What the New York Times once referred to as “a blend of Polynesian kitsch, fake island food and lethal rum drinks” first reached Louisville in 1959. That was when the Luau Room landed at Standiford Field (now known as Louisville International Airport).
The Polynesian restaurant craze had just about reached its peak after beginning in the late 1930s with two outsize personalities who both claimed to have invented the Mai Tai: Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic. “Trader Vic” was the nickname of Victor Bergeron, a California native who ran a San Francisco bar that became increasingly cluttered with and identified by its South Sea Islands bric-a-brac. Don the Beachcomber was originally Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, a New Orleans native who arrived in Los Angeles and created a bar based on rum drinks because it was “the least expensive of the spirits,” inventing exotic-sounding names such as the Sumatra Kula, Zombie and Missionary’s Downfall. The bar became so popular Gantt legally changed his name to Donn Beach, and his restaurant empire began to rival that of “Trader Vic” Bergeron.
As America’s thirst for rum drinks and “Polynesian” inventions such as the pu pu platter and rumaki, Louisville’s airport decided to upgrade its full-service restaurant. Dobbs House, which held the concession for the airport restaurant, installed a version of its Luau Room in 1959.
The menu offered the typical slate of “Polynesian” dishes, many of which seemed to have been taken from the nearest Cantonese restaurant: sweet and sour pork, chicken chow mein and egg rolls. There were also live lobsters and dishes “with an American touch” including steak, beef skewers and barbecued ribs.
The Luau Room also had its selection of exotic drinks. Patrons could order a Fu Manchu, Fog Cutter, a Luau Bowl or a Mai Tai and would get “an orchid from Hawaii” in every one.
Standiford’s Luau Room operated until 1983, after business had “fallen off sharply,” according to an October 1983 article in the Courier-Journal. In 1985, Louisville Skyline claimed the closure also was due to construction of the new terminal building. That same article happily reported that the Luau Room would return to Louisville at a “new home” at the intersection of Fourth Street and Colorado Avenue, which writer David Miller described as “a rather ambiguous area outside of the Old Louisville neighborhood.”
It seems that when Dobbs House closed the Standiford Field restaurant, Vern Ferguson purchased the “Luau Room” name and “all of its exotic furnishings” for his planned revival in what had been a Kroger grocery store. Ferguson told the Louisville Skyline writer that he thought he could “relocate the restaurant and, at the same time, maintain the enchantment that made it so popular.” The article noted that “a raised hut area” had been reconstructed in the center of the restaurant,” and “bamboo drop ceilings and grass-woven wall coverings” were adorned with decorations from around the world. “Colorful masks from New Guinea, Solomon Islands, New Herbides [sic], Equador [sic], Mexico, Alaska and various regions of Africa” also returned, along with weapons “first introduced by the Mohammedan cultures native to the Philippine Islands and those of China and Japan.”
In addition to returning the decor, Ferguson brought back the Luau Room’s menu, along with chef Rufus Wright who had been at the airport location “for 13 years.” Ferguson predicted that his restaurant would see “a new crowd of patrons in just a short time,” citing “proximity to downtown” and being “a straight shot from Churchill Downs” as reasons for optimism.
In 1986, critic Steve Lyons called the restaurant “a Polynesian oasis in Louisville’s South End,” describing an interior as “decorated with bamboo, thatch and carved wooden masks” where “meals … [were] served to the sound of water falling over rocks.” He noted that “a lei is placed around each diner’s neck,” and called his Polynesian tidbits appetizer “a pleasing assortment of baby ribs, shrimp puffs and pork slices.” Lyons awarded the resurrected Luau Room only two stars, calling his Celestial Chicken “disappointing” with a sauce “reminiscent of soup concentrate.” He liked his beef teriyaki, and thought the stuffed shrimp were “acceptable.” He did find the “dizzying selection” of drinks such as the Fu Manchu, Blue Hawaii and Mauna Loa Eruption “fun,” but also thought they were “expensive at $3.25 and up.”
It seems that Louisville’s liking for tikis and exotic rum drinks had come and gone, despite Ferguson’s best efforts. The Luau Room only lasted for a few more years, closing sometime around 1990. Some ephemera from this Polynesian palace still remains, with rumors of the entire Luau lot surviving in a warehouse somewhere. But as of this moment there are no Polynesian restaurants left in Louisville—though a somewhat similar (yet more modern and Mexican) tiki vibe still exists at El Camino.