Chicago’s Lost Lake Reopens Sans Its Famed Tiki Drinks — and, It Hopes, the Genre’s Colonialist Baggage

When Lost Lake finally remerged from its 18 months of hibernation and reopened its bar last month, management did so with a variety of changes. The Logan Square bar, which debuted six years ago, no longer serves a menu of tiki drinks: management has rebranded the cocktail list toward “tropical” beverages. There’s also a new food menu from returning chef Fred Noinaj, who is now a co-chef and accompanied by Dani Kaplan.

This is the second reopening this week for corporate parent Land & Sea Dept.; Milk Room, the dimly lit and intimate bar in the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, is also back.

So why make the change in Logan Square? Lost Lake is considered one of the city’s top bars with patrons routinely waiting in line along Diversey Avenue waiting for a seat. The transformation reflects an increased awareness brought on by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) voices within the industry, some of whom raised tiki’s history of racist and colonist baggage at Chicago Style, the now-defunct cocktail conference organized by a group that included Shelby Allison, co-owner of Lost Lake.

Tiki drinks — like Mai Tais and Zombies — have more robust flavors and are poured in elaborate glassware. Tropical beverages — margaritas, piña coladas, and daiquiris — are lighter and without fancy garnishes. The key is tropical drinks don’t tread on another culture. Bartender Chockie Tom called tiki “colonial roleplay” in the way it offers drinkers an escape via a drink made of tropical ingredients without acknowledging the Black Afro-Caribbean and Polynesian peoples responsible. As Alicia Kennedy wrote in 2019, tiki “reinforces the colonialist idea that [people who live in tropical tourist destinations] are politically or culturally different, and therefore worth less, than the people who are doing the ‘escaping.’” That’s also a theme that’s played out recently on TV in HBO’s the White Lotus.

While Allison wasn’t reached immediately for comment, spokesperson Carrie Sloan, via email, writes: “It’s become clear that tiki culture cannot be divorced from cultural appropriation and colonialism, which is the reason for the shift to ‘tropical.’”

Other tiki bars across the country have also shifted to tropical, and the change allows Lost Lake to separate from its past. As Kennedy notes, “‘tropical’ is a looser genre, defined largely by drinks that were developed in the tropics — mojitos and daiquiris in Cuba, and the piña colada in Puerto Rico — and which are stylistically distinct from tiki.”

Thus, Lost Lake bar manager Shannon Grant has revamped the cocktail menu. The classic daiquiris, mojitos, and rum drinks remain, but the new additions include a Bitter Strawberry Frappe and a Kelp Daiquiri made with, yes, kelp-infused guadeloupe rhum agricole. The food menu contains bar snacks like crinkle-cut fries and crudo, entrees like steak and roasted cabbage, and a rotating collection of tinned seafood served late at night.

many plates of food on a white, pink, and yellow background

All the food at Lost Lake
Lost Lake/Clayton Hauck

The concerns around tiki aren’t new and loop back to what brought down Chicago Style, the conference Allison championed as a women-led and LGBTQ-focused space for diverse voices. When announced in 2018, it even found its way into the New York Times. The conference’s biggest critic was Ashtin Berry, a Chicago-born bartender who took to Instagram in the spring to rip Allison and Chicago Style’s two other white and female founders for putting their needs above the needs of the BIPOC community. After Berry’s public comment on social media, Chicago Style dissolved in May 2021.

Berry, who is also an activist raising money for various social causes, spoke with Eater on Thursday, saying that several people told Allison about their concerns about how a white woman opening a tiki bar was harmful to BIPOC in the community. Allison elected to ignore them for six years, Berry says.

“This wasn’t the first time it’s been brought up about the myth making of tiki, which is white supremacy at the expense of Polynesian and Pacific Islander traditions,” Berry says.

Rum is the entire engine that tiki is built upon, and Berry points out that without slavery, the spirit would not exist.

While she didn’t speak to Chicago media, in Kennedy’s 2019 article, Allison attempted to reconcile the contradictions of being a white person who owns a tiki bar. She wanted to share her love of the drinks themselves and give customers a sense of traveling someplace new without physically leaving Chicago and hoped that she could create a modern sort of tiki bar that could transcend the genre’s racist and sexist origins.

Now the menu describes Lost Lake as “a portal to your favorite warm-weather memory… an antidote to the long Chicago winter” and provides a link to a list of readings on tiki culture prepared by the Pasifika Project, a group that supports hospitality workers of Oceanic descent.

Additionally, the bar has a new no-tipping policy. Traditional tipping, a note on the menu explains, was “shown to reflect and amplify racial inequities, contribute to racial profiling, and encourage sexual harassment.” Management attributes the higher costs for paying increase worker salaries and health care. The prices on the menu may seem higher than Lost Lake patrons remember, which is to offset the no-tipping policy.

Lost Lake was selling cocktails to-go through its walk-up window during the pandemic. The bar has also added a 12-seat patio, a converted gangway behind the bar that takes reservations.

Berry isn’t sure what impact the changes will have. She says Lost Lake already has a loyal customer base that doesn’t care “because the white people who live in Chicago are the majority and have decided they’re okay with that.”

She draws a comparison to the comeback of nearby Fat Rice, the maligned restaurant that closed last year and reopened this summer under a new name. She doubts either ownerships actually care about the neighborhood.

“She is not the only one,” Berry says of Allison. “So many of the owners are just like her.”

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