Bali Ha'i: Searching for Dallas' Elusive Tiki Dining Past

Not Dallas' Don the Beachcomber, but you get the idea.
Not Dallas' Don the Beachcomber, but you get the idea.

Don the Beachcomber, the Dallas restaurant whose hazy history I wrote about last week, was a relatively late arrival to the region's Polynesian dining scene.

Kevin Tucker and Dennis Haberkern, two local tiki aficionados, are busily chronicling the stories of a few DFW bars that plugged into the tiki trend decades before Don the Beachcomber opened a Dallas location. Tucker and Haberkern plan to publish their findings in an illustrated booklet, but sat down with me this week to discuss their ongoing research.

Haberkern's exploring the history of the Hawaiian Century Room at the Adolphus, a tropical concept that invaded the glitzy hotel's signature dining room from 1940-1948. The restaurant -- which had animated wave murals and wicker chairs -- featured a central ice rink on which traveling skaters performed.

Haberkern is still searching for an interior photo of the Century Room.

"All I've been able to find is artists' renderings," Haberkern says. "You can't see any of the things described."

Haberkern is confident there are extant images of diners at Century Room which he could analyze for telling details about the restaurant's menu and drink service.

"Back then, you'd have a photographer walking around the restaurant saying 'Can I take your picture?'" Haberkern reasons.

But interior images of tiki restaurants are scarce, mostly because the dining rooms were dark by design. In an era of weak and expensive flash bulbs, shooting pictures in a tiki bar didn't make much sense.

Tucker recalls tracking down a photographer who shot an image of a restaurant he was studying: Tucker assumed the picture came from a larger set of negatives.

"He told me he could only get one shot, he used so many flash bulbs to light up the space," Tucker says.

Still, Tucker's hoping to find photographs of the Cannibal Room and Galleon Club at Ren Clark's Polynesian Village, the Western Hills Hotel's elaborate foray into tiki. Clark, a respected magician, "built this pretty amazing restaurant and bar," Tucker says.

Guests at the Polynesian Village -- which operated from 1960-1969, when a fire broke out at the luxurious Fort Worth hotel -- traveled in an elevator that simulated an underwater descent and slurped cocktails from severed head mugs. Tucker doesn't know yet just what the Polynesian Village served in its famous drinkware: He's also still looking for a cocktail menu.

Since the closure of Trader Vic's, Haberkern and Tucker have been forced to get their contemporary tiki fix in far-off states such as Tennessee and Florida. They lament not just the loss of tiki culture in Dallas, but also the escapist fantasy Polynesian restaurants represented. Neither tiki hobbyist could come up with a local restaurant they'd classify as escapist.

"Escapist for me is when you walk in somewhere and forget where you are," says Haberkern, describing the exact opposite of what most locavores are trying to achieve.

"The whole notion of what is exotic has certainly changed," Tucker adds. "We feel we know everywhere now. It does become a question of what is escapist? What is exotic? What is new?"

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