In the dead of winter, we fantasize about balmy lands — tropical oases full of potent, neon-colored tiki beverages topped with umbrellas, beaches shimmering in the distance.
The next best thing? A Polynesian restaurant off the highway.
Fortunately, Greater Boston is home to many such hedonistic hideaways. Sadly, not as many as in decades past — RIP, Aku-Aku — but there are still enough to indulge your pupu and Mai Tai longings. Here are five worthy ones.
At Bali Hai in Lynnfield, it’s still 1973. There’s a phone booth in the lobby (phone removed). The frayed couches appear to have been around since the Nixon administration. And the prices come from the same era. Here, regulars (“Oh, do we have regulars,” says a knowing server with a smile) encircle a small bar area for drinks that are the cheapest in the area, says a hostess. I believe her: Something called a “Hawaiian Itch” costs a mere $4.50, which seems a small price to pay. Bali Hai’s namesake beverage is made with rum, brandy, and fruit juice; it’s $5. All the better to wash back one of the most popular entrées, Bali Hai lo mein, a carb cornucopia of noodles, chicken, pork, seafood, and vegetables. Come here if the Kowloon around the corner is too pricy.
93 Moulton Drive, Lynnfield, 781-593-8600, www.balihairestaurantlynnfield.com
Double orange doors, a stone façade out of “The Flintstones,” and some of the kindest restaurant service you’ll experience anywhere (pity the poor waiter who helped me with my infant’s carrier, finally wedging it into a booth with a smile). This Cantonese-Polynesian parlor in Quincy is bright, clean, and modern — with extremely juicy Peking ravioli, served with a zippy pool of ginger sauce. Join locals sipping frozen strawberry daiquiris (just $4.95!) and feasting on pupu platters (“More spareribs!” cries an enthusiastic patron); booths are roomy, service is swift, and the stereo plays soothing Top 40. For skeptical diners, there’s an “American dishes” section with boiled lobster and fried scallops.
111 Hancock St., Quincy, 617-328-1115, cathaypacificquincy.com
Ah, Disney World by way of Route 1 in Saugus. No New Englander has earned the title until reveling in its kitsch — the water fountains lined with pennies, the illuminated volcanoes on the walls, the entire dining room section styled as a boat, the booths nestled beneath thatched-roof huts and lanterns, flaming pupu platters flickering in the dim lights. Choose your (spendy) beverage from a laminated tri-folded menu; our waitress — delighted to offer suggestions — suggests the Coconut Mist, served in a shell. Once you’ve had a couple drinks, soaked up with anything from crispy crab Rangoon to sushi, you might even be tempted to spend $25 on a souvenir tiki mug. Gaze at the autographed photos of celebrities (hey, it’s the Rock!) that line the walls as you wobble out the door and into the unforgiving light of day.
948 Broadway, Saugus, 781-233-0077, www.kowloonrestaurant.com
Before Dedham was home to Legacy Place, there was Tahiti, rising up from a slightly weedy parking lot near a VFW hall. Yank open the heavy engraved double doors and step into a lobby that calls to mind someone’s tawny wooded 1970s rec room. There’s a lottery machine in the lobby, a patterned carpet that will make you see double after a few cocktails, and Motown on the stereo. Settle into a rounded leathery chair in the lounge and flip to the “Exotic Drinks” section of the menu for an impossibly cheap selection of cocktails. Try a “Pogo Stick” — at $6.55, this grapefruit and pineapple blend is a “real romper,” according to the description, so be prepared. There’s also a big section of Polynesian dishes; opt for the flaming ambrosia, fried shrimp with a rummy sweet and sour sauce, for maximum effect. You can almost smell the ghost of 1,000 smoldering Virginia Slims.
22 Mah Way, Dedham, 781-329-0145
The booths? Orange. The menu? Laminated, with pictures of palm trees. The tropical drinks? Bracing. At Medford’s Tiki Island, a garish affair wedged next to Randy’s Car Wash, service is affable, an egg roll will leave you full for hours, and regulars hoist soy sauce bottles like beers. Yes, this is your grandmother’s Chinese restaurant, right down to the Sweet’N Low packets on the tables and the saucer of hot mustard that arrives before your napkin. Tiki Island bills itself as a Chinese-Polynesian restaurant; the Chinese portion skews Cantonese and Mandarin, and Polynesia is represented with dishes like Hawaii steak (meaty strips, served sizzling) and Treasure Island (a medley of proteins sprinkled with “island spices,” topped with crispy wontons). As for drinks, many of which come with a souvenir glass, just point at a bright photograph with a cheeky caption and pick your poison. (Get the Mai Tai, urges my waiter, though I’m intrigued by the Shark’s Tooth, a concoction made of rum, sloe gin, and “island nectar” that promises certain doom after the second round.) Sip away while gazing at murals depicting a South Pacific exotica of thatched roof huts and majestic seas.
269 Middlesex Ave., Medford, 781-391-0477, www.tikiislandrestaurant.comKara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.