Escape winter with tropical takeout, island cocktails from suburban restaurants
With the COVID-19 pandemic making vacation travel ill-advised, suburban residents are finding an antidote to winter closer to home -- tasty tropical dishes and beach-friendly drinks from local restaurants.
"I think (people are) looking for any sort of an escape right now and that's certainly helped us," said James Oppedisano, owner of Hala Kahiki Tiki Bar & Lounge in River Grove.
The bar has been open in its current location since 1964 and experienced waits of more than an hour when it was open for indoor dining this summer. People were eager for a taste of the bar's elaborate drinks despite the reduced seating capacity and hours.
Since the ban on indoor dining returned in the fall, Hala Kahiki has focused on to-go orders and serving guests at the 12 tables in its newly revamped beer garden. Enclosed by a tent and heated in the winter, the space is decorated with lava rocks and nautical art.
"I really wasn't sure how it was going to go, but during the holiday season the to-gos were a boon for our business," Oppedisano said.
Bahama Breeze in Schaumburg also has been doing a brisk takeout business during the winter, with its family-style servings of dishes including jerk chicken wings and jerk chicken pasta proving especially popular.
"We are so grateful for the support our community has continued to show us during this time. And even though our dining room is closed, we have seen many of our guests looking for a unique experience to celebrate the winter holidays with their families," Bahama Breeze general manager Elana Rosati said. "That is why we created our holiday bundles featuring family-style versions of our Caribbean favorites, so guests can create a Caribbean escape from the comfort of home."
Phil Zuziak, owner of Tiki Terrace in Des Plaines, said he's had to completely change his business model, which was focused on dinner theater. The spot hosted luaus five times a week and was a favorite spot for birthday and anniversary celebrations. Yet even with the dining room closed, he's still found there are plenty of people looking for a taste of Hawaii.
"We're not used to to-go food," Zuziak said. "We've had to pretty much reinvent our dishes and make them friendlier for that type of service. We're able to offer a lot of our alcoholic tropical drinks to go. People are using it as a big part of their weekend."
Popular items include the killer combo featuring grilled beef short ribs and garlic shrimp; coconut chicken served with plum sauce; pina coladas; and Pama Coco Delight, a blend of rum, pomegranate, coconut and pineapple. The drinks would normally be served in elaborate ceramic mugs, but they still come with an umbrella when you get them to go.
"They're just very unique cocktails," Zuziak said. "It's very fun for people."
In June, Lola's Pizza Palace moved to a new location in Arlington Heights that also features Kahala Koa, a bar serving tropical cocktails. The space is decorated with island decor, but even without being able to enjoy the atmosphere, customers have been eager to try their Mai Tais, Painkillers, and other drinks made with real juice and housemade syrups.
"We've been very lucky in that we have enough people in the area that are curious about the tiki concept and the tiki drinks, so we do a lot of carryout business," said Lola's owner Maxine Barton. "A lot of people have continued to support us through the closure."
The businesses are all eager to provide customers more of an escape once they can reopen for indoor dining. Barton said that Lola's plans to host Hawaiian dancers, craft shows and live carving demonstrations.
"We have a lot of ideas," she said. "It's just a matter of getting everything going."
Zuziak said he has a huge waiting list of people who want to attend one of the shows at Tiki Terrace when they restart.
"We expect that when we start tackling this large list, we'll be full for a while," he said. "The show is awesome. There's some comedy in it, there's audience interaction in it. It really transports you and gives you a feeling of escape like you're in Hawaii. It got really, really popular. We're expecting good things when we reopen."