‘An escape from reality’: Inside Grand Rapids’ new tiki bar

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — What do you get when you combine a Grand Rapids restaurateur with an award-winning cocktail wizard, a 500-gallon saltwater fish tank and thousands of pieces of Polynesian-inspired art? What’s been billed as West Michigan’s only tiki bar, which opens Saturday at 4 p.m.

“This is the first proper tiki bar in Grand Rapids,,” said Martin Cate, co-owner of Max’s South Seas Hideaway.

Construction crews have been bustling this week to finish up a five and a half-month transformation of the former Waldron’s Public House at 58 Ionia Ave. SW into Max’s South Seas Hideaway.

“So you walk in, even forget there’s an outside. You feel like you’re in the islands and you’ve escaped from your reality. And that’s kind of the whole point of this place, is an escape from reality,” explained co-owner Mark Sellers, who also owns HopCat, Stella’s Lounge and Grand Rapids Brewing Company.

“It’s completely different than anything that’s ever existed, not only in this space, but in Grand Rapids,” Cate added.

Construction on the two-story bar and restaurant next to Stella’s started in earnest two months ago. Since then, workers have covered the walls and ceilings in wood and tiki art and carefully moved Sellers’ collection of nearly 500 tiki carvings and ceramics to the glowing shelves of Max’s.

FIRST FLOOR: ‘ESCAPING TO ANOTHER WORLD’

>>App users: Explore the lobby via interactive 360-degree video here.

Visitors who step into Max’s South Seas Hideaway are greeted by the smell of fresh cedar, bamboo screens, wooden carvings and nautical float lights dangling from the rafters.

“The entryway gets you ready for what you’re about to see inside. There’s a lot of artwork, a lot of vintage carvings and vintage artifacts, and that’s kind of what this place is all about. It’s escaping to another world that doesn’t exist outside of these doors,” Sellers said.

The trickling sound of a 14-foot, lit indoor waterfall welcomes guests as they leave the only windows to outside behind in the lobby and make their way into the Moonlight Harbor dining area. Wind chimes and island-inspired music floats through the air.

>>App users: Explore the Moonlight Harbor via interactive 360-degree video here.

Moonlight Harbor features tiki poles and posts carved by Hawaiian artist and business co-owner Gecko, who also designed some of the ceramics in Sellers’ collection.

Green tiles taken from a 1950s mansion in Shanghai, China serve as a screen wall to the main bar, which features part of Sellers’ collection.

>>App users: Explore both main floor bars via interactive 360-degree video here.

“That’s one of the nice things about this space. It’s telling a story about how this has been an art movement that spans many, many decades,” Cate said.

“We have, I would say, thousands of tiki, pieces of tiki art, artifacts and you know, paraphernalia. Everywhere you look, there’s something different on the walls. Every inch of it has something that’s interesting to look at,” Sellers said.

>>App users: Explore the tiki collection via interactive 360-degree video here.

A second bar on the main floor, dubbed the Atomic Lounge, sports leopard print carpeting, vintage ‘70s lights from Denmark and a sleek wood bar.

“In the world of tiki, there’s a lot of different design languages and this one is kind of skewed towards what we call tiki modern, which is a lot of the way tiki art was displayed in places like Palm Springs (California) in the 1950s and ‘60s,” Cate explained.

Guests who want a more intimate dining experience can slide into one of the four huts on the main floor. Thatched palm and bamboo cover the walls and woven palm cape drapes from the ceiling surrounding the booths, which seat four to eight people.

“I think these are going to be pretty popular with customers because it’s semi-private, it’s all retro furniture, mid-century modern stuff that I bought from various places,” Sellers said.

>>App users: Explore the main floor huts via interactive 360-degree video here.

SECOND FLOOR: NAUTICAL RETREAT

The sensory experience follows visitors all the way up the stairs to the second floor, with walls covered in bamboo and bark cloth made in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.

“It’s pounded, soaked and pounded flat and dried in the sun,” Cate said of the bark cloth.

>>App users: Take the sensory trip up the staircase via 360-degree video here.

The second floor takes on a more nautical tone with a 500-gallon salt water aquarium crews hoisted through a second-story window last month. It’s now home to fish and an eel.

Piping fashioned to look like oxidized copper snakes across the ceiling of the Captain’s Quarters, a second-story dining room that holds up to 20 people.

Seven booths also hug the walls, overlooking the second-floor piece de resistance: a locally-built wooden bar fashioned into the shape of a boat, complete with a maiden figurehead.

>>App users: Explore the nautical second floor via interactive 360-degree video here.

Lining the shelves inside the boat bar is an unprecedented collection of rum.

“You’re looking at Michigan’s largest selection of rum, over 150 rums here. We’re really proud of the rum selection that we have,” Cate said.

Three of those rums are used to create the drink that James Beard award-winning cocktail creator Martin Cate expects to be one of the most popular on the menu.

“Max’s Barrel O’ Rum. Every good tiki bar should have a rum barrel drink, and this is ours. So, it has fresh lime juice, fresh pineapple juice which we juice in house fresh every day, three rums… and we’ve got in the middle there’s a little bit of secret sauce. This is a secret ingredient that Jeremy creates and not even the bartenders know what it is. So it’s a little bit of a mystery and a little bit of intrigue in every sip,” Cate said.

Cate says Max’s South Seas Hideaway will serve up 45 cocktails, including his own originals and classics from the 1930s to the 1960s.

‘MORE OF AN EXPERIENCE’: MENU TOP PICKS

Chef Joseph Peebles has also been hard at work dreaming up dishes since he moved to West Michigan from West Palm Beach.

“We have a great chef that’s created a pretty unique menu, especially for West Michigan. Polynesian flair, Asian fusion with some American elements,” Sellers said.

On the menu: painstakingly prepared Huli Huli ribs, dubbed “amazing” by Cate and Sellers.

“Six hours of smoking them and preparing them, but that’s after we spend 24 hours marinating them,” Sellers said.

“Yeah, there’s the saltwater bath, there’s a marinade, there’s five hours of smoking, then there’s the glazing and there’s baking with the glaze on. So yeah, it’s really labor-intensive. But obviously it’s tender, fall-off-the-bone, sweet and smoky,” Cate added.

>>App users: Tap here for photos of the food on the menu.

But both owners say the pu pu platter will likely be the most popular dish, offering up vegetarian spring rolls, wings, ribs, chicken skewers and crab rangoons made with jumbo super lump crab, served alongside a hibachi burning hickory chips.

“The whole concept of the pu pu platter is people will get together and talk, and the food will kind of get cold. So that gets people the opportunity to kind of rewarm it,” explained the sous chef Rich Williams. “It’s definitely more of an experience than an appetizer.”

“It’s shareable, it’s something to enjoy, it’s real communal experience which you know is what we really want to foster,” Cate added.

Poke lovers may be delighted to discover the tuna appetizer that also made the menu cut; the tower of ingredients includes avocado mash, house-made kimchi, seaweed salad, seared tuna and roe.

“And then we have a great vegan and vegetarian menu as well, so there’s something for almost everyone,” Sellers said.


TIKI TRANSFORMATION INSPIRATION

Sellers and Cate say their passion for tiki bars started the moment they stepped into their first one. Cate was 22 years old and Sellers was 34.

“It was Washington, D.C. Trader Vic’s, 1994,” Cate recounted.

“It was a long, cold, gray day just like today and I walked in and it was nothing but warm, soft lighting, great food, wonderful hospitality, delicious cocktails. And it’s just like, just a magic transformation into another world,” he added.

“I went to a tiki bar in Los Angeles called Tiki-Ti. It’s been there for about 60 years, but I went there in 2002 and a light bulb went on in my head, ‘I love this,’ you know,” Sellers said. “So I started visiting tiki bars all over the place, and I met (Cate) a couple years ago and we just kind of developed this plan to open the world’s largest tiki bar. So that’s what, that’s what our goal is.”

“We’re aiming high,” Cate said, laughing.

The owners say one of their first challenges in recreating the tiki experience was finding the right spot.

“We spent a couple years looking all over the United States, various cities, everywhere for locations. And then you know, sometimes there’s just no place like home, back here in GR,” Cate said.

BEYOND DINING

Max’s South Seas Hideaway doesn’t stop at the front doors to 58 Ionia Ave. SW The business’s tiki ceramic studio next door is already up and running, supplying some of the dishes on which the first meals and drinks will be served.

“We have a guy who was a ceramic teacher at East Kentwood High School, his wife was a professor of ceramics at Aquinas College. He’s kind of retired and now he’s doing tiki mugs and tiki bowls for us,” Sellers said.

He says the five-room boutique hotel on the building’s third floor should open in the middle of next year.

“In the old days, there were tiki hotels and motels in Calif- well they were all over the country, but a lot of them were in California. They’re all pretty much all gone now. But it’s not like we came up with this idea, we’re just the first people to do it in quite a few years,” Sellers said.

The restaurants and bars of Max’s South Seas Hideaway seat up to 240 people. While walk-in customers are welcome, the tiki bar’s owners highly recommend making a reservation online.

Cate says visitors won’t be disappointed.

“Everything between the immersive atmosphere, the incredible collection of art, I mean, it really is like nothing else in town,” he said. “The proof is in the pudding. People will see.”

Max’s South Seas Hideaway opens at 4 p.m. every day.

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