The Polynesian Restaurant Craze in Memphis

In the 1960s, a peculiar craze for Polynesian-themed restaurants swept across America. I'm not really sure what prompted it, but overnight just about every city had converted a rather basic eatery into someplace you might find in the South Pacific.

Or more accurately — into what Americans thought you would find in the South Pacific, based on movies and books. None of it was even close to being authentic, but that didn't matter. As long as you had coconuts and thatch and palms and a giant Tiki head, you had yourself a Polynesian restaurant.

In Memphis, the most obvious manifestation of this short-lived craze was the Luau, on Poplar across from East High School. A rather ordinary place when it first opened in the 1950s as Friedel's, this establishment took on a rather surreal appearance —to say the least — when it was purchased by John George Morris, who named it The Old Master Says and then put a 14-foot version of his own head on the roof.

That didn't last long, and the building then saw new life as the Luau, complete with the giant Easter Island-looking stone head by the entrance (actually poured concrete over a wire form), and lots of palm and thatch and bamboo inside. The meals themselves, as I recall, were also given South Pacific names.

But the Luau wasn't the only place like that in town, and that brings us to the photo I've posted here. This turned up in a pile of photos purchased at an estate sale, and most of the other images were of Holiday Inn restaurants. Then you have this one. I've shared it with friends, who agree that it is NOT the interior of the Luau, because it's just way too open and spacious and light-filled, and the Luau was rather dark (to the point of waiters showing you your entrees with a flashlight) and definitely cluttery.

What stands out, to me, is the woven mat on the floor. That just can't be a good idea for a restaurant, where it would quickly soak up spilled drinks and food. But it was definitely an eatery here in town. The question is: Where?

Does anybody recognize it?

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and 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. 

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