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One of Boston area's last old-style Polynesian places closing forever

Bali Ha'i - Juanita Hall 's own voice - South Pacific

Boston Restaurant Talk reports Bali Hai, off Rte. 128 in Lynnfield, is shutting down next week.

So that leaves, what, Kowloon in Saugus and the Tahiti in Dedham?

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Tiki Island in Medford.

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Or Cathay Pathetic as we once called it....

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What other Chinese restaurant charges a cover to get a Mai Tai while you wait for your take out?

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Biggest letdown ever was going there for the first time expecting Keno .... alas they don’t do Keno. What gives?!

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that saved you some money.

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But new one just opened up, Shore Leave in the South End.

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and their legendary scorpion bowls.

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But the last time I was there they had kept the Scorpion Bowl on the menu. We ordered one, and I asked the waiter if it was being served in one of Aku Aku's original volcano bowls. He said yes, he thought they still had three and just as he was saying it the bowl started to slide sideways off his tray. (Luckily he righted the situation in time.)

They also still had one of the Maui now dressed up in fisherman's garb by the front door, and the Polynesian mural was still by the rest rooms.

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As an old timer, I remember the glory days of Bob Lee's Islander in Chinatown. What a place. It enchanted me as a child, and Bob Lee himself would greet you as you entered. In the early 70s there was another of these elaborate places on Boylston near the Colonial Theater and the old Boston Music and Carl Fischer music stores. For the life of me I can't remember the name of it.
There was also Kon Tiki Ports in the Pru. The food may not have been authentic, but these places were magical when I was young.

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This restaurant chain was a spin off of the Luau, a famous Polynesian themed restaurant in Hollywood. It started in the 1950's and was franchised throughout the Sheraton Hotel chain. It was founded by Steve Crane, once married in the early 40's to Lana Turner. He was the father to Cheryl Crane, Lana's only daughter. She later became infamous for having stabbed to death Lana's abusive lover on Good Friday 1958. When I opened the Back Bay Hilton in 1982 I remember going to Kon-Tiki Ports but I don't know how long it was a business after that.

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...encyclopedic Tiki culture and cocktail recipe book, "Smuggler's Cove". (The first two being Trader Vic and Donn Beach.)

I highly recommend the book to anyone reading this thread. It's gorgeously photographed and designed, gives a wonderfully comprehensive accounting and description of all things "Tiki Culture", and is filled with terrific recipes, both new and traditional. But most of all, it's a beautifully written love-letter to a bygone fad that somehow still speaks to us through these kitschy, faded survivors of a another time.

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If you find yourself in a Chic Fil A....the Polynesian Sauce is divine...

You can buy it on Amazon in 8 oz tubs apparently.

It's like Angels dancing on your tongue...

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Years ago they installed the noise barrier walls along that stretch of 128 and totally blocked the Bali Hai signage from the highway. Surprised it lasted this long.

BTW if you are looking for a high octane Mai Tai, there’s a Chinese restaurant on 129 in Billerica next to the Harley dealership that can power a Falcon Heavy.

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You mean that the people that went there rolled in off the highway? I thought most of the clientele of these spots tended to know they are there and are locals, if not regulars.

I have a much greater suspicion that their key clientele is aging off the planet. Most of these places opened after WW II and the Korean War, when GIs who spent time in the Pacific Theater wanted to bring some safe exotica back with them.

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However, the visibility of the sign probably brought in non-locals as well. Seeing it along 128 was the thing that made me think, "I gotta check that place out sometime." (Sometime turned out to be no sooner than tonight!)

The aging clientele concept is a bit more complicated. The bloom clearly went off the "Polynesian" rose at least two decades ago, as more genuine forms of Asian cuisine started to become common. But there are still fans of that form of faux-Chinese of all ages. And what frequently drives a suburban joint like Bali Ha'i is not as much the food as a combination of late hours and cheap Tiki drinks at the bar. Young adults in their 20s in the burbs count on a that kind of thing for their nightlife. (FYI: Bali Ha'i drinks are/were only $5 a pop! In 2018!)

In my observation, the real regulating factor is the human lifespan of the owners. The kids (or the kids of the kids) no longer want to take over the family business, so these places live and die with the people who started them. If you get more than 50 years out of a place that began during a craze, it's quite remarkable.

Spot on with your last sentence. These joints are the "ghosts" of mid-century American culture. And it's a testament to the odd appeal of that craze that we still have a handful left all these decades later. (Can you find a surviving fern bar anywhere anymore?)

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The "Polynesian Style" Chinese restaurant is the evolutionary remains of the mid-century Tiki craze started by people such as Trader Vic and Donn Beach. They married their rum-based drinks to Chinese-American finger food. These places were actually considered fine dining at the beginning, and the settings were designed to impress. They were always a faux-cultural mash-up that was uniquely American.

Over time the tiki part was de-emphasised and the faux-Chinese part came to the fore. And now, one by one, the authentic first-wave places are dropping away. (The even-horizon seems to be about 50 years.)

In the meantime, youngsters who were fascinated by the ghosts of bygone culture are today opening recreations like Smuggler's Cove in SF and Shore Leave here in Boston.

Me, I'll always mourn the loss of an authentic living museum (South Pacific in Newton still haunts me), but it's nice to know someone new wants to carry the flame.

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On the North Shore (and in Chestnut Hill, I believe), we had Dave Wong's China Sails.

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David Wong's.....China Sails. David Wong's.....China Sails.

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Today the original restaurants might be condemned as examples of cultural appropriation. Comparison to today is ironic. We criticize the mid-century in its McCarthyism, cold war fear and remnants of America first but praise its art and celebrate its kitschiness.

Today we have a renewed cold war mentality (supported by the far right again - except that the enemy is now the right's ally), mob oriented America Firsters willing to make America 2nd or 3rd after Russian and China, local online McCarthyism and mob violence but demands for cultural purity (no more kitsch?) from the left and right of politics and culture.

As though little of the national mindset of the US has changed. The characters and even side of the chess board changes - left takes on the role of the right, right calls for what the left represented. In the mid-century there were the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss. Today they are replaced by Trump, McConnell and the Koch brothers.

Cultural purity and conformity (especially notable in the religious right), extreme order and homogeneity struggles in a a tug-of-war against non-conformity, true individual expression (not the monetized version), cultural and individual diversity and independence.

Seems some patterns hardly change for us.

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I just wanted a drink with an umbrella in it

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Makes me want a Scorpion Bowl!

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What does all this mean ? Joe McCarthy drank Scorpion Bowls ?

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I'm not sure I'm convinced that "cultural appropriation" is the all-fired evil thing it is now portrayed as in this repressively politically correct age. I'm not so sure it's wrong to wear a garment, sing a song or participate in a custom of a culture that is not one's own. How else does one learn about, embrace, and, yes, absorb other cultures? The problem with today's form of "multiculturalism" is that it insists that everyone fiercely adhere to and defend the culture of one's birth, never daring to cross a line into the experiences of another culture, especially if one is white. This is not the "togetherness" or "oneness" many of us once spoke of and believed in. In fact it seems to me to be just another form of segregation, if indeed only a mental one.

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The activities you describe are healthy in the model of the "the melting pot" working at it's ideal level.

But we still have the intense residue of "mainstream" cultural views that descend from cultures with a deep and dark history of active imperialism.

And even today, if the imperialism is not active, we nonetheless run roughshod over almost any other culture we touch due to our sheer, careless economic ponderousness.

In my view, people have plenty of historical justification for defensiveness -- their culture can be greatly damaged, if not outright destroyed, when too many "harmless" things pile on top of it.

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Yikes! This guy could use a Mai Tai.

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…the question becomes, "Is it really cultural appropriation if the thing 'appropriated' was never authentic to begin with?"

Someone genuinely from Polynesia would likely be utterly mystified by the cuisine attributed to the their homeland. Certainly most old-school "Chinese" food in America would be alien to any province of China. The drinks are entirely American inventions, mostly focused on a spirit made primarily in the islands of the Atlantic. The whole thing is a big, fanciful mishmash, invented in a time when cultural accuracy wasn't a big value.

This somehow makes it both better and worse at the same time. Would one laugh at the absurdity of the inaccuracy -- not even see a way to take it personally, because it has nearly no bearing on reality? Or would one be offend by the carelessness? "You couldn't even be bothered to learn enough about my culture to steal it correctly!"

In the case of the old-school "Polynesian-Style" restaurant, you have Chinese-American immigrants embracing a previously contorted version of their cuisine and attributing it to yet another barely-related culture thousands of miles southeast of their homeland only because a couple of American barkeeps who focused on ingredients from an entirely different hemisphere had found success in presenting the whole mashup as "exotic" in a rather generic way. Who's appropriating whom here?

Perhaps these are just anachronisms, born of a time in this country when people thought it was all good as long as the materials in the melting pot flowed and blended smoothly.

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Report from the Penultimate Night

As a casual fan of Tiki culture, checking out Bali Hai had been on my someday list for a long long time. Someday almost arrived too late, but on Saturday I made it with only a day to spare.

The big structural highlight is the iconic A-frame entrance -- hardly any left, even in places that still do "Polynesian" style. Jungle drums hanging off the ceiling in the lobby. Bamboo, paper, and cloth lanterns hanging in the dining room. Big, back-lit photos of tropical seascapes and a painted mural of generic Pacific Islanders. Yes, this is the real deal in mid-century faux-culture. Perhaps no longer museum quality, but still authentic enough for retro pleasure.

Almost from the moment we walked in strangers started blurting out their statements of nostalgia unprompted. One fellow said, "They should close every month, because the place hasn't been this busy in 25 years!" The staff was clearly overwhelmed, unaccustomed to the crush, even though the dining room was only 2/3rds full. (It's likely that four decades ago this was the normal Saturday night volume, but as the years wore on they'd just gotten accustomed to an increasingly sleepy pace.)

The food was better than my (low) expectations. The highlight was rediscovering a "lost" pu-pu item I hadn't had since my childhood in the 70s -- shrimp toast. (Listed there as "shrimp puffs", it's like what crab rangoon would be if you deep fried it between small triangles of bread instead of in a wonton wrapper.) I'd been trying to figure out what it was for nearly 3 decades and in all that time had never run into it at any other restaurant -- "Rosebud!" as food!

We took pictures, chatted with the locals at other tables, and did the best we could to show mercy to our beleaguered server. On the way out I stopped at the counter to purchase a Tiki mug. As the hostess wrapped it for me, she said, "And I'll give you a souvenir."

And to this retro-culture lover's delight and eternal gratitude, she brought out a completely pristine copy of their menu… FROM 1974! Resplendent with the classic old-school illustrations of each cocktail, and the pages bound together with gold cord. I actually got a bit teary with gratitude over the beauty of this artifact and the lovely gesture behind it. And I'd only just set foot in the place for the first time a couple of hours before.

There are great places, and there are dive places, and there are funky places, and there are crappy places that you like anyway, and there are timeless places that have just been there forever. Sometimes you fall for one, maybe for reasons you can't quite put your finger on -- there's something unique about the food, or you feel safe and cozy there, or it reminds you of your childhood, or maybe it's a time machine that reminds you of a childhood you wish you'd had…

And the odds are very high that in any of the ones you have special feelings for, those feelings are because it's run by a group of real people who personally want you to feel welcome and happy.

So remember to treasure those places while you can (even if you're a little late on the draw) because the life you feel in there is because those real people put it there. And nobody lives forever.

****
Adam: I'll send photos of the menu if you tell me where.

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