give anything for a picture of us on that date, which I was likely too afraid to ask the bartender to take. But we did come home with a souvenir mug from the Kahiki that somehow survived all these years to be incorporated into our own tiki bar mug collection.

In an eerie internet ode to the Kahiki, it remains a data point in Google Maps. If you type in “Kahiki Supper Club“, up pops a listing with the “Permanently Closed” label and a picture of the giant Walgreen’s that replaced it.

The parking lot is completely empty.

2 thoughts on “A Tiki Tragedy”

  1. I grew up in that area of Columbus, passing by the mysteriously beautiful structure many times on the way to school and family outings! I was so fascinated and a little creeped out by the winking “Polynesian Lady” sign advertising the restaurant! It truly saddens me to hear of its total demise, so much a part of my memories! Would love to see it brought back anew, but I’m sure it could never be the same!

  2. As a kid riding in the back of our family station wagon we would pass the place on a Friday or Saturday evening and it would be lit up with the flames in the front and the car’s all waiting to get in the parking lot by way of Bell Hope parking lot attendant it looked so exotic and tribal like passing a different country or what one would seem to be buy way of a 9 year old boy for that moment I got a glimpse of another world or so it would appear with my amagenation I was a big shot all grown up getting out of my big long fancy care somewhere on a exotic island just like in the Elvis movies.to this day I sometimes wonder what it would have been like but as I recall I did go in once and it crushed my dream of that moment for what I saw was a long over due closing half full fish takes a place and time trying to hold on to what would be apairet death.it was a sad day for that 9 year old boy that had healed so tight to a dream that was so much apart of who I wanted to be but had lost track of that day.

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