Lady of La Mariana rules last old-time tiki bar
By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer
One of the last of the breezy, old-time Waikiki-style Polynesian piano bar and restaurants isn't even in Waikiki. It's five miles down the coast, at 50 Sand Island Access Road (and you better know where to turn off the main road or you'll never find it) tucked away peacefully beside the water, behind avenues of concrete and industrial enterprises.
"I'm only 86," said Annette Nahinu with the twinkle of a teenager in her eye. "I have plenty of time."
Like the owner herself, La Mariana is unchanging, ever there.
"La Mariana, my maiden name, means 'the little sea' in Italian, which perfectly describes this place by a lagoon," said Nahinu.
When the much-beloved Tahitian Lanai closed five years ago, many of the piano bar's regulars moved camp to La Mariana, joining the rattan chairs from Don the Beachcomber's, the balloon-fish chandeliers from Trader Vic's, and other remnants of Honolulu's long-gone South-Seas-kitsch nightclubs.
All these artifacts, plus the karaoke piano player who once drew them in at the Tahitian Lanai, are now part of this Ke'ehi Lagoon establishment, along with an 80-slip marina, which Nahinu says has been open 365 days a year for 47 years.
For 19 years, La Mariana was next door, 50 feet from its present location. In those days, Nahinu paid on a month-to-month permit. Then, she says, 28 years ago, when the state decided to take its land back, she got a long-term lease on the junk yard next door, cleaned it up and dragged over the entire sailing club, lock, stock and beer barrel.
"Yes, we literally moved that whole place to its present location my house, the clubhouse, the dining room, the docks, 83 trees, everything. We stayed open through the whole move, too. We were open part of the time on the old side, and we kept moving more and more, until we opened the new side. We've never been closed."
Those who frequent this quirky place have a strong affection for it. An amiable mix of local folks and newer residents, the regulars are part of the place's charm, greeting newcomers in friendly fashion, urging them to join in the sing-alongs, acting as though they themselves were the hosts.
Longtime regular Tommy Boyd recalls the night the cook walked out and several patrons jumped up, took over the kitchen and even waited on tables. The first he knew of it, someone was telling him that they didn't know how to make his favorite pepper steak, but would a plain old steak do? It would, and it did.
"I just love the place," he said. "It's a really great experience. It has parts from all the old bygone places. It's the only one left."
Boyd says La Mariana's most enduring fixture is Nahinu herself, who stops by every table each night to chat with customers. The conversation consists mostly of small talk. But occasionally, Nahinu reveals glimpses of her past, which by her own account has been a charmed existence.
She is the daughter of a Brooklyn violinist who performed at silent movie houses until the hot summer evening he accidentally chopped off a finger while trying to close a hatch on the theater roof, thus bringing his career and what there were of the family fortunes to an abrupt end.
Still, Nahinu says, "I've had a storybook life. I was born very poor and married a very rich man who did everything for me."
That is all she usually reveals about the Hollywood big shot she married when she was only 16. "That's what changed my whole life, my first marriage the one I won't tell you about," she said with a mysterious, mischievous smile.
She is more forthcoming about her second marriage, to sailor Johnny Campbell, with whom she began La Mariana. But Campbell didn't stick around long.
"He was a New Zealander. He didn't like to work. He thought if we just put up an awning, that would be good enough. Well, I wanted a sailing club and a house. I came from New York. My idea of a yacht club was not putting up a tent," she says, revealing a little of the stubborn spirit that's kept her going all these years.
Before sailing off into the sunset, never to be seen again, Campbell told her, "Hon, if you like this place, you can have it."
There was a third, 12-year marriage to Lorren Nahinu, which also ended in divorce. He couldn't take the stress of an almost 24-hour business, she said. But for her, the work of building and maintaining La Mariana was merely a necessary part of living out her dream.
"My hobby? This is my hobby!" she said, as she slowly gestured around the restaurant. "This is my life! my goal! my everything!"
She can't imagine life away from her romantic little home by the sea (she lives above the bar and restaurant).
Once, though, at the height of the Japanese economic boom, an investor appeared at Nahinu's door and offered to buy the place. He started the bidding at $5 million. After some horse trading, Nahinu agreed to accept just under $8 million in cash in American dollars only, thank you in a suitcase.
Otherwise, no deal.
"I never saw $7.8 million in cash before," she explained. "That would be a lot of money to see, wouldn't it?"
The flabbergasted investor agreed to every stipulation. Then Japan's financial bubble popped, and the whole deal went bust. But not before Nahinu had added a cool $400,000 down payment to her bank account.
"I got that in cash," she said.
"But not in a suitcase."
She's just as happy to still be at the helm of La Mariana, with a lease that doesn't run out until she's more than 100 and customers who'll keep coming back, apparently, until their own leases run out.
Not a perfect storybook ending, perhaps, but not a bad little tale, either.