Tropical Refreshments: A Review by Number of the Lotus Garden, Greenwood, Indiana.
1. I used to believe that the world's best menu was at the Four Seasons (south side of Indianapolis). Their old (original?) menu advertised “Pearls of the Sea. And Other Waters.” Sheer poetry. But, alas, they ditched the old menu and the new one is slick and new and generic. But, luckily, Lotus Garden (a Chinese restaurant which opened in 1963) still has at least one original page from their menu. The first page when you open it: titled “Tropical Refreshments.” I wasn't alive in 1963, but I'm pretty sure this menu page was. I've never seen anything like it: allow me to quote from the hymnal. “Dr. Wong's Tonic, $4.75, A delightful prescription of Rum, Orange Curaçao, passion fruit juice and fruit juice. Island natives believe this Tonic is sure to kill your worries and cure your ills.” “Tiki Bowl, for one or two, $7.25. You don't have to be a pagan to live like one! Cavorting cannibals get their cookouts rolling with this exotic brew, discovered centuries ago by the Island's Tiki Gods, a truly remarkable drink.” * The Scorpion (for two) is “a famous tropical drink” and the Navy Grog, festooned with an American flag and Kodachrome ice cubes is “Light separate ingredients** blended to make stout-hearted sailors out of the weakest men.”
The typeface for “Tropical Refreshments,” the photography, the descriptions (see, you're going to have to go there because how else will you read the descriptions for Wahine's delight and the Lotus Blossom?), the prices…well, everything about this menu is everything that was awesome about the sixties. This menu is Elaine Stritch in knee-high white patent leather boots; this menu is a young Larry Hagman with a genie. This menu is innocence and astronauts and uncomplicated cultural exoticism. And it wins Best Menu Ever.
2. The decor at the Lotus Garden, be it the bar or the main dining room, is essentially this aircraft photo from the late 1950s or early 1960s: gold! Smoking indoors (you can't but somehow the ashtrays are there in spectral form)! Cosmopolitan traveling! More gold! And pleather! So much pleather. Doesn't matter which culture is being represented: Polynesian (the faces of Easter Island on the little bridge over the indoor koi pond and “tropical refreshments”) or the Chinese (American-Chinese) of the rest of Lotus Garden, well, sure it's a schmear of generalized “Orientalism”, exoticism, and general cultural pastiche as white American fantasy. But there's something so purely innocent and well-meaning about it (and well-preserved), that I can't judge it. I can only enjoy it. It's like Disney's Carousel of Progress and an Epcot China wrapped into one. With the Brady Bunch's cursed tiki God thrown in. And alcohol. What's not to love here?***
3. Badly painted stucco dragon on top of peach (!) painted plywood facing. I'm pretty sure the dragon dates to the opening of the restaurant (the same year that saw the release of the film The Courtship of Eddie's Father) but that peach paint? I feel, strongly, that the paint choice goes back to the Golden Girls. But I could, of course, be wrong.
4. The sign for the Lotus Garden, a restaurant divided into a cocktail lounge, a buffet, and a “formal” sit-down restaurant. Good food, good service, good drinks, and a chance to sit in on every Asian-inspired movie from decades past: With Six You Get Eggroll (1968), or The Geisha Boy with Jerry Lewis (1958), or the 1961 film version of Flower Drum Song. No matter what, look at this sign and picture Lucille Ball or Doris Day. They match. It's 1963 forever at the Lotus Garden.****
5. The Christmas wreath is proudly lit next to the Chinese-ish dragon. Well, in the bar, St. Patrick's Day shamrock glitter garland sits above the bar. In the restaurant, above the koi pond, there's a Japanese lantern festooned with “Happy Year of the Boar, 2015.” The past is never past at the Lotus Garden. If cultures melt together, well, so do the dates. And there's something sorta beautiful and strange about that.
6. The jade-colored ceramic glass in which Mai Tai is served. Pretty sure this is the reason to get a Mai tai at the Lotus Garden. (eBay has one similar, and believe you me, pretty soon someone I know is also going to have one, because, ohmigod, nostalgia.) It should, here, be noted that the Mai Tai will set you back $4.75 and the menu offers no description. Apparently the Mai Tai is a Mai Tai all the world round.
7. Light fixture in the cocktail lounge portion of the Lotus Garden. One hundred percent 1963 and 2001. It's Mork the Ork's egg and Elaine Stritch's boot and Continental flight You Can Smoke On Here. There's also a truly excellent Miller Lite ad in the lounge that just has to date to 1989 or 1990: all crop tops and white and black and funny hats and Kool Moe Dee and Fresh Prince and racial diversity and Fly Girls. Time does not exist in the cocktail lounge. Just ask the light fixtures.
8a and 8b. This, dear Reader, is the Tiki Bowl (not to be confused with the Luau Bowl). If you look at the bottom left of image number 1, the Tiki Bowl is supposed to be served in a melamine or Bakelite bowl featuring three humanoid cannibals. Well, the Bakelite/melamine must have cracked and/or been declared poisonous, so in its place is this beautiful 1960s porcelain bowl featuring a volcano set in the middle and hula girls and palm trees around the rim. Well…the cup (chalice?) is fantastic and vintage and, while not Bakelite pagan cannibals, is still pretty wonderful. It's a total time hop, full of character and whimsy and strange American colonial fantasies. But, lest your cultural biases bite you in the ass, well, the bartender lights the porcelain volcano on fire, the bowl is filled with maraschino cherries, ice cubes, orange slices, a 2-foot long straw, liquor and liquor. And it's delicious. It doesn't taste like Hawaiian Punch or Kool-Aid. It doesn't taste like melted Jell-O shots. It just tastes like a tropical refreshment. And it's great. Everything about is great. If only the fire in the volcano would last just a smidge longer!
9. This is the Bolo. It costs $7.75 and it is “Fresh pineapple filled with fine Rum and tropical fruit juice.” Sure, you can get a non-alcoholic version for $6.00. But, frankly, I don't know why you'd do that. For one thing, the bartender has to go the kitchen and find a pineapple. When he brings it to the bar, his maneuverings to remove the core and hold the damn hull while he fills it is a lesson in cut fingers and sorrow. You will regret ordering it, even though you've never had a drink in an actual pineapple (which is, I think we can all agree, totally decadent and sort of wonderful, kitsch not withstanding). But beyond the pineapple, there's just nothing to this damned drink. No tropical; no refreshment; no flavor. Your best bet is to stick with the Tiki Bowl. Avoid the Bolo. Or order it just the one time because no human should go without a cool, semi-living, real pineapple with a straw and parasol stuck in it. So special. Even if the actual drink is not so good. (Oh my god, it's a pineapple!)
In short, dear Reader, what I have not said about Lotus Garden is that the food is solid (a good thing because the drinks are, too). The restrooms are clean. The prices fair and the service efficient. There's no wi-fi, which is a damned shame. But the lobby has a pond with koi and a turtle. There are Christmas lights everywhere plus Naugahyde and menus and linens and beliefs that date firmly to 1963 and everything you heard about but never before encountered.
The menu advertises “Tropical Refreshments.” And I intend to try them all. Two down, a page to go. And every mysterious, fantastic, kitschy vaguely oriental glassware to hold them each. (I think Dr. Wong's tonic is next. Or the Luau Bowl – for two or for four- which comes in a large dog-food dish, shallow but quite large and festooned with blue and orange dragons. I just hope it arrives to the table on fire.
Tropical refreshments should always be well-lit. And who doesn't look good in the flames of a liquor-induced fire?
*All punctuation original to the awesome menu. I love here how the menu totally doesn't tell you what's actually in the drink. I love that “Island” is capitalized: which island? Doesn't matter. It's a tropical refreshment. And, after a comment, a truly remarkable drink. Don't ask questions. Just drink it.
** But which separate ingredients, grasshopper? Tell me that.
*** According to the FAA and The Atlantic, in 1958 more than 80% of Americans had never been on an airplane. In 1965, two years after the Lotus Garden began serving Tropical Refreshments, no more than 20% of Americans had still flown on a commercial airplane. No wonder a generic exotic “eastern-ness” could appeal. Easter Island Plus China? Shrug. It's all tropical. So refreshing!
**** 1963 is also the year of the AstroPop.