Mixopedia: Before the Piña Colada There Was the Coconut Willie - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Mixopedia: Before the Piña Colada There Was the Coconut Willie

It was meant to be a pop-up. The Hawaiian Room opened in June 1937 in the basement of the swank Hotel Lexington in New York City. Hotel management had found itself in need of a replacement for the Silver Grill, which was no longer drawing big crowds to the big bands led by the likes of Artie Shaw and Ozzie Nelson. At the same time, curiosity about the South Pacific was surging nationwide—“People who dream of a lazy existence among carefree companions generally dream of the South Seas,” reported the Chicago Tribune that same year, “and many people enjoy dreams such as these.”

“People who dream of a lazy existence among carefree companions generally dream of the South Seas, and many people enjoy dreams such as these.”—Chicago Tribune

So someone thought it a good idea to experiment with a South Seas theme for a few months before settling on something permanent. (Management hedged its bets: Later the same year it also opened the Paul Revere Room, featuring music by accordionist Evelyn Nation and the Three Minute Men.) The hotel filled the sprawling downstairs space with South Seas decor and bamboo trim and switched to Polynesian-inspired food (prepared by Swiss chefs). Among the dishes was a chicken and rice dish flavored with onion and peanut butter, and served with “a cavalcade of relishes,” according to Gourmet magazine.

Hotel staff traveled to Hawai‘i to recruit musical talent, and it was apparently the first venue on the American mainland to import large-scale entertainment from the island, with a floor show that included island musicians and hula dancers. The Hawaiian Room opened four years after Don the Beachcomber in Los Angeles—the very first tiki bar—and a year before Trader Vic saw fit to embrace the tropical theme in Oakland. 

The music that serenaded visitors was by most accounts both lovely and authentic. The room featured Hilo Hattie, a singer and comedian who put the place on the map. Work here was considered a plum job: Hula dancers earned $50 to $100 a week—at a time when pay at island pineapple canneries started at about $4 a week, and a hotel room upstairs cost $3.50. 

And then there were the drinks. The offerings over the years featured the Polynesian Fire, the Jaded Lady, the Tiki Lo Lo, and the Okolehao Punch (consisting of “gin, coconut milk, and ??” according to the menu). In 1941, the year Pearl Harbor was attacked, the menu showcased drinks like the Hellzapoppin and the Sweet Leilani from the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, the first of the large and posh Waikiki hotels.

Among the tropical drinks that captivated the public was the Coconut Willie, made with coconut milk, pineapple juice, lemon juice, curaçao, and a mix of Jamaican and light rum. This was essentially a Piña Colada with benefits, with lemon added for acidity and orange curaçao for complexity. It was served in a coconut half, and may have been named after a song that was popular in the 1940s on Hawai‘i. 

The Piña Colada displaced the Coconut Willie. | Photo by Stuart Mullenberg

The Coconut Willie had both flair and depth—serving it in a coconut was gilding the lily. The drink was impressive enough to command the attention of food writer James Beard, who wrote up the recipe in a magazine article about rum in 1956. Indeed, Beard in the late 1950s was a quiet crusader for rum just when it was starting to flirt with vodka-like insipidness, and Beard often extolled rum’s versatility and range. “Each rum has its own special flavor and quality,” he wrote in 1959, adding with imperial certitude that “a light or medium rum is never oppressive on a hot day.” He is not wrong. 

The cocktail world is rife with enduring mysteries, and one of them is why this tropical potion went missing in action after its midcentury rise. The Coconut Willie was evidently displaced by the Caribbean-pedigreed Piña Colada, which most likely was invented in Puerto Rico, although it didn’t become a mainland staple until a decade or two after the Coconut Willie arose. When the Piña Colada finally invaded stateside, it was made with treacly coconut cream and generally lacked the citric bite provided by lemon or lime. It was a milkshake that held the potential for a hangover, a drink for callow tipplers in board shorts and flip-flops. 

The Hawaiian Room remained open for nearly 30 years, finally shuttering in 1966, a year after Trader Vic’s opened at New York’s Plaza Hotel. The Hawaiian Room apparently faced expensive upgrades following the imposition of new citywide fire protection measures—a hula dancer’s skirt had caught fire at another establishment—and decided to forgo the expense and closed the doors instead. 

Today, the memory of the Hawaiian Room lingers only in a guest room at the Hotel Lexington, which has been decorated in the lounge’s honor in a light South Pacific style. Rooms may no longer be had for $3.50, but if you splurge on a trip to New York, you can slip out of the present and into a hazy past, and dream of carefree companions. Guests are advised to bring their own Coconut Willie.

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