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History Lesson: The history of Columbus’ most famed ‘lost’ restaurant – The Kahiki

 Doug Motz History Lesson: The history of Columbus’ most famed ‘lost’ restaurant – The Kahiki
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Many restaurants that have their roots in Columbus have made significant contributions to American culture. Marzetti’s salad dressing is the offshoot of a popular downtown eatery that was known for – you guessed it – salad dressing. Bob Evans began right here in town and is still operating from South High Street. Cries of “Where’s the Beef?” likely still reverberate in the corridors of the Catholic Foundation (site of the original Wendy’s restaurant) across from old Memorial Hall which once housed the Center for Science and Industry. And how would Neil Patrick Harris’ career ever have been rebooted without “Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle”? (Technically, White Castle started in Wichita, Kansas in 1921 but moved to Columbus in 1934 and has been here ever since).

We are also lucky to have so many fantastic independent restaurants that have stood the test of time. Schmidt’s, Rigsby’s, Otani, The Top, Wings, TAT, Sun Tong Luck, and the Refectory have all been in operation for at least 25 years. In fact, the Columbus Historical Society is celebrating many of these during the October 4th “Savor the City: Classic Columbus Cocktails and Cuisine” party on the riverfront patio at our new home at COSI.

But for me, the classic “lost” Columbus restaurant will always be equated with the crazy billboard at Hamilton and Livingston Avenue which would mechanically “wink” at me every Sunday morning when my parents drove us from our home in the Huber subdivision of Reynoldsburg to Brookwood Presbyterian Church in Bexley. The Polynesian Goddess on the billboard beckoning me to join her for dinner and drinks on East Broad Street scared the devil out of me and I would duck down behind the seat of my parents’ station wagon for fear she would see me. Little did I know how that mystery girl would find her way into the hearts of hundreds, if not thousands, of Central Ohioans.

Of course, for many of us of a certain generation, I am writing about the late great KAHIKI.

What an impressive entrance!

The mother ship of all South Seas themed restaurants was located at East Broad Street and Napoleon across from the Dessert Inn (and one-time Playboy club!). It was an easy landmark to identify. Shaped like a Polynesian fighting boat 40 feet tall with giant flaming Moai Heads outside the main doors that opened up into a tropical rainforest and reproduction of a typical Pacific Islander tribal village.

The Kahiki, whose name literally translates as “Sail to Tahiti” according to an undated Kahiki pamphlet, has its’ roots in another of Columbus’ most venerated restaurants – The Top Steakhouse. Lee Henry and Bill Sapp had been operating The Top for 3 years when in 1957 they thought that Columbus could support another supper club and began traveling around the country in search of inspiration. In their travels, it struck them that all of the Polynesian restaurants they visited were doing very well and offered a more casual experience than many of the other clubs of the era. Thus, the idea of the Kahiki began to take shape.

The pair hired Coburn Morgan to oversee the design and decorations of the Kahiki and architects Ned Eller and Ralph Sounik of Design Associates. (According to Dispatch reporter Elizabeth Gibson, they had the space because a previous Tiki Bar they owned called the Grass Shack had burned down). Construction began in June of 1960 at a cost of over a million dollars and the Kahiki opened her legendary doors in February of 1961.

The design of the building was based on men’s meeting houses of New Guinea and the details featured along the curved roof were found on many of the war canoes of the region. Pelicans and fish lined the apex of the roof, thought to be symbols of plentiful good food. Two replicas of the Easter Island heads stood guard at the doorway that was lined with murals to ward away evil spirits.

My own strongest childhood memory of the architecture is of the shell washbasins found in the bathrooms and the “Thunder and Lighting” occurring in the tropical rainforests that lined the sides of the village interior. Also featured were giant wall-sized aquariums filled with tropical fish of the South Pacific.

The Outrigger and Maui bars were on either side of the foyer and often the Beachcomber Trio could be found playing a fusion of Latin jazz and Polynesian melodies. The trio players were Bob Chalfant on piano, Henry Burch on Vibraphone, conga, bells and trumpet, and Marsh Padillo on guitar, flute and percussion. In 1965, they cut a record and it was recently re-released in vinyl by Dionysous Records.

The Beachcomber Trio.

According to the pamphlet:

Most of the cocktail waitresses are the wives of servicemen or ex-servicemen and all are from Japan or Korea. Although none of them had experience in this type of work, they were all trained rigidly for a two-month period prior to the Kahiki opening in February.

The Maui Girls.

So patrons were immersed in a total world of the South Seas and while there, could order their choice of exotic fare and island drinks. The Kahiki offered up such drinks as Malayan Mist, Blue Hurricane, Instant Urge, Maiden’s Prayer, Misty Isle, Jungle Fever, Head Hunter, Zombie, and the Smoking Eruption. Each one of these cocktails had its’ own sculpted mug designed just for the drinker who could then purchase it from the gift shop and take it home as a souvenir. (Mrs. Sapp herself made the original mug for the Zombie!) The various bars of the Kahiki used up to 1,000 pineapples and 2,000 bottles of rum monthly to keep up with demand. According to the pamphlet they once sold over 18,000 Polynesian drinks during the month of May alone!

As amazing as all these drinks sound, the pen-ultimate Kahiki drink had to have been the “Mystery Drink” which was made to serve 4 people and contained 8 ounces of rum and brandy. Served in a bowl with a smoking volcano in the middle, it was served by the “Mystery Girl” who ceremoniously danced it to your table after being summoned by a giant gong.

The service of this drink was meant to symbolize an ancient sacrificial ritual that supposedly stopped volcanoes from erupting. According to legend, the maiden chosen for the sacrifice was usually the Chieftains daughter. After several days of ceremony, feasting and luaus, the young lady would climb the volcano and fling herself into its crater – yikes!

At the Kahiki, this was altered to have the mystery girl present the drink to the main Tiki in the restaurant and then after bowing to the idol, would bring the smoking bowl to the diner and present it to their party along with a lei of orchids which were flown in 2-3 times a week from Hilo, Hawaii.

The Kahiki was also a draw for visiting celebrities, including Milton Berle, Andy Williams, Robert Goulet and famously Zsa Zsa Gabor who allegedly ordered milk – of all things! (It would seem likely that most of these folks were in town for Summer Stock performances of the Kenley Players at Vets Memorial– but that is a story for another day.)

A sad day in Columbus history.

But all the mystery girls, leis, pineapples and celebrities couldn’t keep pace with the march of time and the Kahiki went through a slew of owners. In 1988 Michael Tsao took over complete ownership and in 1995, began a frozen food company to market Kahiki in grocery stores.

In 1997 the building was put onto the National Register of Historic Places, but on June 30, 2000 was sold to Walgreen’s corporation and the doors were shut forever on August 25, 2000. The demolition crew literally had to open up the roof to get the large Tiki fireplace out and my thanks to Mike Monello for getting this sad but amazing photograph of the heart of the Kahiki being ripped out.

A dozen years have passed and still the spell cast by the Kahiki remains powerful. So much so, that the fine folks of the Columbus Food League will soon open their own Polynesian-themed supper club – Grass Skirt. When I visited Grass Skirt recently, Managing Partner Carmen Owens suggested that it could be open as soon as late September. She also relayed that there would be a special place at Grass Skirt that will pay homage to the wonderland that was the Kahiki.

So with the memories of a winking Mystery Girl and the Beachcomber Trio blaring on the hi-fi while I sip on a marvelous “Polynesian Spell” I bid you all a fond Aloha!

Savor the City: Classic Columbus Cocktails and Cuisine will be hosted on the riverfront English Patio at COSI on Thursday evening October 4th. More information can be found at www.columbushistory.org.

All images courtesy of the authors’ collection, Mike Monello and the Columbus Historical Society.

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  • Great article Doug! I got to experience it a few times when I first moved here and you do not really miss it until it’s gone.

  • Love it! The Kahiki closed before I ever had a chance to go. Really wish my parents would have taken me there as a kid… but alas… will have to enjoy The Grass Skirt when it open instead. ;)

  • arualpalm

    1. I still want the Kahiki to come back.
    2. I would buy the above photos (or reprints) in a heartbeat.

  • Analogue Kid

    “Construction began in June of 1960 at a cost of over a million dollars”

    Today that’s about $7,740,000!

  • glwillia

    So if the penultimate drink was the mystery drink, what was the ultimate drink?

  • alexs

    The rain showers were delightfully bogus. There were windows onto a rain forest of plastic plants along the side. Canned thunder would play, and lights would flash, and the “rain” was just water that ran down the window glass; you could see that the plastic plants were still dry.

    I still have some boxes of those matches. Oh to once again wander that little gift store they had…

  • Very cool!

    If I recall correctly the Fireplace that is pictured being pulled out was purchased by a local collector who never got around to putting it back up and I believe it was sold on eBay. I can’t remember what it went for, not much, you had to bring a truck…Grass Skirt could have used that!

    If you can find a copy “The Book of Tiki” has a great section on the place, with a full map of the building and drink menus. It’s been out of print for years, check eBay.

  • OH and Tiki Farm produced a limited edition Kahiki Fireplace (I can’t remember the specific name of that thing, starts with a M) mug a few years back, they are all sold out but really cool if you can find one!

    EBay always has a good selection of Kahiki items, you could really put together your own version with everything that’s been listed over the years.

  • Urban Dansigner

    The closing party for the Kahiki occurred on the same day as my wedding. After our reception we ran into Joe Bob Briggs in the lobby of the Great Southern and I went up and talked to him. He described the party and I told him how much I loved the design and idea of the Kahiki … the drinks were great but the food was not so good. That was when I found out that Walgreens was tearing it down for one of there stores, I was furious and I am still mad to this day. The menu could have been fixed but you could never recreate that greatness that was the Kahiki. I like that Columbus Food League is paying homage to the Kahiki but hell they cannot even fix their storefront at Tip Top.

  • peanutnozone

    Man that place was so great. I remember being wowed as a kid when my mom took us there. I always got this big drink thing where they put dry ice in the punch glass and made it steam…it was like the volcano punch or something. And the food, to my very then untempered palate, was sensationally exotic.

    When they were tearing it down, my dad was one of the people contracted to help. Those giant tiki statues? They were going to let him KEEP THEM, so he took his crane-truck thing and attempted to put them on the back of his truck to haul them to our house to place at the foot of our driveway on either side! Alas, on placing the second one on his truck bed, it fell over, hit the other one and they both fell to pieces.

    This is definitely a Columbus legend…I miss it so much…

  • Tikigreg

    One of the flaming moai is still in Columbus, the other is in Hampton Beach, NH, and the fireplace is in Brattleboro, VT, owned by private collectors.

  • buckette13

    Was only there as a kid. I remember it as being awesome.

  • Thanks for all the Kahiki love! I have the vinyl of the beachcomber album and am in the process of having it digitized – cannot wait to be able to listen to them any/everywhere. Also, if anyone has the recipe for the “Mystery Girl” drink – PLEASE feel free to post – thanks loads!

  • We just got our tickets today to the event Doug mentioned in the article (Savor the City: Classic Columbus Cocktails and Cuisine) and can’t wait! More info on it, here:


  • Taz Devil

    What was the point of being on National Historic Register if you can just tear it down and put up a drug store (like we don’t have enough of those)? Coolest place Columbus ever had, and it is truly a crying shame. I still have a couple mugs and menus from the place. The lunch buffet was deeeelish. In typical fashion, get rid of anything cool.

  • MichaelC

    I miss this place. I enjoyed it as a child, and always ordered the “volcano of meatballs.” So damn good.

  • ricospaz

    I loved that place. Food was ok but the restaurant was an adventure, especially as a child.

  • superglue

    I remember being so sad when they closed this place! Used to go there all the time for my birthday as a kid and would frequent the place as a teen just for fun. If your a Columbus native this place (along with a couple others) is truly missed!!!! I can’t remember how the if the food was particularly good though. Around that time, anything with meat and cheese tasted good to me lol.

  • Tikiskip

    I have the other Moai from the Kahiki it is in my back yard.
    It’s not in bad shape, but is very heavy and does need some work
    before I can set it upright.
    If you don’t know about Tikicentral.com this is a site you can
    go to to get MUCH more info on the Kahiki.
    It also has info on ALL things Tiki.
    Good luck grass skirt!! See you there.

  • Tikiskip

    Hey one more thing Columbus Kahiki Tiki lovers, there is a new DVD that
    has lots of old tiki bars, restaurants and more on it.
    And in this DVD you can see rare video of the great Kahiki
    being torn down, sad I know.
    But on that day it was foggy very moody.
    This is not my DVD, I make no money from this.
    But if you would like to see this DVD go here.

  • Thanks for a great article and photos of Kahiki. What a shame we let this place go…. I’m hoping the new Grass Skirt Tiki Room will soon become a distination as the Kahiki was! I look forward to arriving there in Melanie Harris’ Tiki Car! http://www.flickr.com/photos/thatcar/5849652972/

  • Tikiskip

    WOW!! Tiki Car is AWESOME.
    I would like to give you a light for that car.
    If you get ahold of me to let me know how to get it to you.(Tikicentral)
    Or I can hope to see you at The Shack.
    Very cool.

  • don browne

    I am the guy in the front in the band picture above, as I played the marimba and timbales in the trio.

    I was fortunate enough to play in the Beachcombers Trio around 1968 to 1969 with guitarist Leroy Plymale and leader Marcel Padilla on piano, bass and flute, who died about two years ago in Boise, Idaho. At night I played in the band at the Kahiki, while I taught music at New Albany High School in the day.

    -Don Browne, LaBelle, Florida

  • squid

    I vaguely recall hearing that some of the decor and one of the bars was installed in a brief-lived tiki bar out in the strip malls in Hilliard? Anyone know more about that?

  • Yeah, I believe you’re referring to the former Tropical Bistro in Hilliard:


  • Miss the Kahiki big time. My wife was just wearing one of their t-shirts a day or so ago. I spent a lot of childhood Birthdays there since it was one of my Dads favorite places to go when he was kid.

    I’d love to see an article about the Jai Lai Restaurant.

  • Vicki

    I grew up in Ohio and went to The Kahiki many times, mostly with the Girl Scouts. It was an amazing place, especially for kids and teens. Loved the fish tanks and hula dancers!

    BTW: I moved from Columbus when I was a teen to a town just west of Rio Grande, Ohio, and that is where Bob Evans lived and started his business, not in Columbus. You can read more here: http://www.bobevans.com/ourfarms/bobevansfarm/farmhistory.aspx

  • Geno99

    I remember the sea shell sinks. We seem to have lost the culture of the ‘supper club’ in America. Perhaps the closest thing we have left in the area is Quaker Steak and Lube. Too many channels on TV to stay home and watch, I guess.

  • Jessie

    I went to the Kahiki ONCE but I will never forget that day. A group of my friends and I decided to be super extravagant for 1996 Worthington homecoming dance so we made reservations at…THE KAHIKI!!!! As I was shopping for my dress I kept the Kahiki in mind :) I spent $150 on that dress. I had never spent more than twenty dollars on a dress before. Some of the girls wore thrift store dresses but we were all confident we looked our best. I don’t remember much about the dance but I remember EVERY detail about our fabulous night at the Kahiki! p.s. I got the orange duck and my neice now plays ‘dress up’ in what I call my Kahiki dress.

  • QuakerWildcat

    That billboard! Thanks for sharing that memory.

    I always considered Kahiki with the height of cheesiness but for some it was the height of class. I last visited in the early 1980s. There was a party in the lower level backgammon bar where some high rollers were playing for $1,000 a point.

  • Craig Denmead

    I lived right behind The Kahiki on Napoleon Court from 1961 until 1965. I was in high school at the time attending Columbus Eastmoor. Our backyard butted up against its back fence. I can still smell that Polynesian aroma from its huge exhaust fans. I even parked cars there one summer for a short period of time and I didn’t even have a driver’s license. Don’t think that would happen today.

  • Maxwell Kelly

    Back in the the mid 1970’s, my father and his crew put those red fish on that ran across the top of the roof. He was also responsible for many different colored shingles on the roof. The Polynesian “totem Pole” like design that hung in the front of the building over the main entrance, was also mounted by my father.

    He used to take me and my siblings with him on that job site in Bexley. The Playboy Club was cross the street and there was a K-Mart directly across the street from Kahiki. There was a grass hut and all kinds of scary and cool “Tikki God” statues all around that place. The torches that were were on top of the Kahiki sign, were fueled by natural gas.

    • Maxwell Kelly

      Our home in Columbus, Ohio circa 1973

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