The Waldorf

Tiki Culture in Vancouver.

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The breezy sway of Hawaiian melodies pipe through the speakers, as jubilant pleasure-seekers toast one another, their glasses piled high with maraschino cherries and topped with cocktail umbrellas. Though happy hour has come and gone, the bar is still hopping, made clear by the festive exchange around the bamboo-lined room. The question is, what year is this? For Vancouver, it is a scene locked in time.

Tucked away behind the historic walls of East Vancouver’s Waldorf Hotel, the whimsy of this Polynesian paradise remains untouched, thanks to a group of enterprising developers who have restored, refurbished and reopened the hotel. It’s a nostalgic and sentimental ode to the elaborate clubhouse that, for over five decades, has celebrated the torch-toting culture of the South Seas.

“There wasn’t much tiki culture in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland back in those days,” says former Waldorf general manager Rick Mills, whose father, Bob Mills, commissioned the construction of the hotel in 1948. “But being in the hotel business, we always looked to something beyond.” Eager to display the work of Edgar Leeteg, the now-iconic artist who brought America’s attention to black velvet painting, Bob Mills was responsible for the collection that ultimately sealed the fate of the hotel: he saw a cocktail lounge as the ideal gallery for his Leeteg paintings. So with a subsequent addition in 1955, the Mills transformed their property into a tropical oasis: the Tahitian Lounge, Polynesian Dining Room, Menehune Banquet Room and Tapa Coffee Shop were all added to the hotel’s new blueprint.

“The reception was incredible,” says Rick Mills, noting that at the height of the tiki craze, the Waldorf attracted all walks of life. “You could have a table of long-haul truck drivers sitting next to the Queen’s Counsel lawyers. You just couldn’t wait to get to work the next day to see what the hell was going to happen.”

Today, the hotel lays claim to one of the longest-running tiki bars in the world, and since the 1996 closure of the Westin Bayshore’s Trader Vic’s restaurant—another classic landmark steeped in mid-century escapism—it stands as the lone holdout when it comes to tiki tradition in Vancouver. “A lot of these venues are falling by the wayside,” says Peter Lisiecki, a self-professed tiki fanatic and the former co-owner of Funhauser Decor, a retro-chic curiosity shop that closed its doors in Chinatown earlier this year. “People just don’t understand the historical value on the pop culture side of it.”

The reimagined Waldorf, unveiled this past October, comes as a major victory for tikiphiles like Lisiecki who have watched the hotel fall into disrepair, with the themed rooms all but abandoned except for special events and private functions. Headed up by musician Thomas Anselmi and restaurateur Ernesto Gomez of Nuba, the Waldorf redux pays homage to Bob Mills’s original vision.

Striking a balance between preservation and renovation was an essential goal for the new management team, who brought on architect Scott Cohen to tackle the project. Artifacts procured by Bob Mills during his frequent trips to Hawaii have been unearthed from the hotel’s storage room, an all-but-forgotten treasure trove of Polynesian paraphernalia. Where plaster once wore thin, refurbished walls now beckon the eye with a delightful miscellany of retro paintings and tribal carvings, all of which is complemented by mid-century modern furnishings in the rooms. But the Waldorf is more than just a portal to the past; Anselmi and Gomez have set out to protect the hotel’s legacy by building a business plan that will ensuring its prosperity for years to come. And so a culture hub—updated with two restaurants, a gift shop, a hair salon, a nightclub and a live music venue—now stands in place of the derelict hideout that for many years laid in wait of a reincarnation.

With its former lustre now regained and cast in a modern glow, the iconic hotspot offers Vancouverites and visitors an impromptu history lesson, where patrons can reflect upon the magic of yesteryear. Beneath the same twinkling lights splashed across the infamous Tahitian Lounge ceiling, a whole new generation will be able to remark that it feels as though no time has passed at all.

Photos: Courtesy of the Waldorf Hotel.

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December 6, 2010