Lost Columbus: Remembering the Kahiki’s Glorious Reign

The memory of the kitschy Polynesian landmark has outlived the drugstore that replaced the beloved Columbus restaurant, which was a favorite stop of celebrities.

Jeff Darbee
The Kahiki Supper Club on East Broad Street was known for its iconic architecture, ambiance and signature Mystery Drink.

Historian Doug Motz has noted Columbus’ great food and dining history: Marzetti’s Downtown restaurant and its still-available salad dressing; Dave Thomas’ burger chain named for his daughter; Bob Evans’ sausage and restaurants. And there were more—the Jai Alai on Olentangy River Road and the Maramor in Downtown. But the most wonderful was the Kahiki at 3583 E. Broad St., which Motz dubbed “the mother ship of all South Seas-themed restaurants.”

Lee Henry and Bill Sapp opened the Top Steak House in 1954 at 2891 E. Main St., which survives today. But having seen Polynesian-themed restaurants elsewhere, they decided Columbus needed one, too. Coburn Morgan did the design (and also the original Bob Evans red-and-white false-front restaurants) and created the “World’s Most Beautiful Polynesian Supper Club,” as the Kahiki’s matchboxes modestly proclaimed. Said to mean “sail to Tahiti,” the Kahiki opened in early 1961 and was an instant hit.

Motz described it as “shaped like a Polynesian fighting boat, 40 feet tall, with giant flaming moai heads outside the main doors, which opened up into a tropical rainforest and reproduction of a typical Pacific Islander tribal village.” Diners sat in huts with palm frond roofs, among live birds and thunder with real rain, and ogled the slinky “mystery girl” and her eponymous four-person drink, summoned by a hidden gong. Restroom sinks were made of giant clamshells.

Entertainment was by the Beachcomber Trio, and the Outrigger and Maui bars posted photos of dozens of celebrities, “People You’re Apt to Meet at the Kahiki” (among them Betty White, Arthur Godfrey, Milton Berle, Vincent Price, Gypsy Rose Lee, Gig Young, Hugh O’Brian, Robert Goulet, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Bob Hope) in town for performances at Kenley Players and other venues.

A 1997 National Register of Historic Places listing gave the Kahiki widespread recognition, but it was not to last. Did it outlive its time? Did the quality decline? Hard to say from this distance, but the mother ship closed Aug. 25, 2000. A Walgreen’s replaced it, but that lasted only about half the time the Kahiki did, and the former drugstore—an unprepossessing building at best—is now in another use. Somehow, this doesn’t feel like progress.

Sources: Doug Motz at;

This story is from the March 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.