Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Remembering the Kahiki

Last week the Columbus Dispatch ran an article remembering the Kahiki restaurant on the 10 year Anniversary of its closing. I’ve copied the article and the photos here so if the newspaper takes the story offline in the future, we will still have access to it. Enjoy!

10 years after torches go out, Kahiki memories live
Restaurant with Polynesian theme has devoted fans
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
By Elizabeth Gibson

No restaurant with a fire-breathing stone head has ever captured the hearts of Columbus quite like the Kahiki.

The Polynesian eatery took Tiki kitsch to the max with an aviary, indoor thatch huts, umbrella-topped drinks, waterfalls and the deep thrum of drums.
Ten years ago today, the Kahiki closed its doors to make way for a Walgreens pharmacy. The Kahiki name lives on in a Gahanna-based frozen-food company, but company President Alan Hoover says he still gets calls about the restaurant.
"Two months ago, I was leaving the office in the evening and a couple was walking up the front walkway," he said. "I asked if I could help them, and they said, 'Yes, we'd like to have dinner tonight.'

"It's amazing that these things are still happening."

The Kahiki, at 3583 E. Broad St., was the brainchild of Bill Sapp and Lee Henry, also the creators of the Top Steak House near Bexley. Their temple of Tiki opened in 1961 after their Tiki bar, the Grass Shack, burned down.
They built the Kahiki for more than $1 million (about $7.3 million today). Sapp said they sold it to help them finance a new restaurant, the Wine Cellar, also long gone now.

"We were sorry within two weeks that we sold it," he said. "We had this great big gong, like 4 to 5 feet across, that went bong, and right after we sold it they replaced it with this little thing that went ting."
The restaurant went through multiple owners. The last was Michael Tsao, who started the frozen-food business and sold the property to Walgreens. Hoover said it was a smart business move. The restaurant was draining, and Tsao wanted more time to focus on expanding the factory.

Tsao's son Jeff said that before his father unloaded the restaurant he had grand dreams for relocating the Kahiki to the riverfront Downtown. But it never panned out because the factory got busy and government support fell short. Then his father died unexpectedly.

"I don't know if it could ever happen again," Jeff Tsao said. "But we're very, very pleased and thankful that we still have so many fans."

But that doesn't necessarily soften the blow.

"I think a lot of people are still bitter about it. We all miss it," said Stu Koblentz, who was a member of the Ohio Preservation Alliance when the organization labeled the Kahiki one of the top 10 endangered historic buildings in Ohio.
Kahiki fans say the restaurant was a place for special occasions and fond memories.
There are dozens of active Kahiki tribute websites and discussion boards. There are photo albums on TikiCentral.org full of Kahiki swag - drink stirrers, napkins, toothpicks, salt shakers and matchbooks.

Tiki enthusiasts write books and poetry about the restaurant. Columbus resident Jeff Chenault unearthed a 1965 recording of the Beachcomber Trio at the Kahiki.
Dionysus Records produced vinyl copies for sale online, and they're selling.
Other Ohioans remember a prom night, an anniversary getaway, playing table games in the basement or bouncing with excitement as a child, sipping virgin mixed drinks and roasting meatballs over an open flame. Zsa Zsa Gabor famously ordered milk.
"When I was a kid and we'd drive by the huge sloping roof with dragons and torches, it always seemed to me to be a grounded ship on E. Broad Street," Newark resident Lesa Best said in an e-mail.

"There were macaws in the bar, and the booth walls were lined with aquariums, or 'rain forests' complete with thunderous sound effects. By the '80s, it was past its prime, definitely, and cheesy? Yes it was. But my friends and family loved going because it was different, it was campy and the food was really quite good.
"I long for just one more Mystery Drink."

Each time someone made a pilgrimage to the Kahiki, they would take word back to their hometowns.

"When I was a kid growing up in Pittsburgh, my dad regularly traveled to Columbus on business," said Worthington resident Bill Nordquist. "We had a postcard picture of the exterior, and in the mid-1970s I had never seen anything like that."
Even some people who never went to the Kahiki said they were dismayed to hear it would be torn down.

Jennifer Akers grew up nearby and begged her parents to take her there for her birthday. They told her the Kahiki wasn't in the budget for a family of six, so she never set a foot inside.

But when she heard the Kahiki was auctioning off its wares, she had her chance. Now she owns a copy of its blueprints.

"I spent hours and lots of dollars buying treasure," she said. "I have boxes of menus, match boxes, napkins, cups. I have the boss' couch right out of his office."
New Yorker Frank Decaro flew to Columbus when he heard the Kahiki was closing. Ten years later, he still can't believe they tore it down.

"At the point when the last great Tiki bar closes, someone will open a new one and everyone will say these are great," he said. "It's a shame we always seem to realize too late how much things mean to us."

1961 | Bill Sapp and Lee Henry open the Kahiki after their Tiki bar, the Grass Shack, burns down.

1988 | After a slew of owners, Michael Tsao buys out his partner and takes over the restaurant.

1995 | Tsao starts a frozen-food company next door to the restaurant.

1997 | The Kahiki is put on the National Register of Historic Places.

April 17, 2000 | Walgreens confirms that it wants to build a store where the Kahiki sits.

June 30, 2000 | Tsao says that he will sell the Kahiki to Walgreens but never reveals how much money it took.

Aug. 25, 2000 | The Kahiki closes its doors before a private farewell party the next day.

July 22, 2005 | Michael Tsao unexpectedly dies 10 weeks after the realization of his dream of moving the company into a bigger factory. The company is in debt and in mourning.

2006 | A group of former Kahiki employees opens a restaurant called Tropical Bistro, but it lasts for only two years.

May 2007 | A Pittsburgh company buys Kahiki for $11.7 million, although the factory stays in Gahanna.

2010 | The company makes almost $50 million in sales a year and sells 70 products in groceries across the country. President Alan Hoover said it still makes many of the dishes from the Kahiki menu.

Source: Dispatch archives

The exterior of the Kahiki restaurant, a longtime landmark on East Broad Street.

The dramatic entrance to the Kahiki.

The restaurant under construction in 1961. Manager-to-be Hal Naguchi with Lee Henry, one of the two owners of Kahiki at the time, under arches depicting a New Guinea meeting house.

Micheal Tsao, owner of the Kahiki at the time it closed in 2000.

Detail from a promotional brochure showing the layout of the restaurant.

Detail from the menu of exotic drinks.

The famous Mystery Drink would be delivered to the table by a Mystery Girl. The drink served four people.

Visitors from Chicago share a Mystery Drink in August 2000. Many people wanted to make a last visit to the restaurant before it closed.

The Kahiki featured various exotic birds and fish. Maintaining them was the job of Jim Rush.

On Oct. 31, 2000, the fireplace Tiki god was lifted through a hole in the roof of the closed restaurant.


  1. Here is an interesting follow-up email that I received the other day about this article.

    If die-hard Kahiki fans want to see what the building looked like, they should visit Covenant Presbyterian Church at 2070 Ridgecliff Rd. in Upper Arlington. The architect who designed the Kahiki also designed the church. The Kahiki was built in 1961. The church was built in 1963. They are basically the same building, except the Kahiki had a curved roof while the church has a straight roof.

    Inside the church sanctuary, one can see the laminated wood arches which are the same as were used for the Kahiki except for the curvature.

  2. Hi Mike! Great Job on the blog. I thought that I would post a ntoification on the near completion of a detailed historic structure report that focuses upon the Kahiki. This project was started several years ago as a part time labor of love. The report utilized an array of historic photographs and original construction plans. Focus areas include a complete structural analysis, exterior facade assessment, roof assessment, interior construction and design, and landscape design. I will make PDF copies available to those who are interested in the details.


  3. Hey, Chip

    Sounds very interesting, I'd love to take a look. Send me an email (tikimike at aol dot com)

  4. Me too :o) dedevallo at yahoo dot com Thank you!

  5. Michael Tsao was delusional, or a cock and bull artist. He kept insisting that the City of Columbus was making way for the Kahiki in the Scioto mile redevelopment area and that the Kahiki would be built overlooking downtown. Then he boxed up all of the artifacts that Lee had brought in for the restaurant and warehoused them in the factory until - according to locals in the know, they have been sold off piecemeal. Mention his name and people in Columbus still growl