Petaluma’s original tiki bar: Lanai Lounge

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Last week, Petaluma excitedly welcomed news of a new cocktail lounge, Duke’s Tiki, opening in the the old Chicken Pharm site in the coming months. Tiki bars are a relic of the past, back when travel was unavailable to the average Joe, who still wanted to experience the tropical flavors of the islands. In 1938, Petaluma became home to the Lanai Lounge, which sat in the Hotel Petaluma filled with colorful murals and fruity drinks.

Unfortuantely, no photos of the lounge exist in the archives of the Sonoma County Library or the Argus-Courier (if you happen to have any to share, email them to food@arguscourier.com). The folloing excerpt about the lounge came from the popular book by local residents John Sheehy and Scott Hess, “On a River Winding Home.”

The swanky Lanai Lounge opened in the Hotel Petaluma on August 18, 1938. Taking up the hotel’s entire front corner, it was adorned with South Seas murals, bananas hanging from the ceiling, a koi fish pond, and a horseshoe-shaped bar that served exotic rum cocktails, transporting its customers to a romantic and languorous tropical paradise of rattan furniture, flower leis, and live Hawaiian music.

To the delight of hotel operator Vernon Peck, the lounge was an overnight sensation. The Golden Gate Bridge had opened the year before, and waves of tourists were passing through town on the Redwood Highway, headed for resorts along the Russian River, where they danced the night away to the big bands of Harry James, Buddy Rogers, and Glenn Miller.

Meanwhile, tiki culture was sweeping the Bay Area, having made a big splash in 1937 with the opening of Trader Vic’s Restaurant in Oakland. As word spread of Peck’s exotic tiki roadside attraction, members of the Bohemian Grove, an exclusive Monte Rio men’s club, made ritual stopovers at the lounge on their way from San Francisco to their annual summer gathering on the Russian River, their chauffeured limousines lined up outside the hotel causing a sensation in town.

That cachet helped draw in Peck’s other target clientele, Petaluma’s “smart set.” While a number of bars and grocery taverns had sprung up around town following Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, there was a crowd of young men and women more attracted to the lure of night clubs. Mike Gilardi, owner of a cigar store across the street from the hotel, had converted his store into a popular cocktail lounge in 1937, offering jazz, dancing, and an exciting mixology of new slings and fizzes. Piggybacking on Gilardi’s success, the Lanai Lounge quickly became the second anchor of Petaluma’s “night club row.”

Read more snipets of Petaluma history, including notable restaurants, in “On A River Winding Home.”

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