On most days, the only disturbance to the slow, peaceful pace of life in Hanalei, a laid-back surf town of 450 humans and zero traffic lights, is the cacophonous chorus of red-tailed roosters that roam around like they own the place as surfers rise for dawn patrol on empty waves. Nestled between a shimmering half-moon bay and a wall of waterfall-drenched mountain peaks, Hanalei leaves no question as to how Kaua‘i, fondly known as the Garden Isle, got its nickname.
But at dinner hour on a humid Thursday night at Tahiti Nui, a half-century-old restaurant and watering hole, the patrons, a mishmash of tourists and locals polishing off plates of seared ‘ahi and poisson cru, are in various states of inebriation. No larger than a bodega, the room itself is the entertainment in the moments before a live reggae set begins.
At one end of the patterned, burnt-orange bar, a white-haired taro farmer clinks glasses with a couple of citified German tourists. Everyone seems to know the beige-haired man who fills the door frame when he walks in, a self-proclaimed leader of a Polynesian sovereignty group that disputes U.S. government authority in Hawai‘i. (The group issues its own, dubiously valid car plates and driver’s licenses.) The locals just call him “chief.” Outside, on the lānai, teenagers unironically clad in Hawaiian-print shirts gorge on shrimp pizza in the moonlight. From barefoot surfers to women in high heels, people come as they are to drink perfect mai tais made with a still-secret recipe, or to feast on tender shredded kālua pork cooked in an imu, the traditional Hawaiian earthen oven.
Tahiti Nui isn’t a tiki-themed tourist honeypot unapologetically shellacked with passe kitsch and carelessly pilfered cultural spoils, though: There are no mai tai glasses shaped like totems or fabric flower leis, churned out a world away — just doorframes carved from real bamboo, and thatched walls covered with photos snapped across Polynesia by the Marston family, which has owned Tahiti Nui for two generations. Tahiti Nui doesn’t try to manufacture a Polynesian fantasia, and it doesn’t have to — it’s the legacy of Louise Teupootehearii Hauta Marston, better known as Auntie Louise, who grew up on the French Polynesian island of Tubuai.
According to the story, Auntie Louise, one of 11 children and a descendant of Tahitian royalty, arrived on Kaua‘i’s north shore with her husband, a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, in 1962, and opened a restaurant and bar named for the larger section of the island of Tahiti a year later. It was just after the peak of America’s obsession with all things tiki, and the establishment sold sandwiches and cold beer, as well as artifacts from the South Pacific, to locals and the relatively small number of travelers who made it to Kaua‘i’s north shore, when it was still an off-beat hippie retreat. After a few years, the shelves of shell pendants and tiki carvings were replaced by pool tables to give the locals something fun to do when the surf was blown out or the fish weren’t biting.
One day in 1973, Auntie Louise ordered the pool tables covered with plywood slabs to form a makeshift buffet line. Locals hauled in huge plates of kālua pork, fresh-caught kala, and hand-pounded poi for the potluck, which quickly became a weekly event; Auntie Louise didn’t charge a cent for anything but the drinks, and while everyone feasted, she sang and strummed the guitar, alternating between Tahitian, Hawaiian and American music.
These down-home, occasionally rowdy gatherings soon became the signature event of the entire town. “She made leis for everybody, every person who walked in the door,” Christian Marston Sr., the current owner of Tahiti Nui, and the son of Auntie Louise, told me. “It didn’t matter to her who you were. It could be President Carter, it could be Elizabeth Taylor, it could be the local guy down the street. She tried to make everybody comfortable.”
Auntie Louise died in 2003, but she remains memorialized throughout Tahiti Nui in wall-hung photographs and paintings. In one portrait, she looks almost regal wearing a crown of leaves and flowers; right beside it is an autographed 8-by-10-inch photo of Jimmy Carter, on which the former president offers his best wishes.
Marston Sr., 63, owns the business now and will soon facilitate a handoff to the next generation of the family. Caught between the real Hawai‘i and the one that's airbrushed for the tourism catalogs, his daughter and sons will need to balance evolving with the times while maintaining the bar’s dive appeal with the local crowd, which is more likely to be holding bottles of Hinano, the national beer of Tahiti, than something from a California microbrewery. In 2010, for example, Tahiti Nui regulars were joined by actors George Clooney and Beau Bridges for a scene in the movie The Descendants, jolting the business with a crush of new, uninitiated visitors.
Although the staff no longer gives each patron a hand-strung lei, and more modern offerings now grace the menu (think macadamia nut-crusted chicken drizzled with liliko‘i and drinks such as a green juice cocktail made with avocado, basil, cilantro, leafy greens, chili pepper, lime, pineapple, turmeric, aloe, and choice of spirit), Tahiti Nui sustains an air of credibility that, try as they might, other Polynesian bars can’t stage, satisfying a yearning for Old Hawai‘i shared by old-timers and newcomers alike.
As the night presses on, under persuasion of the bongo music, bodies begin to bend and gyrate on the plywood dance floor. Eventually and then all at once, it makes no difference how much one has in the bank or where they came from. “There are lots of names for it,” Marston Sr. says. “People call it the watering hole of Hanalei. Some people call it their favorite bar in the world. For us, it’s the Nui. And like a lot of things around here, some things never change.”
Brittany Lyte is an award-winning journalist based in Hawai‘i and New York.
PF Bentley, a former TIME Magazine photographer, is a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker based on the island of Moloka‘i.