If you’re flying into or out of the Louisville International Airport this holiday, you have your pick of places to drink a beer or get a glass of bourbon. But more than thirty years ago, there was another option: a tropical oasis.
Imagine this: The year is 1959. On the table in front of you is a plate of “Polynesian tidbits.” When you place your drink order, you’re reminded that a real orchid from Hawaii is served in every cocktail. Your car keys are with the valet who sits behind a tiki mug-shaped kiosk and greets guests by saying: “Welcome to the Luau Room.”
“The Luau Room was a Polynesian restaurant, it started at what was then Standiford Field — now Louisville International Airport,” said Stephen Hacker, author of “Lost Restaurants of Louisville.”
For his book, Hacker spent a lot of time digging through archives, old newspaper clippings and people’s memories to piece together narratives about city eateries that have closed.
The Luau Room didn’t make it into his book, but Hacker calls it his “lost chapter.”
“It was actually part of a corporation called the Dobbs House that had been opening Polynesian-themed restaurants in various cities,” Hacker said. “They decided Louisville was a prime candidate, and what better place for an exotic travel to a distant land then the airport — the brand new expansion of Standiford Field.”
Like most of mid-century American tiki culture, we can probably now look back on the Luau Room as something that was kitschy at best and an appropriative mishmash of various cultures at worst.
But at the time, it was the definition of a true dining — and drinking — experience. And it wasn’t just for people flying in and out of Louisville.
“You’ve got to remember that in those days, air travel was quite posh,” Hacker said. “The idea of going to the airport was a bit special where it was not seen as the way it is today of ‘Oh, God, I have to go to the airport.’”
The popularity of the Luau Room was part of a national fascination with all things “tropical” that really started spreading from the mid-1940s into the early 1970s. Culture reflected this in a few ways: “South Pacific” became a smash hit on Broadway, surf rock was born, Elvis starred in “Blue Hawaii.”
And Ron Jasin said the drinks changed, too. He’s the creative director at Copper & Kings, a tiki cocktail historian, and the brains behind the distillery’s “Kentiki” party.
“It wasn’t just a glass of whatever you’re drinking and a couple of ice cubes,” Jasin said. “It’s a glass and it’s ice and maybe it’s on fire and maybe it’s smoking. There’s a dolphin made out of a banana coming out of it.”
And that level of presentation was a major selling point of Louisville’s Luau room.
Stephen Hacker said the menu looked pretty much like your corner Chinese place with some pineapple thrown in. But it was the boozy, over-the-top drinks with names like “the Lulu,” “the Chi-Chi” and “the Bang-Bang Club” that kept the airport restaurant alive until 1983.
By then national interest in tiki had dissipated, and according to Hacker — and a Courier Journal article from that same year — business for the Luau Room had “fallen off sharply.”
A new Luau Room owner packed up the leis and torches and tried to open another location at 4th and Colorado Avenue — but it lasted only a few years at the location.
And even though more than 30 years have passed, Hacker said he’s seeing a renewed interest in drinks from that era.
“They’re fun, they taste great because they are very sweet, and I personally think that — along with every other sort of resurrection of cocktail culture — should be celebrated,” he said.