Polynesian Pop Culture in the Great White North

Urban archaeologists searching for remnants of vintage Polynesian Pop culture above the 49th parallel often come up empty-handed and disappointed, especially if beginning their quest on the West Coast. Sure, if you dig around enough, you can find traces of Tiki’s past in British Columbia… With a little luck, maybe a couple of things out in the prairies… Not much at all in Ontario (nothing, in fact, in Toronto)… But starting out in the east, in Quebec — in and around Montreal in particular — you’ll find a region that is teeming (well, almost) with Tiki activity.

Why did Polynesian Pop culture thrive in Quebec more so than in the rest of Canada? And why has it continued to live on here while virtually disappearing everywhere else?

Quebec is often referred to as a “distinct society” within the rest of Canada. Whether you agree with this statement or not — and without veering off into a political discussion — perhaps it is best to approach our questions about Tiki from this perspective.

Sound a little too academic for you? Okay then, let’s talk about drive-in theaters instead.

While mid-century pop culture enthusiasts lament the loss of the drive-in theatre throughout North America, drive-ins, like tiki bars, also seem to have stuck around here in Quebec, despite the fact that they are doing business in a region where the weather makes their operation a strictly seasonal thing. The influence of the Roman Catholic Church on Quebec society up until the mid 20th century has been described as one of the factors that kept drive-ins out of the province for so long. The outdoor cinemas were frowned upon as “dens of iniquity.” They didn’t really flourish here until after the cultural revolution of the 1960s — somewhat later than in the rest of North America — and therefore, have remained long after their counterparts began disappearing throughout the continent.

Could the same be true about Tiki bars? Were the “exotic” and “foreign” that Tiki represented considered threatening to Quebec’s distinct, albeit closed, society and culture? Perhaps… for many of our tiki bars and exotic theme restaurants opened in the 1960s and even in the 1970s, whereas choice examples of Polynesian palaces in the United States date back to the 1940s.

The cultural revolution that paved the way for Tiki in Montreal came with the opening, in the Sheraton Mount-Royal Hotel, of the very first restaurant in Stephen Crane’s world-famous Kon Tiki chain way back in 1958, leading the pack for a number of other tiki bars and exotic restaurants to follow in its footsteps.

A society’s fear of the “foreign” can also contribute to a secret fascination with it and, later on — perhaps with Montreal’s hosting of the Expo 67 World’s Fair — an openness to the “exotic.”

Whatever the reason, Tiki has found a home here in Montreal.

Without dwelling on the losses the city has suffered in the past — Cafe Hale Hakala, Ruby Foo’s, Sambo, and even the great Kon Tiki — or in recent years — Kenny Wong, Tiki Doré, Hawaii Kai, and Tiki Sun Polynésien — here is an overview of remaining Montreal-area tiki bars and restaurants.

Jardin Tiki (Montreal, QC)
Jardin Tiki (or Tiki Garden, if you prefer) is the only remaining Polynesian restaurant on the island of Montreal; it is also the biggest restaurant of its kind in Canada (and pretty much down the east coast, with the exception of Mai Kai in Fort Lauderdale). This massive eatery opened just across the street from the Olympic Village soon after the ’76 games. It sits among an ever-growing stretch of wall-to-wall suburban strip-mall type restaurants. Rumour has it that the original owners may have been involved with Montreal’s late, great Kon Tiki, which closed in the early 1980s. Some of Jardin Tiki’s decor, in fact, made its way over from the old restaurant (including tiki-shaped brass  handles on the front doors). A big sign, spelling out ALOHA in bamboo letters, greets you at the entrance. As you make your way into the dining area — crossing a footbridge over a pool filled with real turtles (and plastic dinosaurs and sharks!) — you can feast your eyes on an assortment of lamps, lanterns, spears, masks, fishing nets and blowfish hanging from the ceiling and walls, along with a great number of tikis standing guard throughout the restaurant. Saturday evenings at the Jardin Tiki used to feature a Hawaiian floor show, still advertised on signs at the restaurant’s entrance. These days, Hawaiian Muzak helps transport you to more a more tropical clime as it wafts through speakers in the ceiling. The cocktails — including the Mai Tai, Aku Aku Coconut, and the huge Tiki Grog — are usually quite potent. They always make an excellent prelude to the food — a mix of Chinese-American and seafood with a few items (like onion rings!) thrown in to make it all the more palatable to the masses — that awaits you at the buffet.

Coconut Motel and Bar (Trois-Rivières Ouest, QC)
For perhaps the greatest tiki bar experience in all of Canada, you’ll need to travel to the Coconut Motel in Trois-Rivières, about an hour and a half east of Montreal. Opened by the Landry family in 1958 and, until quite recently, still operated by daughter Michèle Landry, the Coconut was turned into a tiki bar in 1963 after Mr. and Mrs. Landry returned from their honeymoon in Tahiti. Off-kilter, bamboo-shaped lettering spells out “COCONUT” from a sign on the roof of the building, part of which is built in a ship’s prow shape, common to many tiki bars. Inside, the dimly lit, cozy-yet-huge bar is filled with an amazingly vast array of tikis and other elements of exotic decor. At the entrance is a long bar with a bulbous plexi-glass aquarium embedded in the wall behind it. The barstools are tikis with padded tops on which you can park yourself and have a drink. Or you can move further into the bar, take a seat in one of the red vinyl semi-circular booths and gaze up at the lamps and long-boats hanging from the ceiling… or at a shark, stuffed and mounted above a little tropical fountain. The drink list is long, with close to 40 different cocktails available. Adjoining the motel lobby is a breakfast room featuring more exotic decor to ogle at on the morning after.

Aloha (Saint-Jérôme, QC)
Travel about 45 minutes north of Montreal to the industrial town of St-Jérôme and there, on the town’s main drag, you’ll come across a big Polynesian hut and a sign welcoming you to Aloha, my favourite local spot for tiki food. Aloha has been hidden away up in St-Jérôme for close to 25 years. The decor is outstanding: cave-like walls, a footbridge over running water (recently removed, unfortunately, due to ongoing maintenance problems), palms, thatched roofs over the tables, matting on the walls and ceilings, plenty of hanging lamps, tikis, spears, and a bar separated from the dining area with bamboo curtains. The cocktails at Aloha are familiar tasting but differently named: no Mai Tais, no Aku-Aku Coconuts, no Bolos. There are a whole slew of other kooky names for the drinks at Aloha — such as the Bamboo, the Cocoboo, and the Flaming Tahitian — all served in a variety of attractive, mostly vintage mugs and bowls. The restaurant’s menu is à la carte... a nice change from the usual Chinese-American buffets found at other exotic eateries. Try a Habachi Platter (otherwise known as the more familiar Pu-Pu Platter) as an appetizer. Main courses include beef, chicken and seafood dishes, such as the amazing Mongolian Beef, set aflame at your table. Hard to believe a place this great can exist in St-Jérôme? Believe it… and make reservations, as Aloha is usually packed.

Tahiti (Châteauguay, QC)
Montreal’s homage to the South Seas paradise of Tahiti is located about a 15-minute drive from downtown on the city’s south shore, in the town of Châteauguauy. Tahiti has always been fun to visit with large groups of tiki-philes. This is another big, Chinese buffet-style restaurant that has been around since the early 80s at least. The decor meets all the requirements, with bamboo and South Seas paraphernalia from wall to wall. Though they’re not the best in town, Tahiti also boasts an impressive list of flaming and smoking cocktail concoctions. Each drink is photographed and proudly displayed in a 4-page menu. Tahiti’s owners are tiki-phile friendly, and have provided a few souvenirs to guests in the past.

Luau (Sainte-Adèle, QC)
Luau’s been around in Ste-Adèle (at the foot of the Laurentian Mountains, north of Montreal) since 1973. The owners even admit to having “acquired” a few of their recipes from the Kon Tiki. But despite having the right elements in place, it just doesn’t click. While blowfish, lamps and colored lights are found throughout the restaurant, the decor also includes pseudo-Oriental prints, cheapo souvenir masks, and wilting hanging plants. A brick wall gives the impression that the place was once a Spanish or Portuguese restaurant that went Polynesian at some point. Several large windows make the small restaurant bright and breezy, rather than dark and exotic, completely destroying the effect of being in a true tiki bar. The menu, though à la carte, features a selection of overpriced, generic food. Luau’s one redeeming quality is an area that has been dubbed The Greg Brady Room by some patrons. A treasure-trove of early-70s kitsch, the room consists of a large table and two smaller ones sunken into three custom depressions carved out of the gold shag-rugged floor, effectively transforming it into one large communal chair.

A final word on Tiki for folks visiting Montreal: don’t be fooled by a name. Restaurant Tiki in Montreal North is just a hot dog stand with absolutely nothing exotic about it. And Tiki Ming is a chain of food-court Chinese restaurants found in malls throughout the city. For more complete details on real Montreal-area tiki bars and restaurants — both current and long gone — check out www.maitaionline.com

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Tiki makes a mainstream comeback in Western Canada

Tiki patio decorations in this week's (5/18/08) Save-On Foods grocery store flyer: http://www.saveonfoods.com/flyer/b_031/11.htm Can retro musak be far behind? :O