Mauna Loa, 1967

The Way It Was
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1967 During the 1960s, the popularity of tiki bars and restaurants exploded like a South Seas volcano. Carved masks, palm trees, beaded curtains, and rattan furniture became the décor rage, and exotic drinks laced with rum, pineapple, and coconut were merrily chugged down. Trader Vic’s in the Hotel Statler and the Chin Tiki on Cass were well-known downtown Polynesian-themed restaurants, but for over-the-top exotica, no place matched the Mauna Loa. It opened in 1967 on West Grand Boulevard, across the street from the old General Motors building in the city’s New Center. Palm trees and waterfalls set the tone outside, but the interior, divvied up into several themed rooms, was almost outlandish in its ambience. The 1970 book Detroit: A Young Guide to the City dubbed the Mauna Loa “the Disneyland of Detroit restaurants” and offered this vivid description: “Every inch of its enormous interior is splashed with colors and shapes … catamarans slung from the ceiling, palms, giant blowfish lanterns, streams gurgling past the tables … a pool where girls dive for pearls.” A 1967 article in The Detroit News made note of the Mauna Loa’s “lighted waterfalls flowing from nearly every corner” and “romantic lights glowing from stuffed blowfish.” For all its spectacular adornments, the Mauna Loa lasted only a few years and was later taken over by a seafood restaurant that burned down. Today, the area where the lavish restaurant stood is part of the Hotel St. Regis property, and Detroit’s slice of Polynesia, however kitschy, is just a glamorous memory — although Mauna Loa tiki mugs and menus sometimes turn up on eBay.

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