Stepping out of the Uber, Eleanor looked around. It was late, and the lights from the midnight market illuminated the intersection of Diversey and Kedzie better than any of the dim streetlamps could. She glanced at the surrounding buildings –– none of them showed any indication of being Chicago’s hidden tiki bar.
The car sped away, leaving her stranded in the center of Logan Square. She quickly texted Dania. At the intersection. Where r u?
She crossed the street. A resale shop, its windows busily filled with accoutrements, was the only window to show any discernible personality –– the rest of the block sat quiet, unassuming. It was mere coincidence, then, that Eleanor just happened to be looking in the direction of a storefront with dark green glass bricks on the front façade, when Dania stepped out from the doorway.
“There you are!” she crowed, walking towards Eleanor. “You’re late.”
“I got caught up,” Eleanor said. “Then I couldn’t figure out which building it was.”
“It’s unassuming, right?” Dania led Eleanor to the front door. As they passed the windows, each hanging light from within the bar briefly faded in and out of the frosted glass, letting on for just a moment the mystery contained within. The words “Lost Lake” were nowhere to be found on the exterior, although a single pink neon word shone through, by the doorway: “tiki.”
“Welcome to Lost Lake,” Dania whispered, crossing the threshold.
Eleanor’s eyes adjusted to the dim interior. Along one wall, the bar was populated with a handful of couples, chatting over drinks that sprung up colorfully through the dark. Tables lined the opposite wall, overseen by a stretch of giant palm leaves that repeated in the wallpaper. Towards the back of the room, the bar’s name glowed forth in the same pink neon.
“I.D.,” asked the hostess, her Hawaiian shirt bathed in the shimmering light from the fish tank embedded in the wall to her right.
“Right,” Eleanor muttered, pulling a wallet out. “I don’t go to bars that often.”
“She’s never been here before,” added Dania, smiling widely.
“First timer?” the hostess asked, as she checked Eleanor’s age. “New to the tiki scene?”
“Does the Enchanted Tiki Room count?” Eleanor said, with immediate regret. But the hostess merely laughed it off.
“This is a long way from Disney World,” she grinned. “Have a good night.”
Dania led Eleanor towards the back of the bar. “We got three seats at the bar,” she said. “When I came here before we could barely get two. It’s a low tide tonight.”
“Ah.” Eleanor looked up at the lights –– every bulb in the place was enveloped in wicker baskets, casting the room in a dreamlike haze. In addition to a healthy stock of rum and gin, the bar showcased a wooden pineapple, and no fewer than three large conch shells.
“Welcome back!” Gwen waved them over to the waiting seats, the only empty pair at the end of the bar. “The fries are still coming but they made your drink.”
“Ah, very good,” Dania said, turning the glass around on the counter. The cocktail was invisible beneath an opaque glass resembling a parrot, which had been topped with a paper umbrella, a plastic palm leaf, a real palm leaf, and a hibiscus flower. As she lifted the umbrella out, a final addition was stuck through the toothpick: a piece of candied ginger.
“Now that‘s extra,” Gwen commented. “Pure tiki bar aesthetic.”
“That’s the entire place, right?” Dania mused, taking a sip. “Ooh, that’s amontillado-forward. It’s got like three different rums and all I taste is the amontillado.”
“Which one is that?” Eleanor asked. She opened the wooden menu, turning to a page of specialty cocktails –– $13 each –– which featured colorful illustrations rather than images of each concoction.
“Like The Sun In Solution,” said Dania, indicating the bottom of the page. “Triple rum, plus about four fruit juices. And I’m a lightweight, this is going straight to my head.”
“Did you get it last time?” Gwen asked.
“No, I think I got the Feet First In The Deep End,” Dania said. “I don’t know, The Date got it for me.”
“Ah, yes, The Date,” Eleanor chided. “How did they find out about it?”
“Who knows?” Dania wondered. “How does anyone find out about a place like this?”
“It’s super out of the way,” Eleanor observed. “You literally can’t tell from the exterior that there’s anything interesting inside.”
“That’s part of the appeal of tiki culture,” Gwen explained. “That is, American tiki bar culture. They try to capture the feeling of finding that hidden cove that ‘only the locals know about,’ you know? The typically exoticized vision of the Polynesian islands.”
“Well, they’re certainly nailing that,” Eleanor said, turning her head to see the rest of the bar.
Two smaller rooms shot off from the palm-leaf-wallpaper center of Lost Lake. The nearest was an alcove lined with bamboo walls and featuring framed prints of hula dancers, parrots, pirate ships. The opposing room, extending off the end of the bar, was lined with dark basalt rock –– “real, I checked,” Dania later clarified –– with stools made from single polished slices of tree trunks, and illuminated by a chandelier of glowing puffer fish.
“Those have to be real, right?” Eleanor asked, pointing towards the deadly mobile.
“Oh, no question,” Gwen said. “It wouldn’t be authentic otherwise.”
“Authenticity is…an interesting goal, considering this sort of vibe, right?” Eleanor asked.
“How do you mean?”
“Well, isn’t a tiki bar inherently romanticized?” suggested Eleanor. “I mean, I mentioned the Enchanted Tiki Room to the hostess…”
“Yeah, that was dumb,” Dania added.
Eleanor glared at Dania. “Thank you, I noticed.”
“Hard Heart And A Spiny Corset?” The bartender placed the drink down in front of Gwen. A clear, short glass –– emblazoned with LOST LAKE –– and topped with the same mélange as Dania’s drink, save one addition: a slice of pineapple. Gwen took a sip.
“Mmmm,” she hummed. “Tequila, guava, vanilla, and bitters.”
“So I mentioned the Tiki Room, and like, obviously, that’s a romantic notion of a Polynesian culture,” Eleanor continued. “I don’t think anyone would say that’s ‘accurate.'”
“Tiki bars are the same way,” Eleanor added. “Like, people who actually live in Hawai’i don’t go out to bars like this all the time and order $13 cocktails with an entire fruit salad on top. It’s the island life as white people want it to be like.”
“Well, yeah,” Gwen said.
The music –– old-timey lounge tunes, spiced with the requisite selection of bass drums, ukulele, vibraphone, and/or low flute to come across as sufficiently tropical –– wafted through the silence as Gwen waited for a response.
“That’s the whole deal,” Gwen continued. “It’s not true to what the Hawaiian islands are actually like. But back in the 1960s, when tiki bars were in vogue, this was exactly what the bars were like. From the skulls in the fish tank to the shell-themed décor in the bathrooms.”
“Yeah, the notion of a ‘tiki bar’ is an entirely separate thing from real tiki culture, at this point,” Dania ceded.
“The revival of interest in the subculture is rooted in nostalgia for the 1960s, rather than nostalgia from WWII’s pacific theater, or whatever kickstarted the original 1960s tiki craze,” explained Gwen.
“I did look the place up, and the owner is a bearded white guy,” Eleanor said. “Which was unsurprising.”
“My way of looking at it,” Dania said, placing her empty glass on the counter, “is that people are just looking for a place that feels separated from the world. Something breezy, and light, where they can indulge in feeling like they’re on vacation without actually going somewhere.”
“Which, considering that’s white people going to an ‘exotic’ place where people actually live, will always be rooted in problematic colonialist undertones,” Gwen admitted. “That’s inescapable.”
“The Tiki Room comment…well, it was dumb, but the comparison isn’t wrong,” Dania continued. “The Disney version of a culture is exaggerated and cleaned-up, but it’s a version that’s comforting. Plus, it’s full immersion.”
She gestured to the frosted glass of the windows, allowing no view of the street outside. “It’s the idea of the berm, from Disney parks,” she said. “You know how they don’t want you seeing outside the park so you don’t think about the rest of the world? Casinos do the same thing –– you more easily get lost in it if there’s literally no escape.”
“Perhaps,” Eleanor said. She watched across the room, as one of Lost Lake’s expensive group cocktails –– a flaming conch called “Heaven Is A Place/This Is The Place” –– was delivered to the table behind them.
“Perhaps?” Gwen repeated. “That sounds guarded.”
“I’m thinking about it,” Eleanor said, but the thought was already formed by the time Gwen asked about it.
“I guess my question is…” she began slowly, “what about the tiki aesthetic is appealing?”
“I…literally just said, the sense of escape,” Dania said. She reached up to take a coconut shell of fries, just arrived, from the bartender. “Keep up.”
“Yeah, but I think it’s more than that,” Eleanor countered. “You can ‘escape’ to a beach, or a rock cave, but that’s not tiki. I think the requirement is comfort coupled with excess.”
“Huh,” Gwen replied. “Explain.”
“It’s not just cocktails, it’s cocktails with all this nonsense on top.” She indicated Gwen’s glass, the flower falling over the rim. “It’s a storefront space with a full bar, and these claustrophobic bamboo ceilings, and the wallpaper, and the fish tank, and…you get the idea.”
“But despite that,” Eleanor countered, “it doesn’t feel disorganized. The bar is spotless, the kitchen is off-view, and the décor, as varied as it is, feels curated. It’s exactly what you want in a dream vacation: something different from what you’re used to, but still reigned in and made accessible to someone from outside the culture. The ideal tiki bar has the credit of being island-inspired, but the legitimacy of still being as polished as any high-end American bar.”
“Not that authentic Hawaiian bars lack polish, mind,” Dania cautioned.
“Yes, obviously,” replied Eleanor. “But those aren’t the ones being exoticized here.”
“Tiki as an aesthetic isn’t limited to bars, mind,” Gwen added. “The Tiki Room plays into it. The design style of this menu plays into it. Hell, you could argue that Trader Joe’s plays into it, with their folksy-but-still-organized décor.”
“Blend all that together, and hide it away behind a nondescript outer façade, and you’ve got yourself the ideal tiki bar right there,” Dania said.
“Which Lost Lake certainly seems to fit the bill on,” Gwen concluded. “Right?”
“Certainly,” Eleanor said. She watched as a bartender poured a tumbler of something fruity into a ceramic tiki, before reaching for the plastic palm fronds.
“For better and for worse,” she added, dipping a crisp fry into the sambal mayonnaise.
Image Source: Chicago Reader