Now that Trader Vic’s, Ciral’s House of Tiki and Rock-a-Tiki have all passed into the mists of Chicago tavern history, one can especially appreciate the existence of Hala Kahiki – more than just a tiki bar, it’s a magical tiki experience. Hala Kahiki is not only one of the best tiki bars outside of Polynesia, but it is also one of my favorite places in the world and is perfect for a game of Where’s the Cake (see below). You can try, but you can’t beat the tiki at Hala Kahiki!
Hala Kahiki is located at the eastern edge of the little-known suburb of River Grove, on River Road that runs in parallel to the Des Plaines River, between Grand and Belmont, and just west of Chicago city limits and the St. Joseph Catholic Cemetery & Mausoleums. Here you’ll find a long, single story structure with dark wood paneling and colorful stained glass, surrounded by shrubbery and a neatly manicured grass lawn. A path lined with an orange-painted metal railing leads you to a bamboo door that leads you to paradise.
The name Hala Kahiki means House of Pineapple. It turns out that the spiny fruit is a Hawaiian symbol of hospitality. Another, more literal, sign of hospitality is the piece of wood on the side of the building that says “Aloha.” Once inside, the House of Pineapple is somewhat less hospitable with its “Proper attire required” sign in the short entryway that spells out the dress code, written in a way that more or less bans any guy that happens to emerge from the 1970s and attempts to gain entry. Good news guys: there’s nothing here about having to wear shoes or pants, though those unfortunate to have severe dental issues seem unfairly discriminated against:
No Head Gear Of Any Kind
Your Shirt Must Have Sleeves
No Plain Undershirts
(This Does Not Apply To Females)– Hala Kahiki dress code
As you walk into the front room, you’ll find a long bar running along the south wall with a bamboo overhang. High-backed barstools padded in fine beige vinyl match the armrest on the marble bar that is lined with pineapple lamps. Across the bar is additional seating at low-slung wooden tables with wicker chairs. Beyond the bar are the restrooms on your right and a jukebox stocked with tunes from Don Ho, Alfred Apaka and the Rat Pack, played softly. To the left is a small room with low-slung tables and a glass door that leads out to the beer garden. In summer, the patio serves as a pleasant oasis with its Witco fountain, fake deer, large tiki idols, flowers, seasonal displays, and plastic tables and chairs. Cabanas serve as a smoker’s refuge in winter.
Another room is found on your with windows in the south wall, looking out over the patio. Be sure to visit the South Seas gift shop all the way in the back, where you can load up on Hawaiian shirts, fake grass skirts, leis, Brady Bunch-like tiki idols (be careful!), hammocks, and ceramic pandas that you can drink out of.
As you would guess, the rooms are adorned by what looks like the aftermath of a Polynesian explosion: walls lined with bamboo, hanging plants and flowers, wooden dolphins, beaded curtains, more tiki idols, floral carpet, palm fronds, ceramic parrots, Buddha statues, seashell wind chimes, hula lamps, puffer fish lights, and more wicker than you can shake a stick at. The waitstaff also gets into the theme with Hawaiian shirts for the guys dressed, and sarongs and leis for the ladies, who sometimes show a bit of midriff.
Even more impressive than the décor is the drinks menu with over 100 concoctions available. The usual suspects are featured first with Piña Coladas, Mai Tais, Singapore Slings, Zombies, and Hurricanes, mixed in with suggestions from Hala Kahiki like the Kokomo, made from coconut, vodka, Amaretto, and Creme de Cacao; the Scratch Me Lani, made from Grand Marnier, rum – spicy, strong and “never drink more than two at a sitting”; and the Passionate Rummie, made from Kahlua, brandy, and described as, “A sure way for the under-sexed, over-sexed, insomniacs and Income Tax.” We’re not sure what that means, but it sounds intriguing… Other menu sections include King Kamehameha’s Royal Chocolate Drinks (named after the king who united the islands and formed the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1810), rum daiquiris, two wine drinks, two sailor drinks (Port Light made of bourbon and Starboard Light made of Scotch), and the ever popular Drinks for Two. Happy couples can be made even happier with a Volcano (light and dark rums, sherry), Beach Comber (vodka, apple liqueur, orange, and pineapple), and the Tiki Bowl (rum and brandy). If that isn’t enough for you Hala Kahiki also serves creme drinks (which can be served with ice cream if you like), wele (hot) drinks, hot chocolate drinks (including the Sneaky Tiki and Coco Loco), hot coffee drinks, ice cream drinks, ice cream floats, martinis, and virgin drinks (non-alcoholic). Mele Kalikimaka! Party poopers can order bottled beer, wines by the glass, and even non-alcoholic wines (white Zinfandel and merlot). Hala Kahiki does not have a kitchen but does provide complimentary pretzels served in white ceramic clam bowls and fortune cookies are served with the bill so, if you’re hungry or need to sober up, grab a dog at nearby Gene & Jude’s Red Hot Stand afterwards.
As for the crowd, you’ll find couples at Hala Kahiki for a romantic night out, boisterous groups of ladies (“protected” by the staff from ambitious single men), visitors drawn to the bar after reading the book, Tiki Road Trip, and residents from the surrounding Polish neighborhood. The place fills up quickly every night, so get there before 8:00pm if you want a table without a wait.
Where’s the Cake?
For my birthday this year, my wife organized a surprise party that began at Webster’s Wine Bar and turned into a pub crawl via Chicago Trolley. We paid homage to another personal favorite, the Billy Goat Tavern, and then proceeded to Hala Kahiki. After settling in with our tropical drinks and lava bowls, a waitress brought out my cake to a cacophony resulting from a stirring rendition of Happy Birthday. Near the end of the song, something happened that caused the waitress to drop the cake. I averted my gaze from the spectacle in disappointment. A few moments later, I looked at the floor, expecting the worst, only to find something very strange: no cake. Where did the cake go? We all looked all around but saw nothing, not even a remnant. We started to believe the cake’s disappearance could only be explained by a wormhole that sucked the frosted creation into another dimension when my friend Marc got up, walked over to a previously unseen corner where the cake had landed, picked it up and set it on the table – and it was still good! Only parts of three sides had touched the floor and side walls. You see, the cake didn’t fall face down as Murphy requires, but rather it stood up on one end while leaning against the corner where a bamboo partition met the thatched wall. We were stunned, but gathered our wits, relit the beercan candles, cut off the bad ends, and ate the cake. As a special thanks, the waitress, after crying and apologizing profusely, later threw Marc under the bus by claiming that he caused her to drop the cake by moving his chair and bumping into her, which he had not as I saw him the whole time.
- Where the cake hit the wall
- The recovered cake – still good!
Hala Kahiki is easily one of the best tiki bars in the entire country, though it didn’t start this way. Stanley and Rose Sacharski bought a Dillinger-era tavern, incongruously called the Glass House in 1965. After Rose came up with the idea, even though she had never been to Hawaii or the South Pacific, Stanley began experimenting with bamboo and then went whole-hog tropical: the House of Pineapple was born. The reigns were ultimately turned over to their son, Stanley “Sonny” Sacharski, III, until his passing at the age of 57 in 2007. Fortunately, his sister Cookie and wife Maggie carry on the tiki family tradition today.
“Stanley started tinkering with bamboo weaving, creating canopies, chairs and other fixtures for his newly acquired bar at his wife’s behest. ‘Before you knew it, people were asking if we were going tropical. I said I guess we were and we just kinda stayed with it,’ he says, ignoring his understatement.”– excerpt from Lisa Balde Beep’s Daily Herald article, “Hala Kahiki offers vast array of tropical refreshment,”
(June 29, 2007)
So there you have it: tropical drinks, a top beer garden and puffer fish lights. What more could you want in a tiki bar? The only problem, at least for city dwellers, is Hala Kahiki’s inconvenient location. Though my favorite form of transportation to Hala Kahiki is Chicago Trolley, they also have a parking lot if you drive. If you want tiki in the city, check out the second level at Bottom Lounge, the California Clipper’s back room (call ahead to make sure it’s open), and Fizz on Tuesday nights. For more information, check out the Hala Kahiki website. Okole maluna!
The author on his birthday Chicago Trolley pub crawl
Hala Kahiki beer garden around Thanksgiving (2008)