Did you ever have the feeling that you just needed to get away from it all for a while, leave the workaday world behind and languish in the soft tropical breezes of some far away South Pacific island paradise? If so, don’t bother calling your Liberty Travel agent and booking the next flight to Tahiti just yet––all you have to do is get a group of your most fun-loving friends together and head over to Lyndhurst, NJ, where you can go on a brief tropical getaway simply by visiting Lee’s Hawaiian Islander.
You wouldn’t think it to look at the blazing tangerine-colored façade of this windowless building, located only a block away from the muddy banks of the Passaic River, that a tropical island oasis awaits you within. But that’s just one of the many surprises that Lee’s holds in store. Once you step through the doors, the all-too-familiar concrete and asphalt Bergen County environment outside vanishes as you are transported to not only another place, but also another time. The place has the atmosphere of a vintage tiki bar, à la the legendary Trader Vic’s lounge (reportedly the birthplace of the Mai Tai). The time is somewhere circa the 1950s or ‘60s, when tiki culture was all the rage in America. Imagine the faux exotica music of Martin Denny playing in your head as you envision a Rat Pack era dinner club scene in a mob movie, and you’ll get the swanky vibe of Lee’s. It’s a time in American drinking culture that I am too young to remember firsthand, aside from glimpses of it caught in my youth on tv shows like Hawaii Five-0, or in the luau-themed orgy pictorials in my father’s hidden Playboy magazines. Which makes the place a totally retro cool experience in my book.
Backlit photos of idyllically picturesque Polynesian Islands and carved tribal masks adorn the walls, dried spiny blowfish lamps illuminated from within hang above the tables, and a long dugout outrigger canoe is suspended overhead from the 20-foot-high ceiling. There’s bamboo and rattan everywhere. The corner booths are decorated as thatched huts lit by giant glowing clamshell sconces. Water trickles down an enormous lava rock wall into rippling lagoons.
The interior is dim, if not downright dark, which gives Lee’s a very intimate feel. There’s a kind of agedness to all the South Seas décor that, while I find it endearing, others might find a bit shoddy. But those people would be snobs. Lee’s opened way back in 1972, and probably looks exactly the same way today as it did back then. I applaud them for that.
If you look up customer reviews online, you will find a number of people that have complained about a decidedly funky muskiness in the air––a damp, aquarium-like smell. This however is not emanating from the waterfalls and other aquatic features, but was apparently a temporary condition brought on by flooding during Superstorm Sandy, when three feet of murky Passaic River water washed through the building, damaging floors and walls. The carpets have all been replaced since then, and I can tell you based on a recent visit that I made that the place is clean and well maintained.
If you’re looking for an authentic Polynesian experience, this place is about as believable as the Brady Bunch coincidentally meeting Don Ho on the beach during their Hawaiian vacation. But who cares?! The nostalgia and kitsch factors that Lee’s offers far outweigh anything that it might lack in other areas, such as the food and service, which range from “incredible” to “inedible,” depending on whose opinion you hear. Online customer reviews of the place are hilarious and run the gamut from those extolling the highest praises, to others that warn you to simply “run from this place!” But do yourself a favor and don’t stay away––if you do, you’ll never know the great time that you’ve missed.
While the theme of Lee’s might be Polynesian cuisine, the menu is almost completely standard Chinese-American restaurant fare. Most people seem to agree, as do I, that the flaming pu pu platter is definitely the way to go. It isn’t anything gourmet, but it’s tasty fried food that will add to the overall Lee’s experience. Rumor has it that there are specialty items which are not listed on the menu that you can ask for in hushed tones, like the “Taboo For Two.” But this isn’t a food review column, and I’m no Anthony Bourdain. I’m really more interested in the booze and atmosphere. And at Lee’s, the drinks are, in a word, POTENT––strong enough to be mind-bending.
Attack Of The Zombies
Exotic island drinks like Zombies (which the waiters pronounce “Yombie”), Mai Tais, Piña Coladas, Blue Hawaiians and Flaming Virgins are the signatures cocktails at Lee’s. They all come in carved tiki god tumblers, garnished with chunks of brightly colored fruit skewered on mini umbrella toothpicks––and they all pack a real wallop!
If you opt to sit in the bar area, on one of the black stools, some with duct tape repair patches, you can hang out with the regular clientele––a mix of younger retro hipsters and older lonesome locals. If you’re lucky, you might even get the owner of the place, Mr. Lee himself, as your bartender. Mr. Lee (or perhaps just Lee) is a friendly 79-year-old Chinese gent who started the restaurant 40 years ago and still opens and closes the joint himself to this this day. Don’t bother asking him what’s in the festive-looking drinks he’s serving. His answer will likely be something along the lines of, “They all taste same, all good.” And this description is pretty much spot-on when it comes to these sweet rum concoctions. But use caution: one too many of these drinks (one too many being your third) may be all it takes to turn you into a zombie!
If you do decide to stay for dinner, there is a lot of entertainment value that goes along with the cost of your meal––beginning with the wait staff. The waiters, most of whom are older Chinese gentlemen clad in Hawaiian shirts, are very gregarious showmen, singing and dancing and offering leis while they attend to their costumers. There is definitely a language barrier here though, which might explain some people’s complaints I heard about the place in regard to the service.
While the waiters may be entertaining, it is the Friday and Saturday night karaoke that is the real show at Lee’s. There’s usually at least one large party going on, celebrating a birthday, engagements, bachelorette or other occasion, so there are always plenty of willing vocalists in the crowd. As the show goes on in the main dining area downstairs, folks eating upstairs can watch from their booths on the wrap-around balcony above.
Though I’ve never seen her myself, I’ve heard rumors of an Asian dragon lady who hosts the Friday night karaoke show that is said to have a surly disposition and expects to be tipped before a patron is permitted to sing or else their turn will be lost. I cannot confirm that though, as the only time I have ever had the pleasure of attending karaoke night at Lee’s was on a Saturday night, when the host was an older Chinese gentleman who started off the evening by reverently singing Elvis Presley songs himself.
My friend Mark Sceurman was the only member of our party to put his name on the list to sing the evening we went with a group of friends, and when his turn was called, he requested the song “Hair” from the Broadway musical of the same name. This hippy freakfest might just be the most ridiculous karaoke song ever requested, and that, of course, is exactly why he chose it. When the music began, Mark launched right into it with fully exaggerated showmanship.
“Gimme a head with hair, long beautiful hair, shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen…” After the first couple of lines though, he started to draw a blank on the lyrics and rather than look at the teleprompter, he began to walk around the restaurant from table to table, arms flailing in wild gesticulations, pointing the microphone in people’s faces and goading them into singing along.
“Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, flow it, show it, long as God can grow it, my hair!” He coached them. But seriously, how many people do you know that have lyrics like, “I want it long, straight, curly, fuzzy, snaggy, shaggy, ratty, matty, oily, greasy, fleecy, knotted, polka-dotted, twisted, beaded, braided, powdered, flowered, and confettied, bangled, tangled, spangled, and spaghettied,” committed to memory?
Needless to say, our group found this whole performance to be hysterical, as did many of the other patrons, who egged him on and cheered with delight at his over-the-top antics. The karaoke host, however, was not as amused as we were. You see, as unbelievable as it may seem, some people actually take karaoke singing seriously! The host didn’t appreciate the comedic element that Mark was going for and seemed to think that his singing was a mockery (which of course was true). He was not permitted to sign up for a second song. So I signed him up myself using one of his favorite aliases, Rusty Dooley. Alas though, when Rusty’s name was called and Mark jumped up and launched into yet another equally inappropriate musical number, the host wrestled the microphone from his hands and our table was banned from karaoke-ing for the rest of the night. Nevertheless, it was an evening that none of us who were present will soon forget.
Aloha Means “Hello” AND “Goodbye”
Lee’s Hawaiian Islander is a must for anyone who wants to experience one of the last of a vanishing style of classic tiki lounges from a bygone era of aloha feelings. Few places like it exist anymore, certainly not in New Jersey, anyway. There used to be two other Lee’s Hawaiian Islanders, one located in Clifton, which burned down several years ago, and another in Staten Island, which is also no more. But the original Lee’s in Lyndhurst is still there, and hasn’t changed a bit in all these years. I for one hope it never does. If you ask me if you should make reservations to go, I’d strongly encourage you to, “Book ‘em, Danno!”