Tahiti Nui Restaurant & Cocktail Lounge in Hanalei has the distinction of being, to my knowledge, the only tiki bar on the North Shore of Kauai. (Although, that’s about to change with the opening of Tiki Iniki in Princeville… Sounds like I need to book another trip!)
Tahiti Nui was opened in 1964 by Louise and Bruce T. Marston, who met in Tahiti while Bruce was serving in the U.S. Air Force. A native of the French Polynesian island Tubuai, “Auntie Louise” could trace her lineage back to Tahitian royalty. Their son, Christian, now owns “da Nui.”
Patrons can choose to sit outside on the shaded lanai or inside where the space is divided between tables and the bar. (Check out those tiki bar stools!) Colorful round lights, reminiscent of fish floats, give off a nice glow and the walls are covered with lauhala matting, tapa cloth and bamboo, plus many photographs of the founding matriarch.
Tahiti Nui has long been a popular local spot, but it has recently gained lots of tourist attention when it appeared in the movie “The Descendants” along with other Kauai filming locations like the St. Regis Princeville and Hanalei Bay.
It’s featured in the scene where George Clooney’s character meets up at a bar with one of his cousins (played by Beau Bridges). If you want to follow in his silver fox footsteps, snag a seat at the bar behind the beer taps or head to the corner of the dining room with this black-and-white-photo of Louise above, which is where his character went to join his daughters for lunch.
The restaurant hosts a luau on Wednesday nights ($75 for adults) in a separate building with food, musicians, hula dancers and free Mai Tais for the first hour. The Mai Tai ($7.50) is pretty much the only tiki drink the Tahiti Nui serves — it’s made from their 50-year-old recipe with pineapple juice, rum and a dash of guava, lilikoi and other tropical fruits.
My dining companions hadn’t been expecting much from the food, judging by the humble surroundings. But everyone was pleasantly surprised, particularly by the macadamia nut- and panko-crusted ono with coconut-lime sauce.
Another great dish was the ginger, garlic and cilantro baby back ribs. The meat was tender and fell off the bone, and the thick sauce had a little kick to it.
The pizzas listed on the menu are prepared at neighboring Tiki Man Pizza. We were warned that since our orders were going to two different kitchens that our food would not arrive together. The pies were the last to make it to the table, but they were definitely worth the wait — the toppings were fresh and flavorful, and the buttery crust put it over the top. It was difficult to decide which to get, so I was glad to hear they could do half and half. Our server said a popular choice was the #3 Huli Huli Chicken with red onions and cilantro, and it was much better than your average barbecue chicken pizza. I was also crazy about the combination of pineapple and kalua pork on #5 Da Hui.
Traditional Hawaiian music is usually performed during dinner every night starting at 6:30, and then around 9 p.m. the kitchen closes, the lights are turned way down, and local bands take the small stage to play classic rock.
I had wanted to buy one of the Tahiti Nui tank tops ($20) they have tacked up on the wall, but at the time they only had the men’s style black t-shirts (the kind the servers wear). They said they’d be getting more in a day or two, but that hadn’t happened by the end of the week when we left Kauai. Chalk it up to “island time,” I guess.
There are other restaurants on Kauai that play up the tropical setting, like Keoki’s and Duke’s, but Tahiti Nui truly offers the experience of a cozy tiki bar, and with good food and drinks, too. If you have more time in Hanalei, be sure to check out Havaiki Oceanic & Tribal Art.
5-5134 Kuhio Hwy.
Hanalei, Kauai, HI 96714