Sinatra at the Tip Top Cafe

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Sinatra at the Tip Top Cafe

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Kauai
Sep 06, 2012

I just learned that Ava Gardner broke up with Frank Sinatra at the Tip Top Café in Lihue, Kauai. Now, I have no way of knowing if that’s actually true or not; a tour guide mentioned it, and I’ve heard plenty of glitches over the years in some tour guides’ talking points. But Frank and the rest of the Brat Pack and their parade of femme fatale lovers and wives headlined Hollywood tabloids during my mother’s and father’s day, so I packed up my visiting parents in the car and headed to Lihue this morning. Let’s just say I didn’t have to twist my mom’s arm.

I go to Tip Top Café for the banana macadamia nut pancakes. I’ve tried to weasel the secret ingredient out of fourth-generation owner Jonathan Ota before, but he won’t reveal what makes the pancakes so good. My mom thinks it’s a super-hot griddle. I’ve heard some say it is sugar. Others guess that Jonathan’s grandfather concocted the recipe using a cake mix batter to give their signature pancakes a crispy edge to them. Jonathan says only one other person besides himself knows the recipe—the cook in the kitchen who mixes up batch after batch.

According to a flyer at the restaurant, the original Tip Top Café & Bakery opened in 1916 as a coffee shop. Jonathan’s grandfather expanded into baked goods, including macadamia nut cookies, purported to be the very first made in Hawaii. The business moved to its present location in 1965—with the addition of a 34-room motel--and doesn’t appear to have been updated since. Refurbished, yes; renovated no. And that’s a good thing. That way, with its vinyl booths, Formica tables and cavernous-tall ceilings, you can just imagine Hollywood’s royalty noshing on pancakes—or oxtail soup, another of the restaurant’s famous dishes—and picture Ava, her head tilted, her eyes slit, delivering the news to Frank as a cloud of cigarette smoke hovered in the air above the soon-to-be ex-lovers. Well, actually, I can't. Tip Top Cafe? Sinatra? Really?

Today, a cloud of conversation hovers above diners, coalescing into an indistinguishable din. Waitresses wearing hospital scrubs push stainless steel carts with coffee and water, glasses, silverware and, soon, our full orders of pancakes. It’s not exactly Ciros on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip.

I can’t help but notice the rather large black-and-white print hanging on the wall beside our booth. It’s dated 1925. Men wearing long-sleeved, white shirts and white pants walk the street. A row of Ford’s Model T cars are parked in front. The place was as popular then as it is today—I had to wait for a place to park and nearly every booth is packed with mostly local faces.

We slather the guava pineapple jam on our pancakes and top that with coconut syrup. One bite and mom says, “I don’t think we discovered this place soon enough.” They’re headed back to the mainland in a day.

“You could come back for lunch tomorrow,” I suggest. “Try the oxtail soup.”

Breakfast didn’t last long. Not the way we shoveled those pancakes in our mouths. You could practically hear our forks scraping our plates in Hanalei. When Gardner split from Sinatra in 1953, you could probably hear their argument in Hanalei, as well. Theirs was known as a tempestuous relationship.

“So, this is where Frank got the boot,” my mom says and pushes her plate aside. Her eyes gaze around the room wistfully.

Let’s talk about dates.

A quick search on the Internet reveals that Sinatra’s come-back movie From Here to Eternity was filmed in Hawaii in just 41 days, from early March to May 1953. It was released on August 5, 1953, and the famous couple officially separated in October 1953. Now, Gardner could have easily broken up with Sinatra on numerous occasions and, perhaps, during the filming of From Here to Eternity and, perhaps, in the Tip Top Café. But here’s the rub: From Here to Eternity was filmed on Oahu.

But Hawaiian Air started inter-island service in 1929; so theoretically, the couple could have hopped aboard a flight for Kauai during a break in filming. And yet this was a busy time for Gardner. Her career was skyrocketing and, indeed, her filmography reports four movies for 1953.

All that aside, one fact remains: Tip Top Café moved into its current location in 1965. That means, even if Gardner and Sinatra managed to slip away from their respective filming duties and sneak off to Kauai, they surely did not patron the same Tip Top Café that I did this morning. They did not sit at one of the vinyl-covered booths and Formica-covered tables. Their voices did not add to the din of conversation in the room. Their cigarette smoke did not mingle with the likes of Jonathan’s grandfather’s. Not here. No, they would have eaten--and split up--at the building in the photograph above our table.

I don’t think I’ll tell my mother.

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