Big Apple Tiki


: : While in New York City for a little weekend getaway this past June, my wife Alessandra and I checked out a great little Tiki bar called Waikiki Wally’s, perfectly situated in the hip East Village neighbourhood of lower Manhattan, just around the graffiti-enhanced corner of 1st Ave. and E. 2nd St. : :

: : Six foot tall Moai stood guard on each side of the entrance, while a palm tree made of lights loomed over the doorway, showing the way in. A picture-perfect Polynesian wahine – in a sarong, bikini-top and lei – greeted us at the door with leis (nice ones I might add… not the thin, cheap ones made from garbage bag plastic). Once inside, we were amazed by the richness of the decor and the beautiful bar. And it kept getting better. As we walked past the fake palms and a mural depicting scenes of Polynesia, we came across a hula dancer! Continuing deeper into the bar, on the far back wall, we saw a ceiling-high waterfall! The crowd was young and most were wearing Hawaiian shirts! For the first time in a Tiki bar, I didn’t feel like I was the only customer to truly appreciate Tiki. : :

: : The food and drink menus at Waikiki Wally’s are true works of art, featuring exotic scenes commissioned from local artist Richie Fahey. The “sailor” and the “wahine” who modeled for the portraits on the menus actually work for the restaurant and are, respectively, Youri Benoiston (then general manager) and hostess Janine Gomez (who had greeted us at the door that night). Compared to the imitation Chinese food we usually find in most Tiki bars, this place actually had good, serious food that sounded Polynesian: roast suckling pig, macadamia nut-crusted chicken, traditional pork lau lau, etc. We loved the “crackling calamari” with citron aoli (served in a half coconut shell!) and warm goat cheese salad, and even the “exotic” banana split we had for dessert (with flambéed, caramelized bananas!). : :

: : Most impressive of all were the exotic drinks. While we often encounter uninteresting combinations of fruit juice and rum, we marveled at how delicious and original the Waikiki Wally blends were, with some available in three different sizes: Tiki mug for one, Scorpion bowl for two, or the flaming Volcano bowl for four. Did I mention they use authentic Tiki Farm mugs? : :

: : Even the music was good, ranging from classic exotica to twistable 60s guitar surf-instrumentals (geez, even a Ramones tune was thrown in for good measure!). : :

: : Janine told us that the place had previously been an S&M hangout, also run by the current owners. In his book Tiki Road Trip, James Teitelbaum sheds some light on its background: “Youri Benoiston opened Waikiki Wally's in September 2002 on the former site of the notorious NYC bondage club La Nouvelle Justine. Decor is by Oceanic Arts and Crazy Al Evans. A running fountain, plenty of foliage, wall-length murals and a Lucite bar with Hawaiian objects embedded in it make this New York City Tiki bar a winner. Reports indicate that Wally's, of all the neo-Tiki bars popping up in NYC, is the most old skool and authentic.” : :

: : Waikiki Wally's features live acts such as The Tiny Bubble Band, a full-fledged Hawaiian band including dancers and “entertainers” (i.e. fire-eaters, et al). Bands play on Thursday nights and there are hula dancers on Friday through to Sunday nights. Most impressive was the fact that Don Ho played Waikiki Wally’s on their opening night; also in attendance that night was Ginger from ”Gilligan's Island”, actress Tina Louise. : :

: : But this story doesn’t end here, for our evening got even more exotic. We kept seeing transvestites mulling about the place, so we asked Janine about them. She smiled knowingly and directed us to a secret passage… through a door way at the back of the bar where, after going through a series of darkly lit rooms, we could connect to a sister restaurant with a Chinese drag queen theme: Lucky Cheng's. The first room in the series of dark caverns was some kind of massage room, where the girls were getting foot massages. Then came a karaoke room where heavily made-up, big-wigged drag queen divas belted out disco and show tunes. : :

: : Finally, up a flight of stairs, we entered Lucky Cheng's. The scene was surreal. Colourful drag queens swarmed amidst loud dance music and multi-coloured martinis. This scene did justice to the wonderful kookiness of New York nightlife better than any movie ever could. The place was jam-packed with what looked like bachelor and bachelor-ette parties gone haywire: tables of people singing and waving their arms as drag queens danced. Oh yeah, and Chinese food was also being served. My favourite character was this Chinese waiter in big glasses and a loud floral-motif dress, but no funky make-up or big wig! He casually went about his business with calm intensity, looking serious and completely oblivious to all the rowdiness and the confusion. He was great… : :

: : As Alessandra and I made our way back to our hotel, our heads happily bobbing with the rhythm of the rum, we smiled at each other, thinking… only in New York. : :

Waikiki Wally's

101 E. 2nd St., New York, NY

(CLOSED in 2009)

Fred “Dag-Tiki” Sarli ©2004


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