When Air Force Major James Walls retired from Smyrna’s Sewart Air Force Base in 1960, he needed another project to throw himself into.
“He was only 42 then; he was too young to not do something,” says daughter, Polly Walls.
After 20 years of traveling around in the military and being exposed to various cultures, the Major had developed a love for food, particularly the food of Hawaii (where he was stationed during the attack on Pearl Harbor, incidentally) and Polynesia as a whole.
“He’s always been intrigued by cooking; in and out of the South Pacific throughout the war, he just had a love for the culture and the people,” Polly says. “He befriended a Chinese American in Oahu, whose family owned a restaurant there, and that’s where the seed started.”
And thus the Omni Hut, located on Highway 41 just up from the Lee Victory interchange, was born, bringing the flavors and atmosphere of the islands to Rutherford County.
The restaurant celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, and stands as the oldest Asian, Pacific or Chinese restaurant in the state of Tennessee.
When you walk in the doors of the Omni Hut, you are instantly transported into a different atmosphere. Tiki men deck the lobby, fishnets hang from the ceilings, the walls are covered with photos, ukuleles and other kitschy island memorabilia, an indoor waterfall offers some calming sounds and there are no windows to even give one a peak of the drab Highway 41 corridor.
Now in his 90s, the Major is now “retired” from his restaurant duties as well, but a usually floral-Muumuu-clad Polly is now at the helm, greeting customers with an “aloha” and sending them off with a “mahalo.”
Cultures from all over Pacific have inspired the food at the Omni Hut, from China to Hawaii to Central America. In addition to Bora Bora, a delicious bacon-wrapped pineapple served with a spicy mustard and honey sauce, the menu includes chow mein, fried rice, egg rolls and a thickly-battered, deep-fried prawn called Panamanian Shrimp.
The egg rolls, containing pork, shrimp, onions and other veggies, are wonderful.
“We make our own egg rolls,” Polly says. “I could buy a pre-made, frozen one cheaper, but it wouldn’t be Omni Hut that way.”
If you’re undecided on what to order, the Hawaiian, Samoan, Hong Kong and Tahitian dinners are all similar multi-course affairs, each providing a huge assortment of the establishment’s top dishes.
These all begin with an egg flower soup, a flavorful soup with lovely bits of egg and thinly sliced scallions floating about.
Then comes the “appetizer” course, which really includes more than enough on its own to satisfy a hardy appetite.
This arrangement, in the Tahitian version at least, features a large compartmentalized bowl punctuated by a flame in the center, containing pork ribs, Panamanian shrimp, beef kabobs, egg rolls, bacon wrapped chicken livers (the only way to eat a chicken liver) and more.
Honestly, I felt the final course, shrimp fried rice, chicken chop mein and sweet and pungent pork, was better than the appetizer, but by the time we got to it, our appetites were gone, thanks to the calorie-rich samplings we had already consumed.
The batter on the Panamanian shrimp was almost too thick. I’d like to try some of these huge shrimp (a nice oxymoron) grilled next time.
“We take pride in our shrimp. Everything is wild caught,” says Polly. And the restaurant’s char grill has a lot of fans, she says.
The ribs and pork were quite greasy and the steak was very tough. Though the Teriyaki, used in the ribs and steak and available on the table if the diner would like to add more, was quite flavorful; Omni Hut actually sells this by the bottle for those who want to take some with them.
“We do a lot in Teriyaki. It’s a true Hawaiian recipe, lots of ginger, lots of honey,” says Polly, who added she is only satisfied when each guest is absolutely stuffed.
But even if you have to take home the main course, there’s great benefit in having some fried rice and chow mein in the fridge for a midnight snack!
In keeping with relaxed island tradition, I suppose, there’s not a huge hurry to get the food to you, but overall, the service was very good. Glasses were always filled, and the server offered to box up our leftovers. A hot, damp towel after the appetizer and main courses was a nice touch.
Do try the Hawaiian tea; I’m not a huge tea fan, but the fruity pineapple, orange and lemon flavors come through moreso than the tea, and the presentation is quite fun and tropical. The restaurant does not serve any alcohol, but welcomes guests to bring their own, if they choose to do so.
As many businesses do, the Omni Hut has seen the good times and the bad times, but has ridden out the storm for over a half century now. Polly attributes much of the success to the consistency of the dishes. The Major seemed very proud of the recipes served at Omni Hut, so today the staff does not mess with a good thing too much.
“We are consistent,” Polly says. “In fact today, if you go to a luau in Hawaii set up for tourists, what you get at the Omni Hut is probably more traditional.”
And whether it’s the trinket-filled environment mixed with the sounds of a waterfall, or if they’re slipping something in the Hawaiian Tea, there is something truly intoxicating about the Omni Hut. Visit Polynesia, right in Rutherford County.
618 S. Lowry St., Smyrna
5–9 p.m., Tues.–Sat.
Bora Bora (bacon-wrapped pineapple): $6.95; Hawaiian dinner: $16.95/person; Chicken or shrimp fried rice: $2.75; Hawaiian tea: $3.50; Prawn kabob: $17.85.