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?

Reader Comments:
Nov 29, 2011 06:32 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

I have no idea what the location you are querying is. But I do know that in the beginning, polnyesian themed joints were very confusing to the average west Tennessean. One night, during the Lamar Alexander gubernatorial campaign of 1972, we went to the Luau for a meeting involving fund raising and totally confusing the opposition. Shortly after being seated the waiter brought out some small plates with an extremely complicated folded napkin. Lamar, thinking it was an appetizer, picked it up and took a bite of a hot water soaked piece of cloth. We all assured him that Maryville was no where near Fiji. That's when I knew he would NEVER be President of the United States. Bottom line...when most of what you eat down here involves pig or chicken don't ever try to eat ANYTHING you can't identify.

Last light of the times your subject may be the snack bar in one of Fred Smith's father's Trailways Bus Line terminals.

Just thinkin.

Nov 29, 2011 06:59 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

One more thing. Don't bust the bamboo rug Vman. All we had to was roll it up, take it outside and hose it off. Far unlike the orange 2" shag you had in the foyer of the Lauderdale mansion. When I go to they are still talking about it. Pork Rind shards, watermelon seeds, country ham fat, sequins, lucky strike ashes, spilled Heaven Hill and pee. They still talk about it. All you can eat and the flea chicks were free.

Nov 29, 2011 10:55 pm
 Posted by  Pam Denney

First off, I covet those chairs. Second, remember that one of the dominate food trends in the'60s was to break the French hold on fine dining with more casual "around the world" themes. Polynesian was an instant hit. I'm thinking it had mostly to do with the cocktails.

Dec 6, 2011 11:48 am
 Posted by  Zeamays

This recipe is claimed to be from the Memphis Luau Restaurant:

Luau's Celestial Chicken With Supreme Sauce

"This is a recipe from the Luau restaurant in Memphis TN from the 60's&70's. The Luau was a polynesian restraunt with a tropical themed decor. Think Mai Tai's and cheesy Hawaiian boxed in music. But to us Memphians and the yearly prom goers, it was an escape! Anyway this dish is easy and so soul satisfying."

Read more:


Dec 7, 2011 08:59 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

I'm almost certain this is the interior of The Harbor Restaurant, which was located at 471 N. Watkins immediately across the street from the Sears Crosstown parking garage and adjacent to Elaine's Hairdressing Salon during the 50s and 60s. The facade of the restaurant was mostly wooden panels painted brown with two or three oversized pieces of driftwood attached.

Dec 22, 2011 09:02 am
 Posted by  meghank

Dear Vance,
I love your column. I talked to the granddaughter of one of the owners of the Luau, and she said that when her grandfather bought The Old Master Says to turn it into the Luau, he gave the head to the Pink Palace. Do you think it's still there?

May 16, 2012 12:32 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

Good post. Article is too informative and cover almost all the necessary factors. Really appreciative article. Thanks for posting it.
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May 16, 2012 12:33 am
 Posted by  Boulevard

Good post. Article is too informative and cover almost all the necessary factors. Really appreciative article. Thanks for posting it.
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Aug 14, 2012 08:35 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

just a note.. HOLIDAY INN is celebrating 60 yrs at present time.. I am sure they would be interested on other holiday inn photos you may have.. these could be directed to
thank you for sharing your photos

Aug 14, 2012 01:09 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

The Luau was owned by Dobbs House, the same place that owned what is now CK's just to the east of the old luau building. I am sadly informed by his honor Sir Vance that the Big Nose, our fond childhood name for this...statue.., bit the dust while being unceremoniously hoisted onto the back of a truck. Only in Memphis....

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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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