New book delves into bygone era of Detroit tiki bars | Food and Beverage Features | Detroit
Especially on a cold, gray day in a typical Michigan winter, it’s easy to see why Detroit would once have had an impressive tiki bar culture. But if you weren’t there in its heyday, it’s just as easy to forget just how special Detroit’s tiki scene really was.
Its crown jewels are long gone, like The Tropics at the old Hotel Wolverine. First opened in 1941, it had a neon green palm tree outside and a hydraulic elevator inside that carried a live band from floor to floor. (The Wolverine Hotel was eventually demolished by Olympia Development to make way for Comerica Park.)
Perhaps the most famous was Chin Tiki, the brainchild of automotive engineer-turned-restorer Marvin Chin. Detroit’s longest-running tiki bar from 1966 to 1980, it was known for its interior bamboo deck and was briefly revived to make an appearance in Eminem’s 2002 film. 8 miles. (It was also destroyed by Olympia, this time for Little Caesars Arena.)
And then there was the mighty Mauna Loa on West Grand Boulevard, a lavish $2.25 million fantasy land with a man-made outdoor lagoon, imported palm trees, waterfalls and even an indoor pool where a girl would dive for pearls. Mauna Loa had the misfortune to open in the midst of civil unrest in 1967 and close in 1971.
The last place to open during Detroit’s tiki heyday was a Trader Vic outpost in the former Statler Hotel, open from 1969 to 1975.
The stories behind these tiki spots and many more are told in author Renee Tadey’s new book, Detroit Tiki: A History of Polynesian Palaces and Tropical Cocktailspublished on January 31 by The History Press.
A fan of Detroit’s mid-century modern era, Tadey says she was approached by The History Press to do a book because of her work on her blog DetroitDvotion.
“Being a person who loves all things Detroit, I would always look for tiki mugs and any type of memorabilia,” Tadey said. Metro timetables. To research her book, she scoured the archives of the Detroit Public Library as well as journals.com. She also put up flyers at senior activity centers and local libraries looking for seniors with memorabilia from old tiki bars.
She quickly discovered that Detroit had a thriving scene of tiki collectors, some of whom have even turned their own basements and living rooms into their own tiki bars. Many acquired items from Detroit’s old bars, like matchbooks, menus, mugs and other memorabilia, and allowed Tadey to have them photographed for his book.
One of the collectors Tadey found in his research was Dave Chow, a local illustrator. “They’re a tight-knit group,” Tadey says. “So with Dave, he was kind of the bridge for me, the stranger, to meet the other people.”
Chow had a bit of a story of his own with Detroit’s tiki heyday: his father worked as a cook at Moy’s in Livonia, which served tiki-inspired drinks (the daughter of Mauna Loa architect George Nakashima, y also worked as a hostess), while her uncle worked as a cook at Port O’ Three in Bloomfield Hills, also owned by Chin. (Full disclosure, Chow was a professor of mine in college.)
Chow has since become an admirer of all things tiki and has traveled to many tiki bars in other states.
“Mauna Loa was one of the most elaborate places in the country,” he says. Metro timetables. “When I travel across the country, I jump from tiki bar to tiki bar just to take a look and see how people did things, so it kind of confirms that Detroit had a thriving tiki community there- down for a while.”
Michigan’s cold climate only made the scene more special, he says.
“It really makes a difference here in a Rust Belt city like Detroit,” he says. “If you go down to Florida and you go to the Mai-Kai, which is one of the grandest and oldest places when it comes to tiki – I mean, it’s like, you walk in there, you get out, the transition is It’s not as drastic as here, on a cold, miserable day like this.
He adds: “It was a good escape. It’s like the last time in American culture where it was like, “Hey, let’s ditch the kids and go see scantily clad women and get drunk.” It was actually socially acceptable.
When it comes to changing times, tiki culture, with its historically inaccurate mix of Polynesian cultures, seems to have emerged unscathed from the recent trend of sensitivity to cultural appropriation. Chow, an Asian American, thinks it might be because at its core, tiki culture is a lot of fun.
“It’s kind of weird to me because my family worked there, and I don’t think there was ever any disrespect,” he says. “When my father and uncle worked there, they were ‘Polynesian’ places, but they cooked Chinese food. My father loved working in these places. It never really crossed their minds. For them, it was just a job. And for me, as a kid watching this growing up, it was like, ‘Oh, that’s what daddy does.’ I don’t think there is any malice.
He adds: “I know my uncle also loved the theater of it all.”
Metro timetables reporting by the late culture writer Sarah Klein is quoted in the book, notably when Chin, buoyed by renewed interest through 8 miles, unsuccessfully tried to bring Chin Tiki back. But tiki culture in Detroit lives on, enjoying a revival in new bars like Mutiny Bar and Lost River. And Chin’s Chop Suey in Livonia, operated by Chin’s son Marlin and grandson Steven Lim, is still open to this day, with thatched booths and a collection of salvaged Chin Tiki carvings.
For Chow, Detroit’s tiki heyday is a reminder of simpler times.
“[Going out] was more of a party back then,” he says. “It was an occasion. And I think that’s something that we miss, and I think part of the reason Renee kind of wrote the book, was kind of to celebrate those days.
He adds, “I think part of what tiki culture celebrates, you know, is when things were a little slower and people could actually appreciate things, at least a little.”
Tadey will talk about his book as part of the Happy Hour Detroit livestream at 7 p.m. on Sunday, January 30 at Detroit City Tour Facebook Page. Polynesian-inspired outfits are encouraged.