After settling in the dust for a few years, a vacant restaurant space on 631 Barton St. E. has been given a new name and identity. The space now breathes the essence of tiki culture as extravagant drinks are set on fire and music pulsates through its art-covered walls and wooden floors etched in Polynesian-inspired patterns.
MaiPai is adding to a renewed sense of prosperity on Barton Street East as new businesses open up and historic establishments are restored. It’s also riding on a wave of local tiki bar resurgence. In 2015, The Shameful Tiki Room and The Shore Leave opened in Toronto, reintroducing the concept of a Toronto bar entirely dedicated to tiki culture for the first time in two decades.
The original tiki movement can be traced back to the early 1930s when the first Polynesian-themed bar and restaurant, Don the Beachcomber, first opened in Hollywood, California following the end of Prohibition— a nationwide ban on manufacturing, transporting and selling alcohol in the United States.
Ironically, prohibition drove an accelerated production of rum, much of which aged in casks waiting to be discovered by enterprising bar owners, like Victor Jules Bergeron, Jr., who founded Trader Vic, a Polynesian-themed restaurant chain, and claimed to have made the first Mai Tai, a staple tiki bar favourite, in 1944 from 17-year-old rum from Jamaica.
History then tells the story of a post-war urge for escapism in the 1940s, igniting a tiki bar obsession all across the United States, and eventually Canada, as bargoers imagined themselves escaping the realities of the world they lived in.
By the 1960s, tiki bars were all over Ontario, and in 1975, the Trader Vic chain arrived to downtown Toronto. Tiki bars continued to provide a sense of escape until the 1970s, when their novelty eventually sizzled out as people began to lose interest. Trader Vic’s Toronto location closed its doors in 1993.
The resurgence of modern-day tiki bars begs an important question—what are we escaping from? Or perhaps the love of tiki culture is just enough reason to bring back an experience in the past and reinvent it—which is exactly what MaiPai is introducing to Hamilton and Barton Village.
MaiPai’s menu is dedicated wholeheartedly to tiki culture with a Detroit-inspired pizza twist. This style of pizza originated in the 1940s when Gus Guerro from Buddy’s Pizza made a sicilian dough pizza in a thick rectangular steel pan with cheese going right to the edge—winning over the hearts of Detroiters and Hamilton chef Salar Madadi, who’s known for opening up Pokeh, one of the first restaurants in Canada dedicated to serving poke, a Hawaiian appetizer.
It all came full circle when Madadi happened to be in Detroit, at a tiki bar, and the idea of MaiPai came to be.
Madadi then reached out to long-time friend Peter Lazar, Director at UrbanRoom Group, a Hamilton-based event production company, and asked him if he wanted to open a tiki bar.
Despite shamefully name-dropping Niagara Falls’ Rainforest Café as his closest exposure to tiki culture, Lazar quickly fell in love with the idea and Madadi’s pizzas. MaiPai brings together both their talents of creating memorable and quality experiences with food and space.
“The more I got into it, the more I fell in love with tiki as a culture . . . We both love creating an experience that really transforms [a space] or moves people into an escape,” said Lazar.
“I really like the idea of people having somewhere where they can go in and there’s basically just no reminders of the outside world. There’s no TVs, there’s no windows. You just go somewhere and like, you just need to check out and have a good experience and good food,” added Madadi.
It only takes a few seconds for your eyes to adjust to MaiPai’s atmosphere and for you to feel transported back in time and into another world. Antique lamps, lights, dozens of tiki mugs and decorations were salvaged from flea markets and tiki restaurants that were open in the 60s. Some interesting finds include a skull-shaped mug covered in what appears to be melted cheese and pepperoni and a matchbook from a long-gone Hamilton tiki bar rumoured to have been the Tiki Trapper.
While MaiPai Tiki Bar may be a new concept to the Gibson neighbourhood, co-owners Madadi and Lazar are no strangers to this area — in fact, they live just a couple minutes’ walk from each other and the restaurant. It felt very natural for them to be working together on a project so close to home.
Their neighbours and community have welcomed their new venture with open arms—selling out their first two weeks of reservation-only menu testing in under 12 hours.
“Both of us really respect and love opinions. We love hearing. We love the idea that multiple people's voices can come together and make something that's really unique. I think a lot of it just boils down to respect . . . we’re so appreciative of the staff that comes into work and . . . the fact that people would want to choose to come and eat out here,” said Lazar.
MaiPai’s menu is inspired by Madadi’s travels, Hamilton and responses from the community. MaiPai also includes a selection of wings, and almost the entire pizza menu can be made vegetarian or plant based.
One pizza in particular is inspired by Hamilton’s plethora of sub shops. The pizza has a thick, but light and airy crust made with MaiPai’s 48-hour cold fermented dough. It’s cooked with mortadella, salami and hot peppers, and when it comes out of the oven, it’s topped with shredded lettuce, kewpie mayo and sub sauce.
MaiPai will continue their soft launch hours into February and are hosting feature nights to test out menu items and setting cocktails on fire ahead of their official launch in March. By then, Madadi and Lazar will have opened up the second part to their space by expanding into 629 Barton Street East—tripling their capacity to 80 patrons.
Much like the passionate revival of tiki culture, there’s a very present dedication to bringing new possibilities to Barton Street East. MaiPai is a story of how Hawaii meets Hamilton in peculiar ways, and the next chapters are looking promising.