I visited the Omni Hut doing a shoot with Turner South for a “Tiki Blue Ribbon” show. I was very much looking forward to it so I could talk with Jim Walls, the man who created the Omni Hut. I wanted to see what he knew of the other places in Nashville, the Surf Rider in the Andrew Jackson Hotel, the Mahi Mahi of which I have seen a postcard and a mug, and the Blue Hawaii from which I have a matchbook and a mug. I knew where the Blue Hawaii was from the matchbook. I also wanted to know all about his inspirations, etc.
He told me he was a pilot in the Air Force and was stationed in Honolulu around 1938-1940ish. He only worked 4 hours a day, so in his spare time, he was interested in food. He found things he liked and would go back again and again until he could find out the recipes and secrets of the dishes. He worked at one of the luaus on Waikiki Beach until the airplanes put the steam ships out of business and this luau. He worked at some Asian restaurant that was famous. Joe Young’s? I am not sure. All these places he was gathering recipes as well as all over the world. He was in Panama and all over. He just liked it and had no plans of opening a restaurant.
He decided to retire and his choices were in Savannah and Smyrna which was home of Ft. Stuart. For technical reasons he chose Smyrna. So, he started his restaurant of “Chinese Cuisine.” He showed me the first sign there for that. But with the decor, everyone said “you can’t fool us, this is the best Polynesian food we ever ate!” So, 6 months later he renamed it the Omni Hut, because it was a nice short name. Open since 1960, he was the first Asian restauant in the area and is the oldest in the state now.
He brought a box of stuff with him. There were clippings and menus. They had nothing from the old days. The clippings were all from 2000, after they re-opened from the fire. The menus were all there from the beginning. They have not changed except the prices and colors occasionally. There was a red one he didn’t bring:
Then I saw something black at the bottom of the box that looked older. I dug it out quick and nearly lost my breath:
A Mahi Mahi menu! With the tiki from the mug on it!
I opened the menu and inside was the postcard:
I’d seen this in BK’s collection. Awesome! Wait!
Next I see 5 X 7 black and white photos!
The interior of the Mahi Mahi!
The architectural drawing of it! Looks exactly like the postcard image!
So I had to ask him what he knew about the Mahi Mahi. “I owned it!” Wow! And I looked at the postcard again:
95 White Bridge Rd. Same as the Blue Hawaii!
It turns out, he did not build the Mahi Mahi. He bought it either in the late 60’s or early 70’s (his sons gave different years) and got a lot of debt when he did. He hoped his good food would make it profitable. It did not. A year later is was foreclosed on and the bank took all property and auctioned it off for pennies on the dollar! All they had was this stuff in the menu. Sort of…
After that it was bought again and it became the Blue Hawaii and had new big tikis erected out front. Last anyone knew it was the Golden Dragon Chinese restaurant.
The things they did manage to sneak out the back door before the bank came in were these two Maori panels that hang in the entry of the Omni Hut today:
I realized 95 White Bridge Road was 2 miles from my sisters house in Nashville, so we went there. I was so excited. I wanted to scour the grounds for tiki stumps or whatever. Here is what I found:
Too late! It was demolished months ago. My sister says I had asked her about the building before. I must have passed it dozens of times over the years. CRAP! CRAP! CRAP!
Part of the puzzle is solved. I am sending pictures of my Milan Guanko carved tiki for the family to look at and see if it jogs their memory.
Here is Jim.
I hate that my picture is blurry. I met most of the family and they inspired me. I am going to let you all know what that means later. I wanna help these guys make Omni Hut all it can be!
Here are more images of the menu:
Just a few drinks
I was under the impression that the Mahi Mahi was all done by Oceanic Arts. Bamboo Ben told me it was actually by his grandfather Eli Hedley.
“Eli did the Mahi Mahi. It was an unlimited budget, dream job.”
More on that in May…
The “Blue Ribbon” shows seems to be defunct now. I have a good digital DVD of the show which featured the Mai Kai, The Omni Hut, Trader Vic’s Atlanta and the now gone Hale Tiki in Augusta. If anyone is interested in a copy, drop me an email.