Coconut trees sway to ukelele sounds, tiki gods peek through the wicker. Island days laze in a rum haze, and the nights flame with food. Thirteen hundred, round trip.
But as chill and sluch claim Washington, you can find Bora-Bora by the Beltway for a lot less: There are more than half a dozen island hideaways scattered around the city and its 'burbs, about 6,500 miles closer to home than Tahiti.
What's the enchantment of a Polynesian restaurant? After all, a rum punch is a rum punch is a rum punch, give or take a lime or two. But float a gardenia in it, and it can conceal subtle mysteries: Luau Hut recently served its with a red-dyed grape instead of maraschino cherries. For now, ambiance is all: tiki-tacky dining experiences are theatrical.
On a typical journey into exotica, a Flaming Volcano, "lover's delight, a secret brew for 2," turns brains to lava. The rum-and-fruit combo from the menu's illustrated extra-strong category is cheaper than the cheapest package tour. After the first, the dream takes hold: the Polynesian kava ceremony, involving a narcotic beverage made from the roots of a pepper plant.
Communal tidbits encourage intimacy. Torches, too, set the tone for first dates. At the next table, a preppy Donnie charms his Marie by signing the Hawaiian Punch commercial theme song,
"We're Gonna Go Hawaiian!," after uncounted Mai Tais. Even Richard
Nixon, who could have ordered anything from his French chef at the White House, used to slip down 16th Street to the make-believe of TRADER VIC'S. What charmed him there? "We have sweetbreads, frogs' legs, steak..." says manager Peter Tung. But what about atmosphere?"Barbecued chicken, curry, steak..." But about the famous South Seas decor? "Veal, lamb..." Tung pushes the menu, not the fantasy.
But atmosphere can make up for much: Plant an orchid in your hair, avoid canned kumquats and try to remember that Wahini means the women's room. Lull yourself off to fantasy in a lush forest where nothing ever needs watering, TIKI HAWAII in Bethesda, hard to miss with its wooden totem poles out front. Decorator bamboo covers the place, pennies fill huge seashells -- just like Samoa, the last time you weren't there. At peak island-hopping season, we come with the will to be transported and without reservations.
Baskets of pumpernickel land beside the tropical hors d'. Menu offerings tend toward Oola Oola, giant red shrimp with crab stuffing; Mongolian Fire Steak, and "tiki speciality" cheesecake. The ocean roars in the bowl decorated with a hula girl and palms. A plastic flower speared beside the pineapple slice and orange looks just like it must look in Maori.
KONA KAI meets tropical-rain-forest standards for escapism, reinforced by the Don Ho music. The sunken-pit dining room and surrounding cocktail lounges are full on a Friday night. Menus are disguised as wicker placemats, and coconuts hang in fishnet. The Richard Nixon-lookalike plastic tiki-god drink stirrers are unique. The sugar, lamp, salt and pepper are in the familiar Marriott formation on the table's edge, but all sport the appropriate tiki-mask theme.
TRADER VIC'S serves its Kamaaina, from the endless list of rum punches, in a ceramic coconut. Heavy on the coconut mix. The Samoan Fog Cutter comes in a volcanic pot like the one you made your mother in crafts class. Dr. Funk is long on grenadine, Tahitian Pearl comes with a stunning plastic one. The condiments are less Hawaii than Heinz, but who's counting? The totems outside, glass-enclosed wood-fire ovens, bamboo ceilings, masks, sake jugs and tiki-god-with-lampshade dim lighting seem a million miles from L Street.
Downstairs at the LUAU HUT, in Silver Spring, there's a photo of Goldie Hawn giggling over a meal she had there -- local girl makes good, goes Polynesian. Island foods are pictured in faded transparencies at the door: pu-pu, flaming almond duck, lobster in butter, a surprisingly good salad bar, long on Cellophane noodles and exotic black beans. The punch was a sour disappointment, but the brown mug is yours for keeps.
Kob Phung, our Polynesian-stylewaiter admitted he's actually from Thailand. He went further to disclose a tradesecret the one-Zombie-per-customer warningis more to impress you than to restrict you.
At THE DIAMOND HEAD on Wisconsin Avenue in Chevy Chase, such island favorites as the "Hawaiian War Chant" set the tone, though you'll have to imagine the tropical species in the bamboo birdcages overhead -- they're empty, thank goodness. Visitors may be perplexed by a tall glass column housing gold-fish, particularly when the visitors themselves are tanked.
Below K Street, at BLACK TAHITI's Bora-Bora Bar, only the names are true to fantasy: Head Hunter, "a good drink for tribal celebrations,... conjures drumbeats and black magic." Hints of rum and bourbon, too. The buffet lunch lacks flaeming whatnot, highlighted instead by egg rolls and ham slices. Large colored balls hang in the stairway to set the tone: Zombie drinks have an uphill task here. Travel on your Tahiti Swizzle, "a refreshing house speciality composed of gin, which leaves its drinker a little closer to the South Pacific."