Kitsch and tell
Remember that Brady Bunch episode when the family went to Hawaii? That's pretty much how it looks at Hala Kahiki-still.
Hala Kahiki (2834 River Rd, River Grove, 708-456-3222), a tiki institution since 1964, wasn’t born from a love of tropical drinks. It wasn’t opened to capitalize on the nation’s fascination with Hawaii after the islands were annexed as a U.S. state in 1959. Nope, according to current owner Cookie Oppedisano, Hala Kahiki became the kitsch haven it is today because her parents, the bar’s founders, decided the walls of the tavern’s original location on Fullerton Avenue looked dingy—so they covered them with bamboo.
“Everyone said, ‘Oh, this looks like a tropical place,’” Oppedisano says. The family ran with the tiki theme, taking it to the bar’s current location in a sprawling, low-ceilinged space in River Grove two years later. Nothing’s changed much since: Waitresses wearing leis, sarongs and tank tops pad along the faded, shell-pattern carpeting to deliver a bowl of pretzels and outrageously large drinks to the overwhelmingly Eastern European crowd sitting on chairs with wood backrests carved into the shape of a pineapple. The palm ceiling, set off by bamboo beams, and the woven rattan walls give off a musty, basement-y smell that’s disconcerting at first, but you’ll get used to it while perusing the novel-size menu of more than 100 drinks, from classics such as the Singapore sling to newer concoctions such as the saketini. Each drink gets a short and often eye-roll-inducing description (e.g., Harpoon: “This one will really stab you”), in between Tahitian language lessons (did you know mai tai means “good?”).
Tiki enthusiasts dig the drinks, but it’s the original tiki decor that excites the übergeeks. Hala Kahiki features artwork from Witco, one of the few manufacturers of tiki furniture back in the ’60s, on every wall. Usually made of wood and just as often unbearably tacky, the Witco works depicting Tahitian scenes and fish lend the place a strongly authentic vibe. Not so authentic: the jukebox stocked with ’70s through ’90s hits (somebody there loves the shit out of Abba’s “Dancing Queen,” heard twice during one visit).
Does crazy kitsch like this ever fall out of fashion? Definitely, according to Oppedisano. But she credits her family for keeping the place alive even when tiki was as popular as dorky AV guys in high school. “Me and my brother, my mom, dad, we all worked here,” she says. “[We had] barely any salary, and that’s how we survived. If we hadn’t been family, I don’t think we would have made it.”