This city’s once-sleepy downtown probably doesn’t conjure up images of a tropical paradise.
But J.P. Hunter and his three partners thought it was perfect place locate 4 Kahunas Tiki Lounge.
“Unlike Fort Worth and Dallas, I feel like downtown Arlington is kind of a train just leaving the station,” Hunter said. “I wanted to be on it when it left.”
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Now boasting 25 restaurants along with five bars and breweries, downtown Arlington still isn’t as bustling as the Bishop Arts District in Dallas or Magnolia on the Near Southside in Fort Worth but some of the business owners hope it develops in a similar fashion.
“To be honest, I hope it gets more of a Bishop Arts or a Magnolia feel with a little more groove to it,” said Greg Gardner, owner of the Grease Monkey Burger Shop and Social House.
In the seven years since Grease Monkey opened, Gardner has seen foot traffic steadily increase.
If all goes as planned, Cartel Taco Bar should open by mid-December, Gardner said.
Earlier this year, The Tipsy Oak also opened, bringing more crowds to the area north of the railroad tracks in downtown Arlington..
It isn’t just bars and restaurants, downtown Arlington now boasts four co-working spaces and has more downtown residences under construction.
Most of the credit for jumpstarting the downtown resurgence to the Levitt Pavilion , which celebrated its 10th birthday this year and hosts more than 50 free nights of live music annually. There’s also long-timers like J. Gilligan’s and J.R. Bentley’s that were around long before the newcomers.
This week, the Arlington City Council approved a downtown master plan that Mayor Jeff Williams said will provide a “road map.” for where downtown goes next.
Among the recommendations are creating a downtown with “a distinct identity” and a “diversity of housing types.” Both a grocery store and a farmer’s market have been identified as needs.
It also got the high-tech George W. Hawkes Downtown Library, which opened in June, bringing more foot traffic to the area.
Part of the challenge is finding the right balance between student housing for the University of Texas at Arlington, which borders downtown, and also creating residences for an older audience.
There are also growing pains.
A portion of downtown is a construction zone as Abram Street, the main artery through the area, is being rebuilt.
“You’ve got a major thoroughfare under construction right now,” said Wade Wadington, the majority owner of Division Brewing. “Things are not going to change that much until it’s finished. Then I think you’ll see more people walking to and fro.”
One big obstacle — the railroad tracks — remains a hinderance to linking both sides of downtown Arlington.
For beer drinkers who want to sample multiple breweries, the tracks pose a challenge. Patrons must hop in the car and drive a few blocks to cross the railroad tracks — or walk across the tracks, which is illegal and conisdered dangerous.
“We’re on opposite sides of the tracks yet we can see each other,” Wadington said.
Earlier this month Arlington voters passed Proposition A, which includes $7 million for downtown pedestrian crossing to address the issue. How long it takes to make that crossing a reality remains to be seen.
But Hunter, who grew up in Arlington, is bullish on the prospects for his tiki bar and downtown Arlingotn.
He moved away for 18 years but came back to see the area was beginning to change. Along with his three partners — Chris Powell, Randy Shepard and Scotty Smith — he sensed Arlington was ready for a tiki bar.
“Previously, I felt like it was trying to be a small town,” Hunter said. “Now, I feel like it’s trying to find it’s place as one of the largest cities in the Metroplex.”
At 4 Kahunas, the bar is decked out in tiki artwork and soothing music.
It provides a little taste of Hawaii or Tahiti just like those original tiki bars or Polynesian restaurants that proliferated across the United States when veterans returned from the South Pacific following World War II.
“I wanted a place where people could relax and enjoy each other’s company,” Hunter said, noting there are no TV’s inside. “I don’t want it to feel like a sports bar.”
Since opening in July, Hunter has even seen people put down their cellphones and actually talk to one another.
“There’s a whole tiki sub-culture that provides escapism just like it did in the 50’s,” Hunter said. “That was back in the atomic age. The times are different but I think we still have these stresses. This is where they can get away from it all for a few hours.”