Saturday, August 26, 2000

The end for a landmark restaurant

Patrons bid sad farewell to palace of Polynesian culture

By Joe Milicia
The Associated Press

        COLUMBUS — Customers have been saying goodbye to a Polynesian restaurant that made bamboo poles and tiki torches hip decades before Survivor.

        The Kahiki Supper Club, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was frequented by visiting celebrities and originated a brand of nationally sold frozen foods. It served its last Smoking Eruption rum drink Friday and later will be torn down to make room for a Walgreens.

[photo] The Kahiki's trademark Easter Island-inspired tiki heads greeted diners.
(Associated Press photo)
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        Bobbie Bennett of Bexley said she remembers the excitement in 1961 of watching the swooping A-frame roof being built in a flat, then-rural part of Columbus.

        “You can tell how much it means to people because this place has been besieged since they said it was going to close,” she said, sitting under a thatch roof that gives the feel of eating in a grass hut inside the darkened restaurant.

        Thomas Montague of Pickerington ate lunch there Wednesday to say goodbye to a “part of good old Columbus.”

        “To put a drugstore in — that's not progress,” said his wife, Pat.

        Many encouraged owner Michael Tsao to keep the restaurant open, but he said the closing was unavoidable because of the drastic decline in business. On a road lined with strip malls and apartments, the Kahiki sits miles from the city's fashionable restaurant clusters.

        Mr. Tsao, dressed in a flowered shirt and a pink lei, said he wants to re-create the restaurant downtown within two years, possibly along the riverfront. He said Walgreens is not responsible for the closing and is getting undue criticism.

        “Without them, how are we going to get an opportunity to start again? This is progress,” Mr. Tsao said.

        Mr. Tsao said the Kahiki thrived as a special-occasion restaurant. He recalled placing countless diamond rings and marriage proposals into fortune cookies.

        “This is the granddaddy of theme restaurants,” Mr. Tsao said.

        The trend of Polynesian-themed restaurants was inspired by the return of servicemen from the South Pacific after World War II, said Tom Wolf, public education manager for the Ohio Historic Preservation Office.

        Ordinarily, a landmark has to be 50 years old to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Kahiki made the list in December 1997 because of its exceptional architectural significance and representation of 1950s and '60s entertainment.

        “It's amazing the tremendous amount of thought that went into the design,” Mr. Wolf said. “Some people call it kitschy, but I don't think it is.”

        In an upstairs office at the Kahiki, faded photographs of Art Linkletter, George Hamilton and a dark-haired Merv Griffin sitting with three pretty waitresses show the famous patrons the restaurant once attracted.

        Mr. Tsao said the Kahiki has provided more than 10 million customers with a taste of the Polynesian culture, but he's most pleased that he's employed many Asian immigrants.

        None of the 110 workers will lose their jobs, as Kahiki Foods Inc. will continue to produce a nationally distributed line of frozen Polynesian and Chinese foods, Mr. Tsao said. A new plant will open near Port Columbus International Airport on Wednesday.

        The restaurant will be demolished, but the decorations and furniture will be stored in a warehouse. If Mr. Tsao can find the right location, the Kahiki's trademark Easter Island-inspired tiki heads could greet diners once again.


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