Bahooka’s Mood Lighting Fades to Black: A Beloved Tiki Landmark Closes

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Carrot eating fish IMG_1025
Rufus, the carrot-eating pacu, serves as Bahooka’s mascot. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

It is a very dark day for Southern California fans of tiki, Polynesian pop, flaming tropical drinks and giant carrot-eating fish. The mother of all thatched-hut-and-pina-colada restaurants closes its doors Sunday night, and no one seems to know for sure what will become of the place. Gideon Brower visited Bahooka and filed this report.

The Bahooka Family Restaurant in Rosemead,   co-founded and designed by Navy veteran Jack Fliegel, has been a favorite of San Gabriel Valley families, first-daters, birthday celebrants and, word has it, underage drinkers since it opened in 1967. According to architecture preservationist Chris Nichols, “Bahooka is a folk art creation on par with Bottle Village or the Watts Towers.”

Bahooka exterior IMG_1058Fellow midcentury Modern preservationist John English says the restaurant is a prime example of the tiki-styling mania that took hold in Southern California in the 1940s and ’50s following American engagement in the South Pacific during World War II. “The intent was to transport the customer into a deserted tropical island.”

Now, sadly, Bahooka is going the way of other Tiki classics Kelbo’s – where Jack Fliegel mixed his first mai tais before creating his own variant on the theme — and the original Trader Vic’s  location in the Beverly Hilton. Restaurant manager and family member Darlene Fliegel tells me that with no third generation stepping up to take over operation of the restaurant, the family has simply decided that after 46 years it’s time to sail off into the tropical sunset.

Initial reports were that Bahooka had been abruptly sold to a restaurateur with no interest in maintaining the décor, but Fliegel told me last week that the future of the one-of-a-kind interior remains in flux. Still, the sight of decorators and collectors making lists of items they hope to haul away doesn’t bode well for the integrity of the collection.

Big Kahuna in Bahooka hallway IMG_1040The restaurant’s last few weeks have been frantic, as dismayed patrons make a final pilgrimage. If you’re thinking of visiting during this last weekend, your chances of being seated are slim. You might be able to sneak inside, though, to take in Bahooka’s atmosphere of perpetual twilight, its labyrinth of secluded booths and the cacophony of nautical debris bursting from the ceiling and walls. Look on the pictures, ye fans of tiki, and weep.

To get a sense of Bahooka’s place in LA history, I spoke to two Los Angeles architecture mavens, John English and Chris Nichols, both mainstays of the Los Angeles Conservancy’s Modern Committee who have attended far too many closing nights of beloved institutions like Bahooka.

Chris Nichols grew up in the San Gabriel Valley and first went to Bahooka with his grandparents. Now, as the author of Los Angeles magazine’s “Ask Chris” column, it is his job to know everything about L.A. culture, both high and low. About Bahooka he says, “Anything that washed up in this person’s imagination ended up on the walls or the ceiling. . . five layers deep of the most magical garbage in the world. . . you feel like, maybe I am below the surface. Maybe I am on some alien world.”