It’s a lovely fall afternoon, and the Columbus Historical Club’s Doug Motz is sipping cocktails on the patio of the Grass Skirt Tiki Room, pointing out George the Pig—a statue which has apparently been called many different names, such as “The Monkey.” But, as Motz points out, George clearly has a pig nose, not a monkey nose.
The nose isn’t what makes ol’ George the probably-not-a-monkey interesting, though. It’s that, in 1961, George sat in the center of a legendary restaurant the likes of which have never been seen again in Columbus and maybe anywhere else: the Kahiki Supper Club.
Seventy feet in width, one hundred and fifty feet in length and five stories high, the Kahiki’s physical imprint belied the impact it left on tiki culture across the world and Columbus residents lucky enough to have visited it before it closed in 2000.
“I remember walking in and there were these two giant moai heads, and there were flames that shot out of the heads of these guys, and I was like, ‘Wow,’” said Motz, who co-authored the book Kahiki Supper Club: A Polynesian Paradise, which was released in September. “The Kahiki, for me, is always in the view of a seven-year-old’s eyes.”
The Kahiki was founded by Bill Sapp and Lee Henry, the then-owners of The Top Steak House in Bexley, who were looking for a new restaurant venture. They opened a small tiki bar called The Grass Shack (which later burned down after what must have been a very fun birthday party for Sapp) as a pilot for a planned million-dollar Polynesian supper club. They broke ground for the Kahiki in 1960 on the Shack’s former site.
The restaurant’s name literally means “Sail to Tahiti,” and visitors to the enormous ship-shaped building met two towering Easter Island Heads upon entering. The massive space featured three separate bars, a gift shop, and even a “rainforest,” complete with thunder and-lightning. The Kahiki didn’t take reservations, so waits could be two hours for a table. Still, with tropical birds flying about, exotic fish on display, and beautiful women dancing with drinks—there was plenty of entertainment.
The Kahiki serving staff consisted only of Asian or Polynesian women, a hiring practice that would be viewed less as careful branding and more as racial discrimination in today’s world, but back then it was essential to the experience at the Kahiki. The women were primarily the war wives of soldiers who had been stationed in the Pacific.
“Our population was still pretty white-bread, so to go to this place with these exotic ladies who would serve you, and this bartender who was giving you these amazing drinks, that’s kind of how it all began,” Motz said.
Bartender Sandro Conto crafted unique tropical cocktails, largely rum-based—each drink served in its own unique glass, many of which, like the original glass for The Zombie, Sapp’s wife hand-made in the bar’s basement. The bar’s most popular cocktail was known as the Mystery Drink, an experience all in itself.
“When you would order the Mystery Drink, they would sound the gong and some scantily clad woman would come out carrying this giant bowl, and she would dance it to your table and kneel before the fireplace; in Polynesian culture, the virgin would be sacrificed to the volcano, so this was their nod to the virgin being sacrificed,” Motz said.
Though the food at Kahiki was many residents’ first exposure to any kind of Asian cuisine, it was hardly the reason to visit the restaurant. It was all about the experience—one so grand it famously attracted many visiting celebrities, including Milton Berle, Shirley Jones, Andy Williams, Robert Goulet, and Zsa Zsa Gabor.
“The Kahiki was nationally known. It was the mothership of Polynesian restaurants,” Motz said.
Sapp and Henry sold Kahiki in 1978, and it was sold again in 1989 to the Tsao family, which closed the restaurant in 2000, focusing instead on a Kahiki frozen food line that’s still manufactured today.
“By the time the restaurant closed in 2000, it really needed tons and tons and tons of work done,” Motz said.
“I mean, I mourn the Kahiki as much as anybody else, but making a business case for it, if your money’s in the frozen food part of it…”
Kahiki’s influence can still be seen in Columbus today beyond the frozen food aisle. Besides George-the-almost-definitely-a-pig, The Grass Skirt Tiki Room features many nods to Kahiki, including some of the original food and drink menus on display. Alana Shock, owner of Alana’s Food and Wine, re-imagined Kahiki’s menu at a sold-out Historical Dinner Club last year.