At Pontchartrain Beach, End Of Elysian Fields
For New Orleanians of the Baby Boom generation, the experience of having dinner at the Bali Ha’i with one of the first people you ever dated is almost universal. The number of us who went there for dinner before the prom is legion. I did, three times, in the late 1960s.
Quite a track record for a restaurant that was essentially a ripoff of a fraud.
The Bali Ha’i was one of many restaurants across America that copied the style of Trader Vic’s and Don The Beachcomber, two wildly popular San Francisco restaurants. “Trader” Vic Bergeron (who, despite his name, was from nowhere near New Orleans) said his food was Polynesian, with hints of Hawaiian. But there really isn’t such a thing as Polynesian cuisine. Trader Vic’s served Chinese food, really, with lots of frying and sweet sauces, and without all those puzzling Chinese names. Along with rum drinks whose potency was hidden by appealing, sweet fruit juices, served in unusual cups and glasses with island motifs.
The Bali Ha’i aped Trader Vic’s completely, from the drinks to the food to the straw-and-bamboo walls and ceilings. But we didn’t know that, nor would we have cared. All we knew was that there was this restaurant at Pontchartrain Beach—the place where we had incomparable fun in our childhood years that we weren’t quite ready to relinquish completely—that was so fancy that you couldn’t enter it wearing a swimsuit, as you could everywhere else at the Beach.
Also, during the heyday of the Bali Ha’i, most classy restaurants were serious places, bound by rules of etiquette that most of us knew so little about that we were afraid of doing the wrong thing. The Bali Ha’i, on the other hand, was obviously a fun sort of place. How could it not be? It was at the beach! That alone made it unintimidating. We were sixteen and seventeen. The whole category of places like Houston’s did not exist. The Bali Ha’i was perfect.
The dining room was dark, hung with Hawaiian stuff, with bamboo everywhere. There should have been open flames, like on the Survivor set, but there weren’t. However, you could get a flaming cocktail, which many people did. It was all exotic enough to translate as romantic.
My most vivid memory of the Bali Ha’i involved a girl named Sandy, who asked me to her prom. There we were, both underage, ordering the Tiki Bowl, a china tub held up by four round-bellied little china guys, filled with about a quart of a pale orange-colored drink from which extended two straws. I too a sip; I loved it. Sandy also said she liked it. Soon it was drained. What I didn’t know was that Sandy was not really drinking at all, and that I had sucked almost all of it down myself. The next thing I didn’t know was where I was, who I was, or what I was doing.
“Are you okay?” Sandy asked.
“Yes,” I said, slowly. “Just. . . give me a minute. . . and I’ll. . . be. . . just fine.” It was my first experience with intoxication. No drink has ever slammed into me with the force of that one.
The food came. Sandy had some shrimp dish. I ordered a filet mignon, because that’s all I knew. I’d never eaten Chinese food, or whatever that other stuff on the menu was supposed to be. I remember that it was pretty good, and that Sandy was impressed (or appalled—I’ve never decided which) that I ordered it. As I ate, the fog cleared. We stayed there a long time, looking at each other with the eyes of love—a new experience for both of us.
When I looked at an old Bali Ha’i menu a few years ago, I was surprised by how much like any other Cantonese restaurant’s menu it was. Rumaki, fried rice, sweet-and-sour chicken, shrimp on skewers, sweet ribs—all that stuff. And a big filet mignon.
The rumor among my friends was that the most devastating drink at the Bali Ha’i was the Fogg Cutter. But I learned my lesson, and kept to the safe side of the drink menu on the two or three more times I went there.
The Bali Ha’i was open year-round, but its business took a tumble during the eight months of the year when Pontchartrain Beach was closed. During the off-months, they met you in the parking lot with a golf cart and drove you to the front door of the restaurant through a special gate.
When Pontchartrain Beach closed down, so did the Bali Ha’i. We’ve never had a restaurant like it since. Now, there’s a small revival of these hula-tiki restaurants around the country. Trader Vic’s is still around, but much diminished. Maybe this is something we need again.