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Opened in 1962
Closed in 1989 or the early '90s
Defunct tiki not included,
distances are as the crow flies.
Postcard from Hawaii Kai in New York
date unknown, from the collection of Mimi Payne
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Hawaii Kai was the grand dame of New York Polynesian restaurants. The location, over the historic Winter Garden Theatre, already had a place in Polynesian Pop history: it was the location of Monte Proser's Beachcomber, a Don the Beachcomber rip-off, in the early '40s.
The dramatic space opened initially as a partnership between Monte Proser and Joe Kipness as Lanai in 1961, but by November of 1962 it had morphed into Hawaii Kai with Joe Kipness now partnered with Art Schindler, who had owned the nearby Luau 400.
The dramatic interiors were created by Frederick Fox, a scenic designer for Broadway productions. The entry was at street level, and had lush greenery, waterfalls and capuchin monkeys. After receiving a lei greeting, visitors ascended a rattan staircase to the upper level, with three rooms:
The Okole Maluna Bar (Bottoms Up Bar) had a diorama of Diamond Head at Waikiki that constantly shifted from daytime to nighttime.
Adjacent to the bar was The Lounge of the Seven Pleasures—this room had entertainment nightly, playing until 3 a.m.
The main dining room was where the nightly luau and Polynesian revue was held, variably called Hula Wei, Place of Meeting, or The Island Huts of Oahu. The space was large, with a stage, and thatch-covered booth "huts" along the edge of the room.
Hawaii Kai had a flair for flowery naming: beyond the colorful names for the rooms and of course the drinks, they were always coming up with new exotic-sounding titles for special giveaway items. The competition for tourist dollars was likely steep in Times Square, and in order to keep up there was a steady stream of creative bonus items one could acquire: A tiki teapot set titled "Ipo Aloha Lovers Tea Set", a skull mug titled "Goddess of Love", even a simple standard bucket mug became a "Royal Ali'i Goblet". Tiki lighters, lanterns, salt and pepper shakers, and of course good old tiki mugs: they couldn't give them away fast enough. Today the items are heavily collected, and often can be found still in the box they were sent home in.
Hawaii Kai's popularity waned, but it held on through the 1980s, and through the damage of a fire. It made appearances in a couple of Hollywood films (most famously a scene from Goodfellas takes place here). Hawaii Kai finally closed sometime during or shortly after 1989.