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Suburbia! An Adventure Guide

The Realest Damn Tiki Bar

A trip to Hala Kahiki solves a childhood mystery.

Photos: Lucy Hewett

River Grove —There is no drive more familiar to me than the one from my family’s River Forest home to O’Hare. Embarking on family trips, my brothers, parents, and I would pile into a taxi and ride along River Road. We’d pass Gene & Jude’s, the hot dog stand my parents swore was overrated. (Don’t @ me. Don’t @ my dad because he doesn’t have Twitter.) We’d pass Pescatore Palace Restaurant and Banquet Hall and read the names of the couple getting married that weekend on the sign out front: “Congratulations, Antonio & Donna!”

No building was more mysterious, alluring, or downright confusing than Hala Kahiki. There are only two windows. It’s unclear exactly where the doors are. There’s a gift shop? What is going on in there? Our theory from ages 7 to 15 was that it was a money-laundering front for some shady enterprise that had a penchant for Polynesian-inspired decor.

Cocktail

As we came of age and the internet did too, we were able to find out that Hala Kahiki is a veritable institution of tiki. There certainly has been a revival of tiki bars in Chicago, with Three Dots and a Dash and Lost Lake, but this? Hala Kahiki is the real damn deal. Hala Kahiki has been at its current location since 1964. Hala Kahiki is older than The Sound of Music. You’re not coming here for trends. You’re coming here for tiki realness.

Ali Barthwell
Photo: Courtesy of Barthwell

As my boyfriend, brothers, and I entered for the first time, it was like we’d stepped into a time machine, a teleportation machine, and a video poker machine simultaneously. Everything except the video jukebox in the corner is covered in rattan. Or wicker. Or rattan? Which one is rattan?

The place was filled with dim and flattering pinkish-gold light, and it was weirdly busy. My boyfriend whispered, “I think I love this.”

The waitress guided us through the menu, which is a multipage affair bound in faux leather. Certain drinks have a tiny skull and crossbones next to them to indicate “VERY STRONG!!!” Our waitress recommended the Hala Kahiki Saturn, which wasn’t on the menu, and as a completist, I ordered it in a frozen pineapple, $4 upcharge be damned. (That’s me drinking it in the photo above.)

Cocktails and a flaming shot on the bar

While we nibbled on our fruit garnishes and listened to island-inspired ’60s tunes, I realized that the last great mystery of our childhood had been solved. It felt like we knew exactly where in the world was Carmen Sandiego. There were no mobsters counting cash in the back, just a selection of Hala Kahiki signature glasses and Hawaiian shirts with pictures of classic diners printed on them. Is this where Guy Fieri gets his formalwear?

Our drinks were delicious and VERY STRONG!!! And under the watchful gaze of a wicker panther, we all could agree: Hala Kahiki rules.

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