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the architourist

Dave LeBlanc has put the final touches on his Polynesian-themed basement retreat.Photography by Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

While it has been emanating from below ground, those in the vicinity of Danforth and Bastedo avenues have repeatedly noted two muffled sounds during the past year. The first is chant-like, and seems to be something like “Kana Havah Mah Tanow” over and over; the other, more percussive, is similar to that of the Ipu gourd, traditionally struck during the Hawaiian hula dance.

Is some sort of rogue Polynesian school operating in Toronto’s east end?

The oval window over the bar will make patrons feel as if they are underwater.

Nope, just me, Skipper Dave, a gaggle of split bamboo at my feet and brandishing a neighbour’s borrowed brad nailer – rat-a-tat-tat-tat – as sweat runs down my forehead and I ask my chief mate, Shauntelle, “Can I have a mai tai now?” for the umpteenth time. That mantra is a joke, of course, as there’ll be no mixology until our private imbibing oasis is mostly complete … which, gentle reader, might be around the same time you find yourself gripped by this tantalizing tale of a tiki bar’s birth.

Our tale begins during the dog days of summer three years ago. Pith helmets strapped on tight and an oil cloth real estate map in hand, we stopped our outrigger upon the discovery of an old variety store for sale. While neglected, it had good (pirate) bones. An excellent fit for our vintage furniture store, yes, but the high-and-dry basement had a separate room that screamed for more than just storage … or steerage.

Since the old Papaya Hut blade sign had been saved from the demolition of 513A Yonge St. a few years earlier, Ethel’s Papaya Hut would be its name.

Years of research led up to this red-letter date. The Skipper, while living in Montreal in the mid-1990s, had co-led expeditions to Jardin Tiki, the Hawaii Kai Lounge at Bill Wong’s, and Tiki Doré (sadly all gone), and his chief mate had gained her tiki-legs quickly upon meeting the Skipper in 2002, so much so that, going forth, all vacations would include a trek to the local tropical-themed watering hole (jet-lagged at LA’s Tiki Ti in 2005; a romantic night in 2007 at Tonga Room in San Francisco; shaky legs back to the overpriced NYC hotel from Otto’s Shrunken Head in 2009, etc.).

A tiny folded plate roof was constructed to give a simulation of thatched roofs.

The Papaya Hut started unceremoniously, however, with enormous sheets of plywood.

While the hired man was applying those to two walls of brick – brad nails stick much better to plywood – he also constructed a tiny folded plate roof. Here, a simulation of thatched roofs would also offer a place to hang the garbage-picked trio of lanterns emblazoned with Asian characters. He also cut an oval hole to allow for the future installation of a custom bamboo window (more on that later), and left one wall untouched, since there was much debate on whether it would contain a mural or some other visual treat as sweet as Haupia pie.

After purchasing a counter with a bar sink on Facebook marketplace – which the Skipper installed – it was time to gather supplies for the build-out. Thankfully, we plucky Polynesian-lovers didn’t have to wait for the supply-ship to dock; no, Bamboo Toronto on Bellamy Road had thatch, four-foot-by-eight-foot Lauhala mats, and rolls of bamboo panel matting.

An old teak cabinet was transformed into a space for the vintage stereo.

In July, 2020, friends who’d already built a basement bar asked if we wanted to swing by to discuss the finer points of staple guns versus glue guns, while taking a peek at how their space had come together. Fortuitously, one of those friends, Steph Goulet, had taught himself tiki carving, so it was decided he would carve a long chair rail for the Hut. The rail would contain glyphs of martini glasses – Skipper’s favourite cocktail – hibiscus flowers, harlequin-shapes, pinwheels and the Ethel’s Papaya Hut monogram. To achieve a dark and weathered look, Mr. Goulet taught the Skipper how to burn and brush these pieces, which was done a few days later with much giggling as the roofer’s torch created quite the fire-show.

Unfortunately, as with all extracurricular activities, the time came when tools were laid to rest. Over the next few months, only pictures were hung and the tiki mug collection was lined up on a high shelf.

Closer to Christmas, an old teak cabinet was transformed into a worthy vessel for the vintage stereo, and, once the decision was made to feature fake lava rock on the third wall, two big sheets of vacuum-formed plastic were secured thanks to a tip from a film industry friend … turns out there are secret warehouses with plastic sheets that mimic brick, flagstone, rubble or what have you.

For the Hut’s ceiling, joists were minimized with the addition of woggles-with-cheese holes made from plywood scraps.

Over the Christmas break the Skipper cut (what seemed like) a thousand small cylinders of bamboo in various diameters. In the spring of 2021, his chief mate taught herself how to tint and pour resin in those cylinders to create miniature stained glass windows. A handy tube of construction adhesive turned these myriad parts into a magical, oval window over the bar that, with the addition of a water-wave projector aimed at its backside, will make patrons feel as if they are underwater.

For the Hut’s ceiling, joists were minimized with the addition of woggles-with-cheese holes made from plywood scraps (“woggle” is a term used to describe the biomorphic ceiling shapes of architect Morris Lapidus’s famous 1950s Miami Beach hotels; cheese holes were simply holes to allow columns or lighting to poke through) and a fish net filled with flotsam.

A recent, sweaty push using modern power tools has put the finishing touches on this primitive room – which might be all of 400 square feet – to bring it closer to those first envisioned by “Trader” Vic Bergeron or Don the Beachcomber.

Yes, blood, sweat and a few tears have been shed in creating Ethel’s Papaya Hut. But, when the first mai tais are finally raised, the only sound trickling up to the Danforth Avenue sidewalk will be that of laughter.

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