Monday, June 15, 2009

Lost Silver Spring: The Luau Hut

Have you ever wondered about this bright yellow, vaguely Asian-looking edifice on Ramsey Street that seems so incongruous with the drab gray transportation-related structures that encircle it? The building now sits boarded up and vacant, having most recently served as the home of the Caribbean Style Restaurant and Lounge, the proprietors of which are likely responsible for the building's current bright orange-yellow livery. You may recall that street outside was the scene of a 5:30 AM shooting last year, an event which I suspect may have been at least partially responsible for the restaurant's demise.

For many years, beginning in the mid-1960's, this building served as the home of the Luau Hut, which I assume had to have been Silver Spring's only tiki bar.

The Luau Hut was born when a group of employees from the Washington Trader Vic's held a party at Moon Kim's Ramsey Avenue Korean restaurant, the Moon Garden. Among the guests was Paul Malonson, a Trader Vic's maitre d', who suggested to Kim that she expand the cuisine and transform the the restaurant into Polynesian-themed restaurant and bar. In 1964, the restaurant began to serve pan-Asian and Polynesian cuisine while serving up a variety of strong, rum-based Polynesian cocktails. Malonson and Kim, who were married in married in 1965, eventually opened up a second Luau Hut location on F near Union Station in the building that is now The Irish Times.

Along with being a restaurateur, Kim, who recently passed away, was a talented singer who attended Juilliard and even put out three rock albums (!) on the RCA label. Eventually, the popularity of her singing led her to perform three sets a night at the Luau Hut.

Side note: According to a 1966 Washington Post article, Silver Spring had itself a bit of a live music scene back in the 60's. Most entertainers in Silver Spring appear to have been pianists, though a big attraction at the time was dance music performances by the Kenny Duca Duo at the Villa Rosa Restaurant. According to the article, "Duca [was] one of the county's foremost exponents of the cordovox, an accordion with attachments that give it half a dozen sounds." Those last two sentences right there just undid all the hard work two seasons of Mad Men has done to make the 60's seem cool.

The Luau Hut served up a variety of drinks bearing fabulous names such as "Virgin's Downfall", with the highlight of the bunch being the Zombie, the only drink on the menu restricted to two per customer. (Whatever bar ends up being Zombie Walk HQ this year needs to learn how to prepare these.) You could choose to get you drink in a "tiki tumbler", which was yours to take home as a souvenir. Many of these mugs from the Luau Hut are still floating around out there, and I've scoured the internet for photos of the different varieties the restaurant offered. (See the slideshow at bottom of post.)

Here's the Luau Hut's cocktail menu from 1968:

(click to enlarge)

The restaurant's trademark image was that of the hula girl, who appeared partially nude on the restaurant's mugs and menus, but more modestly clothed for appearances in newspaper ads. Can you imagine the scandal today if a respectable MoCo restaurant had the audacity to put a topless chick on the cover of their menu?

In the 70's, the Silver Spring Luau Hut was apparently a favorite haunt of Bullets star and NBA Hall of Famer Elvin Hayes. This would be kind of like Gilbert Arenas hanging out at McGinty's on weekends, but in an alternate reality where the Wizards were good and people gave a damn.

Eventually the popularity of Tiki Bars fizzled out, and like many similar establishments nationwide, the Silver Spring Luau Hut faded into oblivion.

Somewhat surprisingly, the structure appears to have survived unscathed through the long period where the county felt that areas surrounding Metro stations were only good for parking garages. I'd love to lease the space and bring back the Luau Hut with the slightly-modified moniker "Luau the Hutt". The hula girl on my custom-designed mugs would be clothed in a Polynesian interpretation of Princess Leia's metal bikini and I'd use them to serve secret new cocktail recipes such as the "Thermal Detonator". You'd always get your way when holding a Thermal Detonator.

Here's a slideshow of Luau Hut related images that I've culled from the Internet and collected in a Flickr Set. These primarily came from from online tiki resources Arkiva Tropika and Tiki Room. (A few of the images I've enhanced a bit through the magic of Photoshop.)

Thanks to MG, KR and JM for contributing to this post.

UPDATE: For those curious about the Kenny Duca Duo and the Cordovox, here's a little slideshow of Cordovoxes with music featuring Kenny Duca. The Cordovox jam begins at about 0:58. Yes, it's cheesy, but what else could I do with ten minutes and Windows Movie Maker?


Cyndy said...

Thanks for posting this excellent feature on the Luau Hut. I went through a zombie drinking phase there way back when. It would be great to have the Luau Hut come back!

~KR (33) said...

More tiki in SS please!!!

johnny dollar said...

i just purchased a luau hut mug south of ft. lauderdale this weekend...

excellent sleuthing... i was pleased to find out a week or two back that the irish times was a chinese restaurant... in retrospect it is quite obvious.

Melanie said...

Great article. I love that building. It always reminded me of some cool arts and crafts building of Berkley California, per chance a forgotten Green and Green? I hope they save this building, it sure adds to Silver Spring's charm.

Springvale Roader said...

I would give up everything Silver Spring has gotten in the last 10 years for the return of the Luau Hut.

Thanks for a very interesting article, even if it makes me sad to know what once was, but now is not.

Thayer Avenue said...

Many years ago I stayed at the Fairmont Nob Hill in San Francisco. They have the Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar, which used to be the indoor swimming pool. They dropped a tiki bar in the middle of it with a floating walkway, and had rainstorms every 20 minutes, complete with thunder and lightning. Must replicate.

Oddly enough, I saw both Cybill Shepherd and Frank Sinatra, Jr. sing in the lobby bar when I was there.

Sligo said...

Great Frank Sinatra, Jr trivia:

"During the 1995-1996 television season, Sinatra was offered the role of Vic Fontaine on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Despite being a fan of the show and finding the role interesting, he turned it down, declaring that he only wanted to play an alien."

wombat said...

Great story, and love the links to 'online tiki resources' - internet time-wasting, here I come!

BD said...

I look at that orange restaurant everytime I walk to the MARC station and think: "That place should be a tiki bar. We've got Piratz, but we need Tiki."

I never even suspected it already had been.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

Springvale Roader said...

Sligo, you have your Missions Impossible:

1. Re-open the theater under the Golden Flame as an alternative cinema (foreign art films, domestic zombie epics, etc.);

2. Re-open the Luau Hut.

Do these things, and you shall be as a god among men.

Sligo said...

If I had the capital, I'd do that and more. (#3 would be an artisanal gelato shop on Elsworth.)

laura said...

Surely you meant to say, "Those last two sentences right there just undid all the hard work two seasons of Mad Men has done to make the 60's seem STIFF." The cordovox surely wins the 60's the prize for coolest time ever.

A tiki bar in SS would make a killing. DCers could get blitzed on tropical drinks, then stagger half a block to the red line and home. And I love that it's practically next door to the only pirate bar in town.

Anonymous said...

Would be interested to know if MoCo has any plans for this site. Seems to me that once the new transit center is completed, it would be the ideal site for a little strip -- Starbucks, Quizno etc. -- perfect for hungry travelers.

Corona said...

This is beyond awesome. My wife and I used to walk by and joke that we should open a Margaritaville there, how it just had the look of a tiki bar.

How sad that, considering the climate of MoCo, it will likely never again reach its true calling as purveyor of tropical concoctions.

Chaz said...

Piratz wishes it were HALF as cool as this. Nice digging, Sligo.

Easley Does It said...

Alas, it seems the Kenny Duca Duo has been lost to history. I just googled to try to learn more about this Jimi Hendrix of the cordovox, only to find one hit...the mention you just put up.

Anonymous said...

Oh if only those sidewalks could talk... they'd likely tell tales of lots of 2:00 a.m. vomiting...

Brian said...

wow. I have lived here 25 years and always wondered the history. Im glad someone else cares about the history of our town. do you know about the building and quick demo of the middle building across from discovery? or the post office where the entrance to to discovery channel is? If you care my email is

just another history buff.

Sligo said...

Easley Does It-

Check out the Kenny Duca music I just added to the end of the post.

Easley Does It said...

Awesome, Sligo! I'm digging that Kenny Duca sound. It's like I'm transported back to 1966 and I'm leaning against the Villa Rosa bar, hair Brylcreemed just so, manly whiskey-type drink in one hand, unfiltered Camel in the other.

Springvale Roader said...

Cool music, Sligo. For the coolest of tiki music, check out Exotica music:

I feel like a zombie (and I could use a strong drink, too. Ba-dum-bum!).

Anonymous said...

Great post. Just what I love to see in a local blog even though I don't live in SS anymore.

Springvale Roader said...

Last night the wife and I went to the Across the Street Cafe for a drink before Silverdocs ("Cat Ladies." Very good, very sad). It was our first time in there, and we were the only patrons, so we struck up a conversation with the friendly young bartender. One of the topics discussed was the difficulty in attracting customers to that side of Colesville, given the difficulty of crossing the street at that location and resulting lack of foot traffic. We also talked about how the delay of the Fillmore has screwed over more than one restaurant that opened nearby banking on the crowds that have yet to come.

I told him about the old Luau Hut, and suggested -- half-jokingly -- that Across the Street Cafe transform itself into a tiki bar. He thought it was a great idea. Imagine if outside the restaurant they had some tiki torches (electric, natch) and big Polynesian idol heads. That would get some attention, no? Let's hope he chats it up with the owners.

Speaking of which, the wife of the owner popped out of the kitchen with a complimentary plate of pakoras for us. That was very sweet of her, and they were quite good. It would be nice to see this place thrive. Tiki!

DaninTakPk said...

Excellent work

Debbie Cook said...

Thanks for the Great Post. Excellent Research and I bet it was fun to do too!

DC girl said...

I was too young to partake of the Luau Hut;I frequented the custard stand where the bus stops are at the Metro station. I can't remember the name of the place.

The Luau Hut should reopen with waiters dressed as Sean Connery, 007, in a Hawaiin shirt and short bathing trunks.

Thank you for this post.

Silver Spring: Then and Again said...

DC Girl,

Reindeer Custard was the name of the stand at 8430 Colesville Road. It was in business from 1949 to 1972 and was located where the construction pit is next to the SS Metro. No photos of this location have been found.

A photo of its earlier location (1940-49) up the street at 8651 Colesville Road appears on p. 119 of my book "Historic Silver Spring."

Anyone out there have a photo of the later location?

Anonymous said...

There's a scan of the Luau Hut Luncheon Menu posted here:

Anonymous said...

We miss Luau Hut. Please bring it back. Our fave is their 5-pounder lobster tail.

kenholmes said...

The popularity of Tiki Bars may have fizzled but the Luau Hut was also a victim of its own success (at least regarding its exquisite ambience). I left the area in July 1976 before the metro stop was completed nearby. When I returned and ate there a couple of years later, it seems that along with the metro stop so increased the popularity of the Luau Hut. There was a newspaper article posted near the entrance extolling the Luau Hut experience. I ordered my favorite, Stuffed Shrimp; I was disheartened when my meal arrived with French Fries. I once took a date there, and with careful calculating managed to leave penniless, but having satisfied everyone. Now that visit is worth the remembering.

Unknown said...

My moms sister owned that restaurant. What memories. Surprised the building still stands.

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Benjamin J. Hendrickson said...

I grew up in Takoma Park and spent a lot of time in Silver Spring and recall the Luau Hut. I only ate there once on a very memorable occasion. My wife and I had dinner there in December 1985 on New Years Eve. It was our very first date and started a relationship that has lasted 30 plus years. I recall sitting upstairs at a decent table and having nice service and my date not knowing what to order.
Benjamin J. Hendrickson Sr.

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