When Rose and Stanley Sacharski opened The Lucky Start, a modest bar in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, in 1952, they made a somewhat slapdash decision to decorate with bamboo poles, and to cover the cracks in the walls with latched-leaf matting. “They literally went to Sears and bought all the decor,” says Jim Oppedisano, the Sacharskis’ grandson and current owner of the Hala Kahiki Lounge, one of the country’s most iconic tiki bars.
The Sacharskis, he explains, weren’t exactly seasoned bar owners; rather, up until their break into the world of hospitality, they’d been in the funeral home business. So when The Lucky Start caught on as a tiki-inspired bar—earning the tagline, “Our Bamboo Rendezvous”—it proved to be a lucrative and unexpected boon to the family. Just over a decade later, in 1964, the Sacharskis decided to fully capitalize on the tiki craze by relocating and renaming their bar Hala Kahiki (or “pineapple,” in Hawaiian).
Three generations later, Hala Kahiki is one of the oldest tiki establishments still in operation, having expanded not only in terms of size but with its furnishings as well. While the original layout consisted of a mere seven tables and 15 bar stools, it now offers a larger seating area, plus a tiki-accented patio garden behind the building. Over the decades, the family’s built up an extensive collection of Polynesian Pop decor: rattan chairs with pineapple carvings, floor-to-ceiling grass-matt wall coverings, tiki glassware, paintings, tiki carvings and Witco-style artworks. Today, it’s home to one of the most impressive collections of tiki memorabilia in the country.
Many of the drinks on the original menu were tiki classics, like the Mai Tai and the Zombie; they remain today with subtle upgrades (reintroducing housemade syrups, notably) courtesy of Oppedisano, who recently unearthed many of his grandparents’ original recipes. Those recipes, he says, incorporated ingredients that had been replaced over the years with what he describes as “commercial, inferior products.”
And he would know. Oppedisano actually grew up next door to the bar, back when his mother and uncle ran the place, and spent much of his time working there as a kid. By seventh grade, he was busing tables during service, and by age 15, he was putting in time behind the bar. (Though, “I worked behind the bar with my grandfather only once,” he says. “He was a big bull of a man and it was like trying to bartend around an outhouse.”)
Today, the “Bamboo Rendezvous” stands as an important piece of tiki history in America. But for Oppendisano, it’s even more. “Tiki is like a family member,” he says. “It’s something that just is.”
Step Inside Hala Kahiki