Ciral’s House of Tiki

Though Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap and Cove Lounge come close, no imbibery was more popular in Hyde Park than “The Tiki” from its opening in 1962 until its closure almost 40 years later. The promise of stiff rum drinks served in tiki heads, voluptuous naked ladies and hollowed-out fruit served with an old-school, neighborly charm turned what was formerly called Ciral’s House of Tiki into an institution in this South Side enclave.

Ciral’s was located just north of the afore-mentioned Jimmy’s and the Hyde Park stop of the Metra Electric Line on 55th Street. This was actually the second location of the House of Tiki, the initial foray having been a few blocks further north, where it rised for about eight years. At night, Ciral’s was easily spotted via its enormous, brightly multicolored neon “House of Tiki” sign by night, along with several beer signs to match, which appeared more 50’s diner-like by day. Neighborhood locals as well as University of Chicago students and professors alike were lured to “The Tiki” for bamboozelment until the wee hours, 5am on Saturday night and 4am all other nights. Friday night was primetime at Ciral’s, even edging out its closest late-night competitor, “The Cornell” in the 1970’s. Pass through the plate glass fa�ade and you’d find a wavy bar to your right and a dozen or so sticky, florescent vinyl booths on your left.

“Tiki statuettes honor the walls with their weapons, glowing blowfish swim underneath bamboo rafters as wicker monkeys hang from the same and all the while incredibly designed zombie glasses overwhelm the coconut cups and Tiki god porcelain glasses.”

– Phil Brandt, Barfly’s Guide to Chicago’s Drinking Establishments (2000)

Don’t forget the ever-appealing circling Clydesdales above in the Budweiser sign… Cocktails at the House of Tiki were served with the obligatory umbrellas, with the highlight being the “Zombie,” a drink made from six shots of five different rums in a 20-ounce glass, the “Wahines Delight,” a ceramic coconut filled with rum, cherry brandy and pineapple juice, the “Mauna Loa,” a margarita-like, sweet-and-sour slushy concoction of rum and something glowing orange, the “Coco Lopez,” a sweet coconut drink mix, Malihini (a word actually meaning “newcomer to Hawaii”), Singapore Sling, Maui Zowie and the inevitable Mai Tai – most of which ran about $5. While many speak of the drinks in a nostalgic tone, others claim that it was all cheap rum mixed in warm Hawaiian Punch, no matter the fancy name. More into tequila? Forget it. The owner was reputed to refuse serving it, warning of its “dangers.” Rum-aversionists would down a couple from a selection of bottled beer that included Beck’s, Miller products and Old Style.

The menu at House of Tiki, illustrated on worn laminated menus, primarily consisted of burgers and Polynesian specialties served with the finest canned pineapple until 3:15am. This somewhat dodgy fare apparently helped ensure a healthy (read: non-healthy) consumption of alcohol, though the baby-back ribs and fish & chips have been praised. All of the above was cash only, please. Digestion was facilitated by a selection of 78 rpm albums, ranging from the 30’s to the 50’s and featuring a selection of Duke Ellington, Rat Pack, country, and in later years, the Chemical Brothers. A prized magazine article from 1978 detailing the origins of Ciral’s was famed and hung over the juke.

“Bamboo curtains and overgrown hanging plants that could use a trim with a nice, sharp machete provide the setting for a menu that claims to be Polynesian and Tahitian but actually leans heavily toward breaded and deep-fried catfish, fried chicken, and barbecued ribs.”

– Richard Saul Wurman, Access Chicago (Fifth Edition, 1999)

Rumor has it that Ciral shut the doors when he was extended an offer he couldn’t refuse. There was talk of a steakhouse opening, but it’s unclear what the space became in its post-tiki period. The most disheartening aspect of the House of Tiki’s closing, is that it leaves basically three bars in the entire neighborhood in Jimmy’s, the nautically-themed “Cove,” and “The Falcon.” Perhaps this is because of the sheer amount of economics in the air and the law of decreasing marginal return, which I continue to violate when I’m out on the drink. Sadly for current and potential bar owners, I do not live in Hyde Park and can only single-handedly keep a dozen bars open on the North Side.

Following its surprise closure, locals actually held a candlelight vigil dedicated to their beloved, Hawaiian shirt-clad owners Bea and Ted Ciral, but this unfortunately did nothing to resurrect their fallen idol. Even though Trader Vic’s, Bamboo Bernie’s, Sheraton’s Kon Tiki Ports, and Rock-a-Tiki have all joined House of Tiki at that big Luau in the Sky, one will be happy to know that one of the best tiki bars in the country is still in business – check out Hala Kahiki in River Grove and you will not be disappointed. There’s also Kona Kai at the O’Hare Marriott, complete with an indoor waterfall and stream. And, if you happen to be in San Francisco, be sure to check out the Tongo Room in the basement of the Faremont Hotel, which is easily the best tiki bar I’ve been to in the country. Back in Chicago, Ciral’s House of Tiki lives on, in part by having been featured in the Gene Hackman film, “The Package,” as well as on Wild Chicago and, of course, here on the Chicago Bar Project. Okole maluna!

“Long ago, the Tiki was my neighbor. One night in the ’80s, I got blotto with a marginal Jewish musician, a black biology professor who collected pre-Columbian artifacts, and a former submariner of Hitler’s Wehrmacht. I was an Anglo-Celtic sub-achieving U. of C. type. Together, we drank the place down and swore eternal friendship. Some might might suggest that at that time, there was nowhere on earth but the Tiki where such an event could have taken place.”

– P.C.-L. (November 11, 2008)

“I remember the Tiki well when I was at U of C. We used to call it, ‘The Tacky Tiki.’ You were not allowed to go there unless the other bars (Jimmy’s or the U of C Pub) had closed. The menus had layer upon layer of stickers with updated prices, and the booth seeds were naugahyde covered with duct tape. But the best thing was the blowfish lamps (lightbulbs somehow mounted inside blowfish!). Or maybe it was the description of the sauces for the wings — ‘Hot sauce, hotter sauce — or, at your own risk — Omigod sauce.’ Fun times!”

– M.H. (November 20, 2008)

Circa 1985