310 Coleman Blvd.
Today: Page’s Okra Grill
Yesterday: Blue Hawaii (1971-1982)
On the menu: Chopped sirloin steak Hawaii, 95 cents (Nov. 14, 1974)
In hindsight, Blue Hawaii’s demise was foreshadowed from the start.
Opened by Phillip Chu in 1972, Blue Hawaii was billed as a Polynesian restaurant, which in mid-20th century America didn’t mean poi and taro: The genre took its style cues from tiki pioneers Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s, so its standard menu ran long on Cantonese classics and pyrotechnics.
“As the waiters go about their duties, they often cause gasps of alarm from diners,” Frank Jarrell wrote in his 1979 review for The News and Courier. “Many of the dishes are prepared, flaming, right in the dining room.”
Jarrell approved of the steak cooked tableside “with flaming brandies and lots of show,” and was impressed by the dessert selection, which included cherries jubilee and bananas Foster, but his companion ordered a vodka martini instead of the “flaming concoction” served to a nearby table. And he wasn’t crazy about his puu-puu platter:
“In the center of the tray, a small bowl of Sterno sent flames shooting up a few inches,” he explained. “The flames were nice to look at, but they gave a slight petroleum flavor to the food.”
Blue Hawaii wasn’t Charleston's first Polynesian restaurant, although city residents got to know the cuisine through Hollywood gossip columns long before they had a chance to sample it: In the 1950s and 1960s, movie stars were forever decamping to “posh Polynesian” dining rooms. There’s no record if the straightforwardly named Polynesian Restaurant at The Orvin Inn on Calhoun Street fit the description. It opened in 1969, promising “exotic foods of the South Seas.”
At Blue Hawaii, which replaced Joe Bessinger’s short-lived Surf Net, the seafood-themed successor to a Piggy Park, the dishes were more candidly described as “Chinese.” According to a Charleston Evening Post ad announcing the restaurant’s opening, Blue Hawaii was “owned and operated by Chinese,” and its food was “prepared and served by Chinese cooks and waiters.” The menu featured sweet-and-sour pork; almond chicken; chicken chow mein and pepper steak.
By the end of the decade, though, Blue Hawaii’s fans started to complain that the restaurant was slipping. When it was re-reviewed for the newspaper, even though it was “still the fun old Blue Hawaii, with slightly overdone decorations (and) plastic palm trees,” it was rated as “mediocre and could be much better.”
The 1980 review didn’t mention a single food or drink item ablaze. Within the year, though, the entire restaurant was destroyed by a fire so massive that Mount Pleasant’s fire chief said he hadn’t seen its equal in 10 years. In the immediate wake of the inferno, he theorized it started in the Blue Hawaii kitchen; Chu told investigators that nothing was amiss when he left at midnight.
— Hanna Raskin