The things that get nostalgic locals wistful for bygone days tend to have only-in-New Orleans pedigrees. The seafood restaurants and camps that once honeycombed the lakefront; the glory days of shopping along Canal Street; the K&B pharmacy chain with its Mardi Gras-purple logo, long since converted to plain old Rite Aid stores — all are ripe for New Orleans reminiscence.
But for some New Orleanians, one reliable wellspring of happy memories is a long-gone local institution that was utterly — and quite intentionally — not of New Orleans: the Bali Ha'i at the Beach, an exotic Polynesian restaurant cut from the original cloth of tiki.
"It had that 'wow' factor and nothing else around looked anything like it," remembers Ann Tuennerman, founder of Tales of the Cocktail, the festival which draws drinks enthusiasts to New Orleans from around the world every July. Tuennerman was a frequent visitor to the Bali Ha'i in the early 1980s while enrolled at the University of New Orleans (UNO), the restaurant's neighbor on the lakefront at the end of Elysian Fields Avenue.
"It had that tiki appearance from the street, but it didn't reveal itself all at once," Tuennerman says. "As you walked , the place kept going and was so over-the-top with the decor. It was an exotic fantasy you could escape to."
Escape was the byword for tiki, a pop culture fad that raged in midcentury America. Over the course of more than 30 years, from its opening in 1952 to its demise in the mid-1980s, the Bali Ha'i at the Beach was the grand New Orleans tiki palace.
"I was into the tiki style and this place just embodied that," says Gary Phelan, an Uptown resident and avid surfer who insisted that his parents take him to the Bali Ha'i for his 16th birthday in 1967. "It was just so lush. You walked in and it was like you were stepping into another world."
That impression was the result of meticulously detailed design. The Bali Ha'i was a theme restaurant conceived as a self-contained fantasyland of Polynesian-style food served amid a riotous motley of South Seas decor, with nets, bamboo, woven palm fronds and shells everywhere. Most important, it also was a font for extravagantly composed, theatrically presented and lavishly potent cocktails.
These were the tiki drinks, the genre of cocktails that eventually would get degraded to sickly sweet rum bombs but which in ideal form are layered, balanced, delicious mixtures of rums, juices, syrups and liqueurs. A significant tiki revival is afoot among cocktail enthusiasts and others who identify with the Polynesian aesthetic, and after years of near extinction, the well-crafted tiki drink is increasingly easier to find around town (see sidebar).
While tiki culture channels Pacific island fantasies, the drinks that fueled them started out a lot closer to New Orleans than to Hawaii or Bora Bora, says Jeff "Beachbum" Berry, an Asheville, N.C.-based drinks writer.
"Tiki drinks are not authentic to Polynesia. There were no cocktails in Polynesia," Berry says. "They started as rum drinks that came from the Caribbean, from Cuba and Jamaica, and of course New Orleans has long had that cross-pollination with the Caribbean world."
Berry's research has helped document the original tiki drink recipes, and his newest book, Beachbum Berry Remixed — an updated anthology of two previous drinks books — contains many recipes contributed by New Orleans bartenders and rum fanatics active in today's cocktail circuit. The whole tiki trend, however, goes back to Donn Beach (ne Ernest Beaumont-Gantt), who grew up in Mandeville and achieved fame after the opening of his Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Hollywood in the 1930s.
Berry says Beach learned about cocktails while he was involved in rum-running from the Caribbean during Prohibition, and that he used planters' punch and the daiquiri as the basis for many of his original tiki drinks.
"The basic foundation was rum, lime and sugar, and he went from three ingredients to 12. It gave people something to talk about around the water cooler the next day," Berry says. "But the classic Caribbean drinks were the template for what every other tiki restaurant came up with after him, including the Bali Ha'i."
And the Bali Ha'i is where New Orleans first learned to drink tiki-style. The mai tai was a bestseller at the restaurant, as was the giant tiki bowl, which a table of patrons would sip together through extra-long straws, while the "fogg cutter," with its improvised house spelling, was another standard. They were boozy, fun and theatrical, as was everything at the Bali Ha'i. At one point the restaurant employed a model volcano drink dispenser for parties. Stick your tiki mug under a spout, and it would be filled with a mai tai like the nectar from some magical island spring.
The Bali Ha'i was part of Pontchartrain Beach, a 55-acre amusement park on a sandy, manmade beach on the lake. The park closed in 1983, and the Bali Ha'i survived as a private events hall for a few more years until it was destroyed by a fire in 1986. An expansion of the UNO campus was built on the former site of the park and the restaurant, leaving little trace of their history. An entrance to the restaurant, removed during a remodeling before the fire, now serves as a picnic pavilion in Veterans Memorial Park in Kenner, and vintage tiki mugs from the Bali Ha'i trade hands on eBay or decorate locals' kitchen shelves. But mostly the legacy of the old place lives in the memories of people who experienced it, and many of these memories are entwined with the happiness of special events and celebrations they marked amid the Bali Ha'i's bamboo and thatch.
"It was more than a little exotic for New Orleans, and that's what drew us there," says Max Reichard, a retired history professor who began visiting the Bali Ha'i in the late 1950s. "It was cool, it made you feel like you were visiting Tahiti. It was a good place to impress a girl. We'd go there after high school dances and on double dates. It was a real outing. It wasn't Galatoire's, but you still dressed up and that meant a coat and tie for the guys, girls in heels and dresses."
Peggy Scott Laborde, senior producer at WYES-TV, says the Bali Ha'i was the destination for her first date in 1972 with Errol Laborde, the editor of New Orleans Magazine. This date worked out well, and four years later they held their wedding reception at the same restaurant.
"I guess it was the kind of place where today people would go in Hawaiian shirts and shorts, but it wasn't like that back then," Laborde says. "It was a really nice place and it meant a lot to us. There was such a different mark to it; it was really one of a kind for New Orleans."
Actor Bryan Batt, star of the television series Mad Men, and his older brother Jay Batt, the local businessman and former New Orleans city councilman, can relate to these stories. But they also share their own unique perspective on the place. It was their grandfather, the late Harry J. Batt Sr., who started Pontchartrain Beach and the Bali Ha'i, which he named after a tune from the musical South Pacific. By the late 1960s, their father, the late John Batt and their uncle, Harry J. Batt Jr. of Metairie, were in charge of the park and the restaurant, and Jay and Bryan spent a good part of their youth romping through this elaborate tiki temple.
"It was magical in a way, but at the time it seemed normal, or what I thought was normal," Bryan Batt says.
"We ate there so often I was sick of Asian food by the time I was 10. It was just too much. I remembering protesting, saying,'We're an American family, aren't we? Why are we having Asian food every day?'"
Any sort of Asian food was a rarity in New Orleans at the time, Harry Batt Jr. recalls, and supplying the kitchen with the right groceries was difficult in the '60s and '70s. Keeping the tiki drinks menu fresh was its own process, he says.
"We had to hire away this drinks expert from some other place on the West Coast, offer him a better deal," Harry Batt says. "That's how you had to get your recipes, because it was the bartenders (who) had them all figured out and they would take (the drink recipes) with them when they switched jobs."
Pontchartrain Beach was open from spring through fall, while the attached Bali Ha'i remained open year-round. To keep business up during the winter, the Batt family devised a unique promotion for their restaurant.
"In the '50s and '60s, the lakefront was perceived as being on the other side of the world," says Jay Batt. "So we had these VW buses painted like bamboo and looking very tiki, and they'd drive around picking people up to bring them to dinner. The drivers would wear leis and they'd give you a fogg cutter or mai tai when you got in. Then at the end of the night, they'd bring you home and no one had to worry about driving."
While these vehicles, dubbed sampans, usually shuttled between the restaurant and downtown, Bryan Batt remembers them making deliveries of takeout from the Bali Ha'i kitchen to his family's home in Lake Vista. "It looked like a moving cottage driving around the neighborhood," he recalls.
In his book And a Bottle of Rum, New Orleans-based journalist Wayne Curtis describes the mid-century tiki craze and its paradise island fantasies as a reaction to the prevailing social politics of the time.
"It was the era of the Organization Man, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, the vodka drinker. Ornament had been buried by a generation of architects and interior designers," Curtis writes. "The tiki bar, in contrast, was nothing but ornament; without it, a tiki bar would collapse. ... The tiki bar offered escape for those who didn't want to drop out of society and play bongo drums all day, but weren't content with a circumscribed life."
In New Orleans, the Bali Ha'i interpretation of tiki went over big.
"It was always packed, always jammed. And it was one of those places where you'd walk in and you'd know everyone and everyone would know you," says Ella Brennan, matriarch of the Commander's Palace branch of the Brennan restaurant family. She added that one charm of visiting the Bali Ha'i was the ability to cut the children loose to play in Pontchartain Park while the adults had dinner and socialized.
"It was always about family," Brennan says. "You'd always bring the kids, and half the time it was them who'd ask to go. They were so excited to go, they'd tell their friends they were going, and then we'd wind up with someone else's kids coming along too."
The mai tai was Brennan's drink at the Bali Ha'i — "and it still is," she adds — and while she remembers liking the Asian-style food, she acknowledges that New Orleanians had little standard for comparison at the time.
But the late pioneering New Orleans restaurant critic Richard Collin made his opinion clear enough in a review of the Bali Ha'i included in his 1970 guidebook The New Orleans Underground Gourmet. "One would be indeed out of his mind to come here for the food itself," Collin wrote, describing an "unconvincing menu" of egg rolls, spare ribs, Mandarin duck and shrimp with lobster sauce.
But his review was not a complete pan. Collin called the dining rooms "the most romantic in New Orleans," and he recommended a visit to the Bali Ha'i for an evening of "genuinely engaging surroundings with unusual drinks and palatable food."
For many, the ambience and "unusual drinks" were reason enough to trek out to the lakefront, and as today's tiki revival rolls on Jay Batt hints that the Bali Ha'i may rise again. He has saved a set of original drink recipes, transcribed by his father before his death in 1985, and says he's had past conversations with hoteliers interested in creating a new Bali Ha'i.
"It's something I think about doing when I retire," he says. "We lost a lot of memorabilia to (Hurricane) Katrina, but you never forget in your mind what it was like.
"Really, it wasn't until it was all over that I realized how much fun it was for us to be part of all this."