The Omni Hut — Polynesian hideout survives 50-plus years in dry Tenn. county
By DAVE HOEKSTRA Dhoekstra@suntimes.com December 14, 2012 10:48AM
Omni Hut in Smyrna, Tennessee. |PHOTO BY DAVE HOEKSTRA
IF YOU GO:
The Omni Hut is at 618 S. Lowry St, Smyrna, (615) 459-4870; www.omnihut.com. The restaurant is open from 5-9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Take I-65 south out of Nashville to I-24 (Chattanooga). Take Exit 70 (Almaville Rd.) left to state Route 102. Head north 3.5 miles to Highways 41 & 70. You’ll see the Nissan plant at the split. Smyrna is the first turn on the left.
Updated: January 17, 2013 6:19AM
SMYRNA, Tenn. — The Omni Hut is a high tide in the middle of Tennessee flatland.
The tiki restaurant is part of Americana fabric, like flowers and seashells on a Hawaiian shirt. Its “Star” main dining room has dozens of starfish, vintage Orchid of Hawaii bamboo lamps and hand-carved tikis. The entrance to the “Tiki” back room is accented by nautical imagery and a small waterfall that empties into a pond.
But there is no water outside this piece of paradise. Not even a tear in your beer. Rutherford County is dry, so the Omni Hut works on the set-up system where customers bring in their own beer and bottles of rum. Tropical drinks are then concocted through homemade “Hawaiian Tea” with pineapple, orange, limeade, grenadine and de-caf fruit iced tea.
This kind of incongruity makes life more fun.
The 52-year Mom-and-Pop operation is in the shadow of the Nissan Motors factory, down Highway 41 in Smyrna (pop. 40,900), about 25 south of Nashville. The Omni Hut is a long, ranch-style building made out of cinder block with bamboo accents. The hut sits adjacent to the CFX train tracks.
The Omni Hut gets it’s name from beacon towers used by World War II pilots for radio navigation. Omni Hut founder James Walls was a retired Major in the United States Air Force. The native of Missouri Valley, Ia., died in March at the age of 92. His daughter Polly Walls now owns and operates the restaurant.
Walls owns more than 100 cotton-blend Muumuus imported from Thailand. She was wearing one when I arrived.
With the demise of Trader Vic’s, the Omni Hut is one of the top three surviving mainland tiki restaurants that are at least 50 years old (the others are the Tonga Room in San Francisco, and the Mai Kai in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.). I didn’t realize Smyrna’s close proximity to Nashville where I was recently visiting my nephew and brother; I decided to check it out. I’ve now hit the tiki “big three,” and the 98-seat Omni Hut is the most unique tiki destination on the Upper 48.
“I’ve tried to stay suspended in time,” Walls said during an early evening conversation in “The Star.” “Everything in Smyrna has moved out to the interstate. I call this ‘The Forgotten Side of Smyrna’. We are a destination restaurant. People seek us out.”
The search, ironically, pays tribute to the Omni Hut name.
“GPS has replaced Omni stations,” Walls said. “Omni stations helped pilots figure out their own course. I think Florida still has an Omni station, but not many remain.”
In 1958 Major Walls moved his family to the Sewart Air Force Base in Smyrna. (The base closed in 1971). His daughter was six years old. She was born when he was stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska. So now an Alaskan runs a tiki restaurant in the middle of Tennessee. Yes, I love incongruity.
Walls is an engaging woman who tells her stories with homespun detail and warmth. Major Walls retired in 1960 and began building his Omni Hut. He opened in August of that year, on the pre-interstate Highway 41, the only direct route from Nashville to Atlanta, Ga.
“It could have been in Rantoul, Illinois,” Polly Walls said with a Don Ho song floating in the background. “We had a piece of property there. We had a couple locations in Nashville. They were Omni Hut carry-outs. He was ahead of his time. He didn’t start out to be a restaurant man, but he turned out to be a good restaurant man. He was a colorful person and he had stories he accumulated through 20 years of travel.”
The best story is when the Omni Hut opened, it was only the second Cantonese restaurant inentire state.
“Joey Yong’s in Memphis was the other,” Walls said. “The bank turned down my Dad’s loan. They thought a Chinese-style restaurant was too risky. They had never heard of such a thing. That kind of restaurant came out of New York or Chicago. We opened as a Chinese restaurant and it evolved into this. We’re still adding tikis.” Her older brother George hand carves many of the Omni Hut tiki totems.
Major Walls joined the Army Air Corps before World War II. He was stationed in Honolulu, where he befriended a Chinese-American family who ran a restaurant. “That’s where he was introduced to Cantonese cooking,” Polly Walls said. “He was just a Depression-era Iowa farm boy. He cooked just as a hobby. We grew up with woks. No one had a wok in the ’60s. They made great sleds for snowing! ”
Country singer Marty Stuart still visits the Omni Hut, and late Country Music Hall of Famers Roy Acuff and Marty Robbins were regulars.
“Marty Robbins’ wife, son and grandchildren still come from time to time,” Walls said. “Marty Robbins had a little racetrack down the highway here along with a restaurant called Rosa’s Cantina. My Dad would go down there and have a few beers with Marty. Once my Dad refused to serve the Beach Boys. He didn’t know who they were. They weren’t in proper attire. That was back when people got dressed for dinner. We love aloha fashion but they had flip-flops. I’m not wild about muscle shirts.”
I’m not wild about muscle shirts on Brian Wilson, either.
The Omni Hut is known for it’s sweet teriyaki sauce, which it sells for $3.95 a bottle. The secret soy, garlic, ginger and honey-based sauce has its roots in Rantoul, Ill., where Major Walls learned of the recipe at Chanute Air Force Base. “A colonel’s wife was an islander,” Walls said. “She gave him the core recipe and we’ve tweaked it.”
One of the house specialities is the Shrimp Panamanian (four to an order, $8.75) where the batter recipe came from Panama City. Cabbage-free pork and shrimp egg rolls ($3.75, two to an order) are made from scratch. “We use a lot of celery, which most people don’t figure out,” Walls said. The house speciality is Tahitian Tid Bits (Tennessee pork brisket andteriyaki). “You can’t get a Tahitian Tid Bit anywhere but here,” Walls said.
Walls started at the restaurant as a dessert girl, a job she maintains today. She is in charge of ‘The Volcano.’ She said, “It’s a cone-shaped scoop of ice cream that we top with either chocolate or creme de mint and sugar cubes soaked in alcohol. Then we light it, flaming like Mt. Fuji.”
Is that legal in a “dry” county?
“Well, it burns off,” Walls answered with a smile. “A bottle of PGA [Pure Grain Alcohol] lasts a long time. We used to use flambe and thenTennessee... Tennessee has some weird laws. You couldn’t transport flambe anymore. We needed something that burns.”
Like the bright memories you’ll have after a visit to the Omni Hut.
Hau’oli Makahiki Hou!