“No one seems to understand true tiki.”
Ed Rudisell says this to me while we’re sitting in one of his many restaurants, Rook. I’m chowing down on some agnolotti, a ravioli like dish that is fucking delicious. I’m here to talk about Rudisell’s newest venture, a tiki bar, or more correctly, a Polynesian pop concept called The Inferno Room. The Inferno Room is currently being built-out in Fountain Square at 902 Virginia Avenue, in what used to be a Marion County Community Court.
He continues: “Everyone is like, ‘So how are you going to build an outdoor bar in the building?’ And, it’s like, ‘You are going to learn a lot when we open.’ The outdoor tiki thing is antithetic to real tiki. So I think it will be a little bit of a battle, recalibrating everybody’s definition to tiki.”
Rudisell, his wife and business partner Sasatorn and their business partner Chris Coy are huge fans of the tiki lifestyle, and so for them to bring the concept to Indianapolis — the real, historic concept — makes perfect sense. As much as we may equate tiki as sitting outside at a bamboo bar by our buddy’s pool and drinking pre-mixed daiquiris and piña coladas out of a blender, that couldn’t be farther from tiki’s origins.
Tiki — real tiki — started in the 1930s in Hollywood and Oakland. The first tiki bar was called Don’s Beachcomber, which was later changed to Don the Beachcomber and was created by a world traveler and adventurer, Donn Beach (his real name was Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt).
“It started with Donn Beach and that was all about escapism,” Rudisell says. “And you know, there was no name for it back then, nobody called it tiki at that point. He actually had traveled a lot and had picked up all that flotsam and jetsam from wherever he was and threw it all in a place.”
This idea of escapism is where tiki has its roots and it is what Rudisell and the team at The Inferno Room are keeping at the forefront of their minds as they flesh out this new venture. Rudisell tells me, “I think, when it comes down to it, we first want to obliterate that perception that tiki means a pool bar, or a hut on the beach or that it’s just a bar in your backyard. Because that’s the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to be about.
“To me, at it’s core, it’s just about escapism. You look historically going back and that’s what it was about; either you’re trying to escape the Depression Era economy and find yourself in the South Pacific, or you’re post-World War II and you’re coming back and you’ve seen the South Pacific and you want a little piece of that escape back to those islands.
“Now you get so damn tired of your bullshit social media. Everybody is connected, your phone never fucking stops going off, emails and all that, and sometimes you just need to get away. You can’t always do that.
“You know, sitting out on Virginia Avenue looking at cars passing by isn’t going to take you out of that mindset, so our goal is to be a little oasis in the middle of that.”
He goes on to say, “We want to be a neighborhood spot. We definitely see this as not only a place for people in Fountain Square and people Downtown looking for something different, but also to be able to tap into the out-of-town crowd that’s coming in for conventions and to give them a complete escape from everything. We want everyone to come in, get away from it all, come enjoy the South Seas with us, a climb into the jungle and enter at your own risk.”
This “enter at your own risk” idea comes from the tiki style Rudisell and team are taking The Inferno Room. While Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s (another of the earliest tiki bars) were filled with nautical-themed artifacts, Rudisell says, “There are three different schools of tiki, and we like the kind of headhunter, jungle feeling of tiki. Like tribal tiki or something like that. So, like, the cannibal side, the shrunken heads, we’re aiming for a place that when you walk in to have a drink you feel like maybe you won’t walk back out.
“It speaks to Chris and my interest in sorts of darker sides of things, like metal. We want skulls, shrunken heads and fire.”
Many of the decorations are being crafted by local artisans, as well as artists known within the tiki community. They’re currently in talks with a popular tiki artist from Milwaukee named Dave Hansen who own Lake Tiki. When Rudisell shows me the space where The Inferno Room will be he points up to a corner in the main room directly across from the entry door and says, “We are going to put a big fucking carved tiki mask in the corner there that actually spews smoke and fire (fire of some kind, even if it ends up just being LEDs) that will be an eight-foot mask or so. There will also be masks of Hawaiian gods in the spaces around the windows.” Hansen will be hand-crafting all of those masks and possibly more for the bar. It will turn the main room into a sort of pantheon of the Tiki gods.
He also shows me where the facade windows will be tinted red with flickering lights shining up on it, giving the illusion of fire to passerbys, hinting and the fiery danger just on the other side.
While talking about the décor especially the Tiki masks, Ed answers an important question that has been asked more and more about recent tiki culture.
“Is this cultural appropriation?” Rudisell asks himself. “Are we taking Polynesian culture? Because the gods, all of these masks and stuff, is pretty much like making a Jesus bar. Is making mugs and putting the Hawaiian god Kū as a mug, is that offensive to the culture? I think it’s an interesting point and we try not to do that. But tiki in and of itself – the Tikis, those were gods. So, that’s why we use the word Polynesian pop. It’s the pop culture of it, it’s the faux Polynesian culture.”
If we’re looking at tiki bars as a true representation of Polynesian culture, we are completely off-base. Tiki bars, like The Inferno Room, don’t represent authentic Polynesian culture; instead, they’re a throwback to a piece of Americana. But sensitivity to appropriation is appropriate in venues like this, and it’s clear Rudisell has thought deeply about it.
He's thought deeply about the cocktail program, too. As Rudisell points out: “When you’re young people are like, ‘Ohh, that’s a foo-foo drink.’
“And it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, drink three of these buddy, I dare ya. There’s like three different rums, and curaçao and fresh juice.’”
I add in, “It’ll knock you on your ass.”
He finishes, “Yeah, it fucking will.”
Tiki drinks — despite what people who place gender stereotypes on inanimate objects may think — are packed with alcohol, and that’s what makes them so damn delicious. They’re also going to be a major focus for The Inferno Room. “We come from more of the drink side instead of the cultural mid-century modern side. We come at it because we absolutely love the rum and how the rums play against each other in the drinks and we take that seriously,” Rudisell says.
He continues, “I’ve had two really disappointing experiences outside of Indiana at tiki bars in the past year that looked like they were badass. I mean you walked in and thought, ‘This is going to be fucking amazing.’ And then the drinks were terrible and it was really disappointing. We’re going to make sure that we can deliver on all fronts.”
Rudisell’s business partner Coy, who is currently the general manager at Black Market, will be handling the day-to-day operations as the operating partner. He helped conceptualize the business with Rudisell and helped implement it originally as a pop-up idea at Black Market during the hot summer. “The name came from over the summer; we were predicted with those really, really high temperatures and we knew that our A/C wasn’t going to keep up. I was like ‘It’s going to be a fucking inferno in this room, it’s going to be hot and it’s going to suck,’” Rudisell explains.
“I was talking to Chris and he was like, ‘Man, why don’t we just pull that tiki shit out of the basement that we have from when Martin Cate [Creator of San Francisco-based Smuggler’s Cove, the most renowned tiki bar in the country] was in town.’ I said, ‘We will just do a pop-up in our own place and call it the Inferno Room.’
“I was thinking I can’t believe no one has ever come up with this before, it just rolls off the tongue and sounds cool and there are no bars across the country with that name, which I was surprised about. But, I did figure out where it had subconsciously put itself in my head was from Beetlejuice. The brothel that he goes to in the model is called the Inferno Room. We hadn’t realized that, it just sort of stuck back in our brains somewhere.”
From the public response to this Coy and Rudisell knew it was time to bring their passion to the city.
Coy will be there making sure that the cocktails will always be of the highest quality. “Chris will be there and he has been doing our cocktail program at Black Market for the past six years. ” In preparation to make the cocktails as imaginative as possible Rudisell says there will be a balance of classic tiki drinks like Mai-Tais and Zombies, but there will also be plenty of modern additions. He hopes that they will be able to incorporate fire into some of the drinks, maybe even in the realm of some of the fire conjurers like Justin Wojslaw from the Diller Room in Seattle. “We’re gonna see what we can do, we have those tall ceilings, so we’re gonna see. We can get some fire going, but these guys are like sorcerers when it comes to this stuff. Some of these guys will conjure like fucking four foot flames. We definitely want to emphasize the fire aspect since we are called the Inferno Room.”
While the drinks and décor are key elements, the food program will not be falling by the wayside either. Rook’s chef Carlos Salazar will be curating the menu. Rudisell says, “We’re going to do definitely Polynesian pop cuisine. Tiki cuisine was rooted in Chines; like when you go to Lotus Garden in Greenwood and they have tiki drinks and Moo Goo Gai Pan and stuff like that. We’re not going to go straight up that far.
“We’re going to possibly use some things we’ve done in the past. Like we had Bongo Bongo soup."
“We’ve talked about crab rangoon, which was actually created at Trader Vic’s. [Bongo Bongo soup also was created by Trader Vic]. Just some kind of elevated, but super affordable bar snacks. I could see poke ending up on the menu there, because we’ve done it here [at Rook]. The menu there will be much more static than here at Rook or at Black Market, it won’t be changing monthly. We want people to be able to get their same favorite things every time they come in.”
While there isn’t a set date as of yet, Rudisell says, “We don’t have a tentative date because we want to do everything right. And this is different because we can’t just go out and buy décor. We can’t just buy lamps that look like this. Most of the stuff, as much as we can afford, will be handcrafted by artisans, either local or part of the tiki community, like Dave Hansen. So that will slow it down a bit, there will be lots of commissioned art pieces and we will also try and do and do a lot of it ourselves. I keep thinking late summer, but it just depends on how quickly we can get everything done. It will definitely be done this year.”