"Hello! You look so pretty tonight!" the bartender says as two ladies ease onto their stools at the bar. "Mai Tais?"
The question practically is a rhetorical one as Mai Tais are the sole purpose behind the gals' visit. Hardly a week goes by without friends Kathleen Mayer and Kimberly Toth meeting up for festive Polynesian cocktails at King Wah, a popular Chinese restaurant in Rocky River.
Asked why a pair of attractive single ladies would choose to spend their nights at a suburban Chinese restaurant bar rather than, say, a tony wine bar down the road, they both point to their glasses.
"The Mai Tais!" they say in unison.
"These drinks are way more fun to drink than a regular cocktail," Mayer adds. "I mean, look at them: They're served in fake coconuts!"
Within the matter of two (or so) hours, this writer encountered local chefs, well-known business owners, and regular neighborhood folks, all of whom choose King Wah as their nightlife destination of choice. It doesn't make a bit of sense – but for the fact that it's fun as hell.
"It's always fun – and the bartenders are a trip," says Melt owner Matt Fish, who proudly calls himself a regular. "The Zombie is my favorite, but I also drink Mai Tais. And if I'm there with a group of friends, we'll get the Volcano. I love it there."
In the '40s, '50s and '60s, Cleveland was home to a number of popular tiki bars and lounges that specialized in Polynesian cocktails. Most notable among them was Club Zombie at the Hawley House Hotel, The Bamboo Room at the Hotel Olmsted, and Kon-Tiki at the Sheraton. Add to that the growing number of Asian restaurants that placed Polynesian themed cocktails on their menus and you had nothing short of a Zombie fueled frenzy.
"These places were like mini theme parks - affordable and exotic locales down the block where you could go to get through the daily grind," explains Stefan Was, Cleveland resident and longtime fan of tiki culture. "It was like going on a small vacation for a couple hours."
Over time, what at first seemed "foreign and exotic" became less so as people began traveling around the globe. Add to that the fact that these extravagant restaurants were very expensive to build, and people's taste in nightlife and dining shifting away from theme-style operations, and you can pinpoint the reasons for their demise. But if the nightly crowd at King Wah is proof of anything, it's that tiki culture and Polynesian cocktails are due for a renaissance. In fact, it's already happening in places like New York, San Francisco and Columbus, where tiki bars continue to pop up at a surprising clip. Here in Cleveland, all we have left is the random Chinese restaurant slinging Singapore Slings.
Until now, that is. As early as late spring, Porco Lounge and Tiki Room will open in Ohio City, in the building that housed 2527, Matinee and most recently Cranky's Pub. For years, Was has been collecting authentic tiki relics from shuttered bars all over the country, including some that once hung in Cleveland's famed Kon-Tiki.
"We want to provide a relaxed lounge atmosphere that specializes in historic tiki drink recipes from the likes of Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic's," explains Was. "The thing that draws me most to the cocktails and culture is the fun and kitsch associated with it. It doesn't take itself too seriously, and is strictly about having a good time."
You want fun? Round up a small posse of pals and order the Volcano at King Wah. In between juggling the house phone, cashing out departing diners, and organizing take-out orders, Connie manages to whip up an elaborate concoction of booze, fruit and flames. She sets the large, circular bowl in front of us, produces a lighter, and ignites a small amount of 151 rum, which rests in the "crater" portion of the vessel.
Somebody blows out the rum and we all grab hold of the lengthy straws, which Connie jury rigged by linking two regular straws. We lean into our cocktail and pull long, slow sips of it into our mouths. It's sweet, fruity and strong, the kind of drink that sneaks up on you like a Polynesian sunset. And like the sunset, it's gone too soon.
Bowls of warm shrimp chips – the best bar snack ever – magically appear before us. Another couple at the bar canoodles over a Pu-Pu Platter. Fortune cookies are read aloud to anybody willing (or not) to listen.
We debate ordering another round. This time Zombies, perhaps, or maybe the dreaded Fog Cutter?
"I usually don't like sweet and fruity drinks at all, but these...," coos Toth. And with that, it's settled.