Driving to Lee’s Hawaiian Islander for the first time earlier this year for a friend’s birthday celebration, I admit I was skeptical. I knew nothing about the restaurant, other than that one of our group had grown up in Bergen County and frequented Lee’s decades ago.
After a few wrong turns, we pulled into the parking lot on a dark, run-down commercial street in Lyndhurst. Inside, the kitschy decor looked unchanged from its opening more than a half-century ago, in 1972, with glowing Tiki masks, a rock waterfall wall, tree branches with fake birds, plastic flowers on the tables and white Christmas lights everywhere.
It took only one drink—I can’t remember if it was a Mai Tai or a Zombie, served in a Tiki mug with an umbrella, of course—to convert my skepticism into something like joy. By the time the requisite Pu Pu platter arrived, a few of our group of ten had grabbed microphones and were belting out “It’s Raining Men” alongside Bill, our spry, white-haired karaoke DJ, who sported a spangly “That Guy” hat and a black sequin-studded jacket.
Increasingly raucous renditions of “Thriller,” “Single Ladies” and golden oldies like “LeRoy Brown” and “Band of Gold” followed. Even the shyest among us hammed it up at the mike, and other patrons took turns, too; before long we were all on our feet, mingling and dancing. One couple invited us to their monthly karaoke night in Newark; a middle-aged business man circulated among us, handing out his business card and asking for dances.
We went home laughing and woke the next morning giggling, as photos and videos of our escapades pinged from phone to phone.
When I heard recently that Lee’s Hawaiian is for sale (for $2.3 million), I wasn’t too surprised. It was less than a third full the Friday night we were there, the food is mediocre, the drinks are so strong that you only need one, and it isn’t exactly on anybody’s list of hot new restaurants.
But I sure hope it doesn’t sell soon, and was glad to learn from an employee that they plan to stay open until they have a buyer. There are hundreds of places in New Jersey where you can get a better meal in a modern, gleaming restaurant. There’s only one I know of where you can sing and dance with new and old friends and time-travel back to a simpler, happier time.
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