Ooga Mooga's Tiki Tavern
The heat had its way with me. From my hair transforming into a sweat mop to my already poor level of water consumption leaving me dehydrated, I was over it. As June left and July began the temps "dipped" to 93 on one day but stayed above the triple digits most others. All this came to a head as I sat on the patio at Ooga Mooga's Tiki Tavern in the University of Tennessee area. It was 8:30 and my phone was telling me it was still 91. I started to feel dizzy and envisioned an abominable snowman slinking along 17th in a blurry haze of heat-induced hallucination. It was time to head inside.
Ooga Mooga's Tiki Tavern (Man I love saying that out loud) is in the space formerly occupied by Niceley's Tavern, which was Hawkeye's Corner before it was Niceley's.
Now with a tiki theme and simplified menu, the new owners hope to fill the place with hungry campus folks this fall. Conveniently located on White Avenue near 17th, just a block from Cumberland Avenue, Ooga Mooga sits directly between a good bit of the off-campus housing and the university itself. Foot traffic is strong in the area, and the bar also has a distinct advantage when it comes to parking with up to 50 spaces in a private lot for patrons.
Once inside I ordered up an iced water and took a look at a menu. The jukebox blasted a solid combo of modern hipster rock and sax- heavy, '50s surf rock. The menu was a one-pager with lots of drinker favorites like pizza, tacos and burgers. What specifically caught my eye was the Spam Burger. According to owner Daniél Leal, they originally put it on the menu almost as a joke but during a tasting he tried it and really liked it. In the first week his customers seemed to agree.
The floors are a bright, polished wood and some tables have a teak look to them. The bar is quite compact. Grass-skirted decor dominates the place, as you might expect with a tiki theme. The place had just opened and I was impressed with not only its design, but the lack of clutter used when staging the space. Ooga Mooga seems more like a theme-based independent restaurant upon first glance less then a straight-up bar. The difference is there isn't a bunch of chintzy junk all over the walls.
I took a moment to sit down with Daniél to discuss Ooga Mooga's Tiki Tavern. He told me that the name of the bar came from a style of tiki mug. I looked a little further online and found an entire online community of tiki mug/cup collectors that went by Ooga Mooga that buy/sell/trade their mugs and appraise them for one another. Perhaps a good place for a meet-up in the future, guys?
Now at this point I have to tell you, Dan was nonstop doing something the entire time I was there. He was answering questions, cooking things, talking to me and handling incoming phone calls related to the bar and another one he owns in Morristown called D&L Station. (The whole time all I could think of was, "He looks like Lieutenant Dan, aka Gary Sinise." I hate it when fleeting thoughts like this distract me.)
There is a single pool table directly in the back of the main room, and while I chatted with Daniél some younger guys came in and got ready to play a game. Daniél took a moment to check IDs and he informed them that the establishment was 21 and up. They politely tucked their IDs away and exited as Daniél turned back to me. We chatted about how few 18-and-up establishments there are in the UT area, and then we turned our conversation to the other projects he was involved in. He and his wife, Lori, are splitting time between the Tiki Tavern and D&L Station.
"You are working non-stop aren't you?" I asked him.
"Yeah, pretty much from sunup to sundown between the two bars every day," he replied.
I could see it in Daniél's face, the look of drive mixed with exhaustion.
I encourage you to support people that work as hard as he does to bring good food and good times to the public. Take a moment to pick out and try one of the 10 or so speciality drinks — and what the heck, have a Spam Burger!
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
Want to use this article? Click here for options!