Lost Memphis: The Luau

postcard courtesy Ray Brown

Regular readers of my "Ask Vance" column (you know who you are — I'm not allowed to give out the names of state prison inmates) know that my futile search for a decent photo of the exterior of the Luau — the Polynesian-themed restaurant on Poplar — has caused me to suffer from bouts of neurasthenia, jungle madness, and infestations of botflies.

Or maybe it only seems that way. I just can't understand why such a distinctive and popular restaurant didn't leave behind more tangible evidence of its existence. I've seen some Key magazine ads (mainly illustrations), a tiny menu, and some partial shots of the exterior in a few East High School yearbook ads (the school was just across the street). But so far, no clear image of the restaurant exterior, with its distinctive giant stone head guarding the entrance, like something transported from Easter Island.

But Dr. Ray Brown, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering at Christian Brothers University, recently shared a few good memories of the Luau. Among other things, he says, "I remember it well – a great buffet at a reasonable price. Just the ticket for a hungry (and cash-challenged) college student — you could get by on one meal a day."

Plus he shared this old postcard with me, showing the decidedly bizarre interior. Look closely, and you'll see all sorts of bamboo structures, hanging plants, odd carvings, lumps of bright coral, clumps of bananas, and a lot more. It was definitely sensory overload.

I was amused at the caption on the back of the card. Calling it by its proper name — the Dobbs House Luau — the postcard says the restaurant at 3135 Poplar "offered a unique experience in dining. The exotic setting of a Polynesian paradise with the exquisite flavor of authentic Polynesian dishes imported from the Islands. The end product of years of research — the world's finest Polynesian food. Also featuring our famous steaks and roast beef."

The world's finest Polynesian food? At a cluttery, kitschy restaurant on Poplar? Well, who am I to judge?

Thanks for sharing the postcard, Dr. Brown.

Reader Comments:
Apr 11, 2012 03:41 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

My Grandma worked there for 3 days. Got 3 speeding tikets (one for each day), had to buy an 85 doller dress, and dumped water in a mans lap.

Apr 13, 2012 03:28 am
 Posted by  LTC

According to a source, Dinkler started the first Luau in Atlanta before selling to Dobbs House. James K. Dobbs Sr then expanded Luau to Memphis, Dallas, Orlando, Louisville Birmingham and Charlotte.

Dobbs took over the Toddle Houses from FedEx Fred Smith's father.

Dobbs sold their food service business to a Chicago based department store and then went into auto dealerships.

Apr 17, 2012 11:52 pm
 Posted by  VNob

My husband and I had our first date there in 1977. It was a theme evening of dinner followed by a high school production of "South Pacific". It is a great memory, married that same year and have been happily married ever since. We thought it was so romantic!

Apr 18, 2012 12:07 am
 Posted by  Eve Settles

In my tender youth, I thought the Luau was the most sophisticated and exotic place imaginable. We mourned its passing.

Wasn't the bar called the Tiki Hut?

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May 4, 2013 05:23 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

does anybody know WHEN the LUAU opened... and when it closed ?
I'm thinking late 50's was the opening and perhaps the early 80's when it closed ?.... how close am I ?

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and MBQ: Inside Memphis Business.  Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

You can find him from time to time in the pages of the Memphis Flyer and MBQ, on WKNO television, and on Facebook. When he is not exploring the highways and byways of Memphis, he spends his time sleeping, napping, and dozing.

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