DETROIT: Tiki Time

6 May

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In the 1930’s a young man from Louisiana traveled by sailboat through the South Pacific. Intrigued and excited by what he saw he changed his name to Donn Beach, moved to Hollywood CA and in 1934 opened the first Tiki/Polynesian themed restaurant in the US called Don The Beachcomber. The restaurant was decked out in rattan, bamboo and thatch, it served Cantonese cuisine and tropical drinks dispensed in coconut shells, tiki mugs or huge bowls meant to share, oh, don’t forget the little umbrella. Donn is credited with creating the tropical drink genre of mixing flavored syrups and fresh fruit juices with rum. Three years later Trader Vic’s opened in Oakland CAPost WWII, interest in the South Pacific swelled, Tiki infiltrated music; artists such as Les Baxter, Martin Denny (Quiet Village) and Arthur Lyman (Yellow Bird) created a whole new genre called Exotica. Songs conjure up images of tropical rainforests, Hawaiian luaus, Tahitian villages, beaches and palm trees. Tiki bars sprang up from the California coast to the Atlantic coast; the Tiki culture of mid-century America was born.

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Detroit  joined the Tiki bandwagon with a Trader Vic’s downtown, Chin Tiki on Cass (featured in the movie 8 Mile) and the ultimate in Polynesian grandeur, The Mauna Loa. As a young boy Kris actually had dinner at the Mauna Loa, the place was so spectacular it remains a vivid memory of Palm trees, waterfalls, gurgling streams, foot bridges, giant Blowfish lanterns and tall torches. It is said to be the most expensive restaurant built east of the Mississippi at the time, $1.6 Million dollars in 1967. Though none of the buildings remain today, stories, photos and memorabilia of Detroit’s lost Tiki palaces keep the memories alive and well. Today Zenith at the Fisher Building is hosting a Tiki Brunch, I’m so excited!

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When we arrive the Tiki party is in full swing; tables are filled with diners noshing on the likes of cornbread french toast, huevos montulenos, chicken and waffles, candied mango bacon and grilled biscuits. Roland Remington and Johnny Ukulele are serenading patrons with the relaxing sounds of mid-century Exotica tunes such as Blue Hawaii, Hypnotique, Henry Mancini’s Moon River and Tequila. Roland is classically dressed in jacket, tie and Shriner’s hat as he plays the xylophone. Johnny is a little less formal in his print shirt, he switches between the electric organ and the ukulele. The Tiki mood has been set, tropical flowers are arranged near the performance area, smoke filters out the mouth of a tiki, leis are draped over the ukulele case, very swanky.

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We are seated at the bar in the lounge area, this section is steeped in Tiki style from the bamboo furniture and hula girls to the tropical flowers painted on the walls; the lamps are pretty awesome too! We love the brunch here, at Zenith Poutine is a MUST, today’s version goes like this: crispy french fries topped with scrambled eggs, shredded cheddar, jalapeno hollandaise, scallions and 4-pepper gravy, it’s worth every single minute you spend on the treadmill. Then there’s the Red Velvet Waffle, served with a slightly tart pomegranate sauce, tamed by the cream cheese icing, it’s delicious!  We finish our brunch right as the musicians take their break.

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At 2:00 pm members of the Detroit Area Art Deco Society arrive for a tour of the space in celebration of Detroit Modernism Week; being members ourselves, we join the group. Owners Melissa and Robert Jasper have been collectors of all of the fabulous stuff we see here for the last 30 or so years. Gathering in the Tiki lounge, Melissa points out specific pieces, she explains the significance of the item, where she got it or what she likes about it; the fountain is new since our last visit. Kris and I have been to a least a hundred flea markets, antique stores and vintage shops all over the south and mid-west, this is some of the coolest stuff we’ve seen.  In the very front of the restaurant facing W Grand Boulevard is the “paint by numbers” room, you guessed it, individual paint by numbers from western scenes to animals and sailboats to the Eiffel Tower decorate the walls.

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The space the restaurant occupies was originally a bank, our hostess leads us downstairs, through the gates to the old safe-deposit-box-room-turned-lounge area, super cool! Next to that is the performance space now known as the Wrectory, a heavy metal karaoke nightclub. The decor is a mix of religious items and adult themed posters creating a humorous contrast. Back upstairs the music has resumed, we reclaim our seats at the bar and sip on tasty tropical drinks made for a lazy Sunday. If you’re looking for a bit of the good life, the next Tiki Brunch is May 17—we’ll see ya there! UPDATE: Zenith is now closed for business.

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2 Responses to “DETROIT: Tiki Time”

  1. Constance May 7, 2015 at 1:59 am #

    You always have something interesting to report. So now I know where the Tiki theme came from. You find such interesting places that we otherwise would probably never hear of, plus often a historical glimpse into the past as well–time travel bonus :). Now, when I visit Michigan (I live in Dubai), my problem will be how to decide where to go, amongst the plethora of great destinations you’ve put on display. Oh well, at least I can vicariously enjoy pretend travel with your blog! It has opened up a window for my imagination to enjoy a part of life that is just too far away for me to live. Thank you!

    • detroitdvotion May 7, 2015 at 5:55 pm #

      Thank you. So glad you enjoy traveling along with us!

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