Filed Under Food

Sheraton-Cleveland's Kon-Tiki Restaurant

Cleveland's Favorite Exotic Getaway

On its opening day in January 1961, Sheraton-Cleveland’s Kon-Tiki restaurant welcomed more than 2,000 visitors to Cleveland's first new Tiki bar in twenty years. Whether they were tired of a dreary Cleveland winter or were simply interested in the city’s newest restaurant, these visitors experienced what many could never have imagined, an exotic Polynesian paradise just off Public Square in downtown Cleveland.

In late 1933 former bootlegger and globe traveler Ernie Gantt opened the world’s first Tiki bar in Hollywood, California, naming it “Don the Beachcomber.” Gantt decorated the interior with masks, totems, and idols he collected during his Polynesian adventures and served his exotically named, high-strength rum cocktails to an enthusiastic post-prohibition crowd. Soon after opening, the laid-back island vibe and convenient location just off Hollywood Boulevard drew the attention of Hollywood stars looking for an alternative to the stuffy and formal nightclubs of the era, causing the bar’s popularity to skyrocket. Word of the Beachcomber spread, causing countless imitators to open copycat bars. The most notable was Vic Bergeron’s Trader Vic’s in Oakland, California, which invented many Tiki mainstays like the Mai-Tai and Crab Rangoon.

Seven years after Gantt opened the Beachcomber in Hollywood, Sammy Brin introduced Tiki to Cleveland by opening Club Zombie inside the Hawley House Hotel on West 3rd and St. Clair. Featuring tropical-themed decorations with fake palm trees disguising the supporting columns and split-bamboo-covered walls, Club Zombie quickly became Cleveland’s most popular nightclub and laid the groundwork for the Kon-Tiki and other Tiki bars across the city.

Tiki’s popularity rose exponentially following World War II when veterans who returned home from the Pacific spread stories and memories of the tropical shores they enjoyed while on leave. They and those who grew weary of their daily routine looked to Tiki, which allowed them to temporarily escape their daily grind to a distant, imaginary tropical paradise for a drink or two at happy hour or a backyard cookout. Another reason for the rise of Tiki was the excitement regarding the addition of Hawai’i as the 50th state in the union. Tiki culture emerged and evolved into a distinctly American blend of the global sounds of Exotica music, westernized Chinese food, Caribbean rum, and Polynesian-inspired décor that dominated American culture in the mid-20th century.

In 1958 the Sheraton Corporation purchased the four-decade-old Hotel Cleveland on the southwest side of Public Square for $10 million and embarked on a $5 million renovation and modernization project. An essential part of the project was a 3,000-person capacity ballroom atop a large parking garage designed to entice suburbanites to return to the downtown nightlife scene. The second significant aspect of the project was the closure of Hotel Cleveland’s flagship restaurant, the Bronze Room. For over forty years, the formal and stately Bronze Room allowed politicians, executives, and other high-echelon Clevelanders to dine and dance in luxury; however by the late 1950s, consumers began to want more than just a meal when they went to a restaurant. They now wanted an exciting and entertaining experience, and the stiff and formal atmosphere of the Bronze Room offered little to these new discerning patrons. In response to this nationwide shift in consumer demand, Sheraton’s management partnered with former actor Stephen Crane, owner of Hollywood’s standout Tiki restaurant the Luau, and replaced the aged Bronze Room with the third restaurant in a new, national chain of Tiki restaurants named Kon-Tiki. This new chain joined two other major Tiki chains, Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s, and soon every major American city would host at least one Tiki bar.

Sheraton named the Kon-Tiki chain after the primitive balsawood raft that explorer and anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl used to travel over 4,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean in 1947. Heyerdahl’s voyage atop his raft, the Kon-Tiki, was an experiment hoping to prove his radical theory that refugees fleeing South America arrived and populated Polynesia rather than migrants sailing from the Asian mainland. Heyerdahl’s voyage on the primitive raft enraptured the American public, who kept apprised of his progress via long-range radio transmissions. The book and subsequent documentary film he produced about the trip became a massive success, topping Cleveland’s bestseller list in 1950, eventually selling over fifty million copies in more than seventy languages.

On January 23, 1961, the 230-seat Kon-Tiki restaurant opened its doors, welcoming Cleveland to the Tiki heyday. Keeping with the idea of an exciting dining experience, Crane designed the restaurant with the diner’s experience in mind. After passing through the large wooden doors beneath the prow-shaped awning, guests waiting to be seated had their view of the restaurant’s dining room obstructed by panels and rock-lined walls; this allowed their anticipation to build and lent an aura of mystery to the restaurant. When it was time to be seated, guests went to one of six individually themed rooms after crossing a running stream that fed rock-lined ponds from a waterfall and a wooden bridge with intricately carved balusters featuring Tiki idols. Whether they sat at the bar in the Aikane room, the intimate patio room, or the large Māori Long Hut with room for fifty, diners at the Kon-Tiki would experience what, at the time, people considered an authentic Polynesian atmosphere while eating dishes with exotic names such as opiopioi moa, kalua maia, laiki, kihapai, and omaomao prepared by a chef brought in from Hong Kong.

The food menu was undoubtedly important, but the cocktails set the Kon-Tiki apart from competing restaurants. Drinks such as the Tahiti, Luau Grog, Zombie, Jamaica Sangaree, and Guatemala Cooler showcased Tiki’s international influences, while their vague descriptions in the menu ensured patrons would experience the unknown. The drinks served by the Kon-Tiki were a blend of house-made syrups, fresh fruit, and various spirits served in unique mugs, stemware, and hollowed-out pineapples that distinguished them from traditional American cocktails. Adding to the entertaining atmosphere, some were even lit aflame before being presented to the customer.

Tiki resonated in American pop culture mainly because of its sense of escape. However, the late 1960s ushered in the arrival of jet-powered passenger planes that offered an actual escape to a tropical island. Additionally, worldwide decolonization struggles and the increased availability of modern media began to educate the American public that Tiki’s agglomeration of so many distinct cultures masked a more sobering reality. A group of white men developed Tiki culture by taking sacred symbols from peoples across the world, using them as mugs to hold cocktails. They did so while yearning for a wholly manufactured version of a culture that just a few generations earlier had been the target of a campaign of cultural genocide led by missionaries and imperial powers to force “civilization” onto the island inhabitants and now was a target for nuclear tests, military occupations, and hordes of tourists.

The Kon-Tiki closed its doors in early 1976, portending the end of Cleveland’s Tiki era until the resurgence of high-quality crafted cocktails led Stefan Was to open Porco, now Cleveland’s only Tiki bar on West 25th that, like other modern tropical bars, has shifted away from cultural exploitation while retaining the focus on well-crafted fruit-based drinks. Was managed to find the wooden exterior doors and other decorations from the Cleveland Kon-Tiki and incorporated them into Porco’s interior design. As fate would have it, patrons who are looking for a well-crafted tropical drink pass through the very same doors that welcomed 2,000 curious Clevelanders to the Sheraton-Cleveland Kon-Tiki more than sixty years ago.

Images

Sheraton-Cleveland's Kon-Tiki restaurant on Superior Avenue The prow shaped awning above the doors was a design that Sheraton employed at their Kon-Tiki restaurants across the country. Source: mytiki.life Date: ca. 1975
Plain Dealer announcement of Club Zombie's opening in 1940 Sammy Brin hopped onto the Tiki bandwagon in 1940 when he opened Cleveland's first Tiki bar. Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer Creator: Glenn C. Pullen Date: December 16, 1940
Menu Cover for Club Zombie Club Zombie, located inside the Hawley House Hotel, was the Kon-Tiki's predecessor. Creator: Club Zombie
Interior of Club Zombie The palm trees, beaded curtains, and bamboo walls helped patrons imagine an escape to a far away land. Source: J. Mark Souther Postcard Collection Creator: Artvue Post Card Co.
Postcard for the Sheraton-Cleveland Hotel in downtown Cleveland. This Sheraton-Cleveland Hotel postcard from the 1960s described (on the reverse side) the hotel's amenities. It read, in part, "For outstanding dining and beverages, The Bunch of Grapes, a colonial tavern, The Falstaff Room and Kon-Tiki, a Polynesian Restaurant." At a time when many Clevelanders were flocking to the suburbs, the card also emphasized that the hotel offered free parking. Source: J. Mark Souther Postcard Collection Creator: International Hotel Supply Co.
The Bronze Room in the Hotel Cleveland A postcard showing the Bronze Room at Hotel Cleveland. The Bronze Room was a formal dining room which included a floor for dancing and room for a live band. Shortly after purchasing the hotel, Sheraton-Cleveland closed the restaurant and replaced it with the Kon-Tiki. Source: ClevelandMemory.org
The Kon-Tiki raft. The balsawood raft Thor Heyerdahl and his crew sailed 4,300 miles from Peru to the Raroia atoll, just east of Tahiti, to prove that refugees fleeing South America could have settled the Polynesian Islands. Source: The Kon-Tiki Museum Date: 1947
Advertisement announcing the opening of the Kon-Tiki The Kon-Tiki regularly used caricatures of Polynesians in its advertisements in a look reminiscent of Chief Wahoo. These cartoonish images worked to dehumanize their subjects, granting patrons a guilt-free experience. Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer Creator: The Sheraton-Cleveland Hotel Date: January 17, 1961
Floor plan of the Kon-Tiki This image shows the seating and staff areas of the Kon-Tiki. Each section had a unique theme. These areas coalesced into management's idea of a typical Polynesian village. Source: Hall, Stephen S.J. "Sheraton-Cleveland's Kon Tiki." Cornell Hospitality Quarterly 2, no. 1 (May 1961): 19 Creator: Stephen Crane Associates Date: May 1961
A bridge between rooms at the Kon-Tiki Guests crossed a bridge over waterfall fed ponds before entering the dining rooms of the Kon-Tiki. The designers employed screens and angled entryways to keep diners in suspense of the décor before they crossed the bridge into the seating area. Source: Hall, Stephen S.J. "Sheraton-Cleveland's Kon Tiki." Cornell Hospitality Quarterly 2, no. 1 (May 1961): 20 Creator: Stephen Crane Associates Date: May 1961
The Patio Room of the Kon-Tiki This cozy dining area of the Kon-Tiki was packed with exotic (for the time) plants and paper lanterns. Source: Hall, Stephen S.J. "Sheraton-Cleveland's Kon Tiki." Cornell Hospitality Quarterly 2, no. 1 (May 1961): 20 Creator: Stephen Crane Associates Date: May 1961
The bar at the Kon-Tiki Guests of Kon-Tiki's curving bar sat facing a waterfall with a thatched roof and taxidermized blowfish-lamps above. Polynesian weapons and shields adorned the rattan covered walls. Source: Hall, Stephen S.J. "Sheraton-Cleveland's Kon Tiki." Cornell Hospitality Quarterly 2, no. 1 (May 1961): 20 Creator: Stephen Crane Associates Date: May 1961
The Maori Long Hut room at the Kon-Tiki The Maori Long Hut area of the Kon-Tiki had seating for over 50 people. The room was decorated with paper lanterns, fishing baskets and an outrigger canoe hanging from the ceiling. The walls were covered in 30-inch shells and split bamboo featuring Polynesian shields, clubs, and axes. Source: Hall, Stephen S.J. "Sheraton-Cleveland's Kon Tiki." Cornell Hospitality Quarterly 2, no. 1 (May 1961): 21 Creator: Stephen Crane Associates Date: May 1961
Kon-Tiki diners and a server. A server delivering a tropical cocktail in a hollowed out pineapple to a patron. Source: mytiki.life
Postcard featuring Kon-Tiki's lunch buffet. The Kon-Tiki offered a lunch smorgasbord (buffet) everyday except Sundays for just $1.95. Source: ClevelandMemory.org Creator: Stephen Crane Associates

Location

24 Public Square, Cleveland, OH 44113 | Closed in 1976

Metadata

Benjamin King, “Sheraton-Cleveland's Kon-Tiki Restaurant,” Cleveland Historical, accessed January 29, 2023, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/977.