Max's South Seas Hideaway, Grand Rapids, Michigan
March 15, 2024 3:43 PM   Subscribe

Is This The Greatest Tiki Bar In The World? [46m] It probably is because the guy who created it spent YEARS purchasing tiki from all over the history of tiki bars, having some custom made, and designing a space that is a living museum as well as a thriving party joint. Here's NPR from 2016 discussing Let's Talk Tiki Bars: Harmless Fun Or Exploitation? because this is a loaded topic. But I hope we can discuss the amazing bar in Michigan most of all! posted by hippybear (25 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
This place has a feature in common with other places I've been that have felt really special to take groups of friends for an evening, and that is that it isn't a giant room but rather a lot of smaller segmented spaces. Even though it is empty while they are touring it, I can so easily see how this would be an amazing place for a night. It has public bars for mingling and so many small retreats for groups to feel private and special and also connected to the larger group.

It is SO LARGE!!! But apparently they have the clientele to support it.
posted by hippybear at 4:08 PM on March 15 [4 favorites]

When I was a kid growing up in Kansas City, there was a Trader Vic's on the Plaza that we went to more than once. Probably 70's. Never got the vibe, and was kind of always freaked out by the Tiki Heads. And I wasn't being served tropical alcoholic beverages.

What an odd phenomenon. Never thought much about the WWII returning soldiers thing, which makes some sense.
posted by Windopaene at 4:40 PM on March 15 [1 favorite]

reminds me of old Jimmy Lum's aloha lounge in Flint Michigan. everybody would go there writers, newspaper people, Auto workers.
Jimmy was a prince and he always loved to tell people he's really from Hong Kong. whenever my uncle and I went in he always rolled out the carpet and took a seat with us for a few minutes, he was quite a character one day, his dishwasher quit, I was about 18, I got you Jimmy." and went to work washing dishes, the kitchen staff only spoke Chinese. some of the best cooks I've ever seen. my uncle also related during the second World War when he was in knettishall, both the officers club and the NCO club would have tiki themed nights.
Uncle started in radio in 1946 well 1945 actually if you count spinning discs at the VA hospital but he said that Hawaiian music was always relaxing.
posted by clavdivs at 5:39 PM on March 15 [9 favorites]

I've only been to three or four tiki bars, I think. I didn't have a bad time, but it also never seemed like my thing. I think you either need to be older (to unironically like them) or younger (to enjoy it ironically). To me it just felt kind of fake and awkward.

Let's Talk Tiki Bars: Harmless Fun Or Exploitation?

This is also something I've wondered about, without knowing enough to have strong feelings on the subject.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:16 PM on March 15

I can see that. I would think that tiki bars is more of an assimilation perhaps beginning before the second World War but it certainly had an impact after the war.
posted by clavdivs at 6:31 PM on March 15

Never been to a proper tiki bar, but I have been to Graceland and seen the Jungle Room, created supposedly when Elvis was cruising around Memphis in his Cadillac, saw the tiki-themed furniture in a storeroom window, and bought out the whole display. (Although I've never been able to confirm it, I'd just about bet cash money that the store in question was Jolly Royal on Lamar Avenue.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:33 PM on March 15 [1 favorite]

I know Polynesia is more than just Hawaiʻi, but considering we pretty much stole a country I'ma go with problematic
posted by Jacen at 7:04 PM on March 15

I knew Grover Cleveland would come back to haunt.
posted by clavdivs at 7:37 PM on March 15

This post reminded me of the big Polynesia restaurant with A-frame buildings and carved poles I often saw, but never entered, on the Seattle waterfront in the 1960s. What became of it? I searched and found this:

On January 25, 1982, the 7,200-square-foot Polynesia Restaurant on Seattle's Pier 51, which prospered during the Century 21 World's Fair and for years after, is lifted onto a large barge and moved to storage on the Duwamish West Waterway. ... the state was going to condemn Pier 51 for use by the ferry system. ... Finally, the unique building met a fiery fate, burned down by a local fire department in a training exercise.
posted by JonJacky at 8:07 PM on March 15 [2 favorites]

Tiki is wildly problematic, combining orientalism and cultural appropriation and a whole bucket of other USian pathologies. The person who ran the leading tiki bar review site closed it a couple years ago because they couldn’t reconcile their appreciation for the art and drinks with their understanding of the historical and cultural context.

All that said, the drinks are tasty and the dark, corny ambiance is fun. There are a bunch of bars on the west coast that are consciously not tiki, in that they have no Polynesian elements, but still incorporate the aspects of the vibe and drinks that make tiki bars enjoyable.
posted by Just the one swan, actually at 8:08 PM on March 15 [5 favorites]

I'm reading these articles right tiki bars are in decline, there pretty much worldwide australia, canada, London, United states, Hong Kong. even Jimmy Lums is closed cuz after a while it just loses its appeal and you wonder why you it had the appeal in the first place.

how many tiki bars became franchises.
my one and only cultural citation is the beginning of that great 1951 movie The Thing from another world
after the dramatic music in the opening we see the reporter going into the officers club where it's nice and warm and what is playing but lūʻau music with cards by the fireplace. the remake of that movie, the thing opened with John Carpenter's super cool spaceship in orbit and then the thump thump beat of trying to shooti the alien dog by the Swedish helicopter crew.
posted by clavdivs at 9:10 PM on March 15

I'm a kiwi, lived in the SF Bay Area for 20 years - we were selling our Oakland (almost Berkeley) house and were when the day came were looking at the offers with all the little personal notes, one guy want to tempt us with saying he hoped to build a tiki bar on the deck, without realising (I guess) how much that was faux cultural appropriation

AFAIK tiki bars are a US invention, not something others aspire to
posted by mbo at 9:12 PM on March 15

Somehow I lived in GR from 2016 to 2022 and no one, ever, not once, mentioned this place.
posted by LionIndex at 9:21 PM on March 15

Mod note: One removed for attacking another member. Just explain your own point of view if it differs from someone else.
posted by taz (staff) at 1:33 AM on March 16 [1 favorite]

I was just in Disneyworld and my friends were horrified by how racist The Enchanted Tiki Room was. "Which culture is this offending?" one whispered after a wood carving started to do a dance. "Multiple," I whispered back.
posted by Pitachu at 4:52 AM on March 16 [1 favorite]

The late, lamented, Big Bamboo in Kissimmee. Started by an ex WWII pilot. An amazing hangout for locals and Disney World employees, including the artists at the (also) late, lamented, Disney Feature Animation Florida studio. Good times!

All this tiki talk has me thinking this might be a good summer to dust-off my dad’s trusty 1946 bible and entertain a bit.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:20 AM on March 16 [2 favorites]

Y'all, what your tiki bar is missing is mermaids. The only one I've been to is the Sip 'n Dip in Great Falls, Montana, and I have no memory of any of the tiki elements, to be honest, but the mermaids in the tank behind the bar were a hoot. I had a decent local beer; cannot review the drinks.
posted by the primroses were over at 5:37 AM on March 16 [2 favorites]

The late, lamented, Big Bamboo in Kissimmee.

I'm all for dick jokes, but personally I'd give the side-eye to using a racialized dick joke as the name of a bar that leans into cultural appropriation. Different strokes, different folks for sure, and also that was a different era when people weren't giving that stuff the side-eye at all.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:49 AM on March 16

Given that Big Bamboo was in Kissimmee, I wouldn't have been shocked if there were Sambo prints on the walls. (St. Cloud would have probably guaranteed it)

Living in Los Angeles, we have many Tiki options to choose from - including the impossibly tiny family run Tiki-Ti. The cocktails are stronger than the space is tiny. It was also one of the last bars to legally allow smoking in LA County.

When I first moved to LA, in the North Hollywood area, I spent more than a few evenings at the Tonga Hut, the oldest still standing in LA.

Where I live now there was "Bahooka Ribs & Grog" nearby that was famous for loads and loads of fish tanks and the great tragedy of what happened to Rufus the Pacu after they shut down. (Lots of nefarious rumors) The location still sports it's old exterior architecture but the restaurant is now a knock off of the more well known "Newport Seafood"

All of that to say - is boy howdy does Tiki carry a bunch of crap with it. As much as I love the hokey fusion and whole cloth invention of the style, it's undeniably of a blend of exoticism and casual "I'm not racist, but.." racism. Shame too because like I said, I enjoy it. Then again I was literally just doing the dishes and bopping along to the Andrews Sisters doing "Civilization" and "Rum and Coca Cola" which definitely shows the past was a different country.
posted by drewbage1847 at 10:07 AM on March 16 [2 favorites]

In a way, this tiki bar reminds me of Magic Time Machine, a weird-ass restaurant that is heavily themed and full of small environments you are in with your party instead of in a giant room with everyone.

Honestly I haven't been to one since the late Eighties, but the last time I was there, our waiter was Wile E. Coyote, complete with sign he wrote things on, and we were sitting in a little red schoolhouse for our party of 6.
posted by hippybear at 1:59 PM on March 16

This whole thing sounds wildly kitsch and appropriative, but there is one tiki bar whose dissapearance I feel sad about.
posted by signal at 2:19 PM on March 16

“Tiki Bars and Their Hollywood Origins” [26:40]Lost LA, PBS SoCal, 06 February 2024
Lost LA host Nathan Masters explores some of the oldest tiki bars in Southern California. In this episode, discover the Hollywood origins of Don the Beachcomber and learn how postwar American pop culture appropriated the rich traditions of the South Pacific.
posted by ob1quixote at 3:23 PM on March 16 [1 favorite]

This seems to be a very American thing, persumably because of the WWII connection. AFAIK there are no tiki bars at all in London. There usedm to be a Trader Vic's at one of the big hotels , and although I was always mildly intrigued by it I never got round to visiting. In fact, looking at their website most of the remaining Trader Vix's seem to be in the gulf states nowadays.
posted by Fuchsoid at 3:35 PM on March 16

It's definitely an American thing fueled by WWII, a sense of being a more global country and in a lot of ways having the means for and a desire to escape to somewhere magically exotic and different.
posted by drewbage1847 at 4:35 PM on March 16

LionIndex, we moved "back" to GR in 2022 and visited Max's for the first time in 2023. It wasn't really a known entity until early 23 among the people I run around with.
(mainly insufferable midwestern liberal elder millennials)

My partner took me to Max's for my birthday last year. It was absolutely delightful.
And I did spend a lot of time reflecting on appropriation - especially our relationship with Polynesian culture.

My parents used the academy and my father's service as an Army officer in Vietnam to scramble their way up through the middle class. Naturally, they were married in Hawaii during his leave from war. We visited Hawaii. My Dad was the casebook prototype of the midwestern tiki culture "guy."
I inherited his collection of Don Ho vinyl - including a dozen or so "live recordings" of the Don Ho Show. Most of them are autographed "To Rusty and Linda, with Love!" by the man himself. I really enjoy listening to them, unironically. I've gone on the record putting Don Ho above Sinatra and I'm not just blowing bubbles. Good Lord that man had pipes.
I think I'll probably track down a biography at some point - I know he led an interesting life.

As a child our vacations were always spent in Anaheim or Orlando - I didn't realize until much later that this was because my parent's academic conferences were always in these two cities - so I went to Disneyland/world about a dozen times. Dad and I would always, always, always visit the Enchanted Tiki Room.
Now I make my own little family suffer through the garbled, flapping assemblage of parrots.

In their defense - and from everything I can tell - the (absurdly wealthy, white, boomerish) owners of Max's try to use real art from real artists, they credit the artists and cultures, and they describe the history of the food and culture they're hawking. They are also apparently both ....important? members of the global rum community? Like, they are rum sommeliers or whatever. Rum is clearly important to these gentlemen in an alarming way. I imagine they care about rum the way that some sliver of astronomically wealthy white americans care about polo ponies or mid-century modern houses.

I also have heard that they treat their staff in the front and back of house with a great deal of respect, pay them competitively, and take their concerns seriously.

If you can visit Maxs you owe it to yourself to make the trip. Set aside three or four hours - you'll be "ensconced" in some darkly lit corner of the labyrinth. I've made two return visits.
The pu pu platter, man... it's so, so good. But the menu is extensive and changes often.

TLDR; I get the sense that the owners "understand" some of the problematic aspects of midwestern "tiki," - that they take some of these issues seriously, the food and drink is spectacular, and it is far superior in every way to most American "cultural" restaurants w/r/t the nebulous ideals of authenticity.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 1:01 PM on March 18

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