The sun is setting in Highland Park as Vicki Higgins, a.k.a. Tiki Viki, finalizes some decorations in her silky muumuu and wig cap. Normally you'd call this area a patio, but tonight it's the lanai (Hawaiian for veranda). In a half-hour, 36 people will gather here for cocktail hour to kick off another installation of the underground tiki-themed pop-up, The Coconut Club.
The pop-up's creator and chef, Andy Windak, fields some last-minute questions from the staff before ducking into the evening's event space, Sonny's Hideaway.
It's dark and cool inside the festively adorned restaurant. In between the birds of paradise and bamboo fencing glows a giant papier-mâché tiki god, Vulcan.
The staff cram some food in at the bar before the guests arrive. It seems more appropriate to call them cast members because The Coconut Club is essentially dinner theater. Tiki Viki puts on her blooming pink wig and heads outside to cocktail hour.
"I always loved throwing dinner parties," Windak tells me of The Coconut Club's origins. "I wanted do something beyond what you could get at a restaurant."
Windak was working in animation when he decided to switch gears and start cooking within the same Hollywood company. At work, his interest in tiki was piqued.
"Our production designer's office was basically a tiki lounge with fans hanging in the wall, so it felt like there were tropical breezes," Windak says. "That was definitely a huge source of inspiration for me going into this food-and-visual-art combination."
Windak was interested in the tiki concept, but more so in its old, glamorous Hollywood aesthetic than the food and drink. Today, The Coconut Club is a two-year-old amalgamation of Windak's vision, beverage director Nathan Hazard's cocktail creations, and "tiki master" Darren Herczeg's enthralling theatrics.
Guests get their first taste of drama on the lanai with Hazard's cerulean-colored Casual Colonialism Punch.
"What makes it blue is not curacao—it's actually butterfly pea flower extract," Hazard tells me as he pours some of the gin-based punch into a delicate crystal mug. Next he adds a limey falernum concoction, transforming the brilliant blue into a purple cloud before it settles into a fuchsia hue.
"We like a little science with our beverages," Hazard says.
Reservation names are called out and guests shuffle inside the restaurant. Coconut bread with pineapple butter wait for them at their table, as does fresh, raw coconut water. When the crowd settles, a gong sounds and Herczeg delivers his opening monologue.
The Coconut Club cast quickly moves behind the bamboo to assemble its namesake cocktail. Hazard and bartender Malina Bickford pour a mixture of rum, citrus, orgeat, apricot brandy, Becherovka, Angostura bitters and spices into custom glasses. Windak and the servers add a flaky, buttery coconut shrimp garnish before placing the drink atop tiny rattan peacock chair. Servers deliver the elaborate cocktails one at a time.
"You figure out how you're going to do the food, how you're going to do the drinks, then the hardest part is how do you serve 36 people at once?" Windak says. "It's always a challenge."
Cooks work on the Pu Pu Party Platter, a spread of five-spice carrot empanadas, taro and Okinawa sweet potato chips, cucumber, and vadouvan coconut milk créme fraîche. Windak stands guard at the expo window, giving plate wipes and handing off platters. After another seamless delivery, sounds of crunching chips and laughter fill the room.
A Vitamix whirs as the bar mixes the China Girl. It's a rye, Cynar, ginger, and Chinese herb-filled cocktail in a bright red "Oriental Foods" cup topped with a flaming shiitake-crusted steak.
"My feeling is because tiki is weird cultural appropriation in general—it's sort of the way it is, it's a weird bastardization of a whole bunch of cultures—we're sort of twisting the tiki culture of the past," Windak says.
Windak definitely doesn't shy away from tiki's controversies and instead seems to be openly challenging them.
"That was the only time I actually saw someone comment on Instagram about [the China Girl] and say, 'Oh, are we still using the word oriental?' which is like, 'Yeah, no we're not, and it's funny that it was ever a thing for so long,'" Windak says, "but it kind of fits right in."
That cup choice is certainly not an accident. In The Coconut Club's early days, Windak bought all of the "Oriental Foods" cups from a Thai market, but they were never restocked. He scoured the Internet looking for replacements without any luck.
"I couldn't even find a picture of that cup on the internet or in a store anywhere. I'm pretty sure it's because it says 'Oriental Foods,' which is totally not a PC term anymore."
He ended up creating a sticker based off the original artwork and putting them on generic soup cups.
"I find that cup to be almost the perfect representation of how tiki misappropriates Asian culture and sort of creates this exotic, orientalized version of something."
The cup seems to be a nonissue amongst guests. They're busy biting into the sous-vide steak.
"Drink up and xiǎngshòu. Enjoy," Herczeg says after introducing the China Girl.
Randomly selected people head to the front of the room to spin the Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Wheel for prizes. More drinks are made, noodles are eaten, and dessert gets served.
The Coconut Club isn't trying to stick to any script, and the team isn't interested in holding any traditions sacred.
"We had, one time, some really hardcore rockabilly tiki people come to one of the events and they had a miserable time," Windak says. "They said something like, 'Why are you playing 80s pop music? That is not tiki.' They were so stuck in their ways that tiki can only be one sort of thing.
"Most people have been really receptive to it and find it refreshing."