Tennessee Tiki History
As a resident of Tennessee and a “tiki-phile,” I have spent a lot of time researching the history of Polynesian restaurants in my state. This page will maintain all my findings and research. Please email me if you have anything to add at all. I would love to hear your remembrances and especially your images, etc.
PREVIOUS TENNESSEE TIKI
The Surf Rider
Inside the Andrew Jackson Dinkler Hotel
It was noted as a flop house for country music stars. My guess is that it was pretty run down at its end. The fact that it was a Dinkler property ties it in with the Dobb’s House Luau in Memphis which was also a Dinkler property. I do not know which came first. The hotel was demolished in 1971.
There was a Surf Rider Lounge in the Jefferson Davis Hotel in Montgomery Alabama, which was also a Dinkler property.
Mahi Mahi – Blue Hawaii
The Signature Mug by Oceanic Arts
Architectural Drawing from the collection of Omni Hut owner John Walls
Image of the interior from the collection of Omni Hut owner John Walls
The rare menu with the signature tiki
It is interesting to note the lack of classic tropical cocktails.
The Mahi Mahi was an Eli Hedley project. John Walls, owner of the Omni Hut in Smyrna, became the owner of the Mahi Mahi at some point, but he aquired a lot of debt with the purchase and was unable to make it profitable enough to get out from under that debt. It was taken over by the bank and everything sold. Well, they did sneak a couple of carved panels out in advance and they are in the Omni Hut lobby to this day.
The hotel, famous for its coffee, was destroyed by fire in 1961. If tiki history is a clue, this place probably hardly got open before it was destroyed. 1961 was a year when many Polynesian places opened around the country, from the Omni Hut in Smyrna, to the Kahiki in Columbus, Ohio. This was perhaps a pre-Tiki place with just a tropical decor, but I have no idea.
Nothing is known of this place except for a plain matchbook mentioning they served Chinese and Polynesian cuisine.
Dobb’s House Luau
The Dobb’s family got into the Tiki restaurant business by buying Carling Dinkler’s Luau in Atlanta in 1958. They began opening Luaus and other places around the country, mainly as offshoot of their airline catering business. The made the food for flights. The majority of their restaurants did not serve alcohol, but you could store your booze in a locker there and they’d mix you up a cocktail with it.
The Memphis location was near the High School and there are a lot of people who had a lastign impression of the place. Particularly for the massive concrete moai that was out front.
All I know of the Harbor House in Memphis is this picture.
The Tiki Lounge
A dive bar in a rough part of town even I wasn’t willing to enter. Nothing to see for sure.
CURRENT TENNESSEE TIKI
Founded in 1961, it is the oldest Asian restaurant in Tennessee. Founder Jim Walls was in the Air Force and due to the demands of the job, he had a lot of down time. He spent that time trying to get into the kitchens of places that had good food. He was stationed in Hawaii and lots of other “exotic” locations. He came to Smyrna where there was a base and wanted to start his own place. When he met with the supplier to order his food needs, the guys said “You mean you aren’t ordering any country ham? You won’t last a week!” and he shut the books and left. John got the last laugh. Most days, there is a group of people waiting to get in when they open the doors for dinner. The food is excellent. Often the food at an old school Tiki restaurant is the low level Chinese. This is the best. The current owner Polly, daughter of Walls, is a joy.
There was a fire years ago and the decor was all salvaged and cleaned by the staff on their own time. Some of the panels in the lobby actually came from the Mahi Mahi in Nashville.
Darren Long has written a history of the Omni Hut. Available below.
CURRENT TN TIKI
Check their Facebook page for details. More tropical than Tiki, we hear their drinks are made well.
Chopper is an odd concept. Not a Tiki bar, but a robot themed cocktail bar that does some Tiki drinks. They have custom mugs it appears. Facebook page here. You decide.