The Modernist Chinese Faze
San Francisco Tiki Bar Tour
by Otto von Stroheim
Trader Vics, Tonga Room, Bamboo Hut, Hawaii West, LiLo Lounge, Tradr Sams
I would like to propose a Tiki tour of SF that wont leave you disappointed
First stop is Trader Vics in Emeryville just over the Bay Bridge (Powell exit). 9 Anchor Drive 510-653-3400
Trader Vics is by far the best of the Bay. Here you will be treated like royalty (i.e. with respect, as a valued customer) by hostess Claudette and the entire staff. Of course the drinks are excellent: ranking ten on a scale of ten. Food is hit or miss but mostly really good if not overpriced. All of the appetizers are tasty and I can actually only vouch for the delicious Calcutta Curry (more like a Japanese style curry) because it is the only vegetarian dish. But you wont need to worry about that if you are arriving during the week because Trader Vics has the best Happy Hour deal in the Bay area (4-6 Mon - Fri except holidays, call ahead to confirm). Arrive early and eat FREE food that is replenished til 5:30 or so. It is important that you eat here because you will not want to touch the food at your next stop, the Tonga Room. Drinks are about half price. Unfortunately you cannot get the San Francisco style Mai Tai at Happy Hour unless you pay full price but that might be worth it to get real fresh squeezed lime juice versus canned. You can park outside of the lot on the street and walk in if you want to save a few bucks but the valet is complimentary so you need only tip.
Dont spend all your money on Mai Tais as you may want to buy a T-shirt, baseball cap, or gold plated Tiki cuff links along with some drink mixers for your friends. Leave by 5:30 in order to arrive at the next stop in time to get parking
Then head over to the Tonga. 950 Mason Street 415-772-5278
To get parking you need to arrive at 6 or just after when Sacramento Street changes from no parking to parking. Sacramento runs parallel to California and is a one way street running uphill from Powell toward Mason. The Tonga Room is a San Francisco landmark: legendary for its indoor rainstorms and band-on-a-boat entertainment, not to mention its position in the historical and opulent Fairmont Hotel at the top of Nob Hill (historically one of San Franciscos most wealthy neighborhoods) It is in the base of the hotel at Powell and California but you usually cant get in the doors there so you have to enter on the California Street side or through the front doors on Mason. Dont miss the diorama at the opposite end of the hall next to the elevators and the historic photos on the wall showing the original S.S. Tonga in its streamlined steamship days. When entering the Tonga and look for complimentary postcards at the front counter. Hang a sharp right and sit at the bar.
The Tonga Rooms service is notoriously slow and the management are complete assholes (more on that later) so cut to the chase by dealing only with the bartenders who are cool. Note the waterfall behind the bar which is now out of service and the big screen TV thoughtfully added by the management. Happy Hour is from 5 - 7 Mon - Fri during which time the drink menu is limited but the available drinks are the best ones (except for the Pipeline which is my favorite). Also during Happy Hour the drinks are not served in Tiki mugs which makes the Happy Hour a little less happy. Ask to view the regular bar menu (even though you cant order from it) and look on the back to see the artwork that Tonga outright stole from the Mai Kai! Sometimes they short change the ice in the drinks so ask for a glass of ice or ice water when you order. A buffet is also available but it is a very poor deal at $6.00 per person for mediocre food. If you are not there during Happy Hour dont dare try the normal menu as it is old school Chinese food with no apologies and overpriced to boot. Take a walk around the room and take in the lush fake plants and wealth of Tiki decor. The rainstorm happens every 20 minutes so if you have one drink you can usually view two rainstorms. I recommend you bolt after one drink and move to more hospitable environs. At eight the worst lounge band I have every seen – and when I say bad I mean bad – comes floating out on the small barge into the middle of the pool. This might sound exciting but it is really no big deal and definitely worth missing considering drink prices go up to full rate and everyone in the house gets hit with a $3.00 entertainment cover fee! First of all whoever heard of charging a cover for a lounge band, especially when youre paying $7.50 for drinks? (By comparison, The Hong Kong Inn in Ventura offers a complimentary full hula show with dinner on Friday and Saturday) Second of all, you will be charged this fee even if you have already been there for a while and are just trying to finish your drink. The policy used to be that the waiter would not even notify you of the charge, they would simply add it to your bill, but enough people complained that now the waiter/waitress lets you know that if you stay you will have to pay $3.00 for nothing. In fact, you will have to pay $3.00 for something you probably would prefer not to have. The management is very adamant about the fee and adheres to it over the wishes of their customers – if you refuse to pay the $3.00 they will throw you out! Also, dont ever go to Tonga on Friday or Saturday night after 8 pm. It is usually packed with convention going tourists trying to live it up in San Francisco.
If you do not have a car begin your tour at the Tonga by taking the California Street cable car which starts at The Embarcadero Bart/Muni stop where Calif. meets Market. Get off at Mason, not Powell, and walk in through the front doors. You can also take the Powell street Cable car but you will have to wait in line and it will be packed full of tourists. The cable car is $2.00 per person, pay after boarding. To get back into town you can take the Powell cable car down the hill. Sometimes if it is really packed the attendant cannot reach you to ask for fare!
From the Tonga it is a short drive (or long walk) to the Chinatown and North Beach areas.
Have a quick look and a drink if you care to at the Tiki bar dive known as Hawaii West (729 Vallejo near Stockton). As reviewed in Tiki News #11, Hawaii West can be frequented by surly locals but the management is at least more accommodating than the Tonga Room. From Hawaii West walk (even if you have a car) down Columbus and turn left on Broadway.
About one and one half blocks down, past the strip clubs, you will find the Bamboo Hut (479 Broadway past Kearny). Adjacent to and owned by the Hi Ball, the Hut is Tiki floor to ceiling – if you cant get a blowfish lamped booth then sit at the bar where one of the better bartenders in town, Stevie, will serve you. This place has a small rock waterfall with fake thunderstorms just like the Tonga Room but without the indoor rain. For a bit of history, mounted above the waterfall is an artifact at least from the late 50s from a defunct Sacramento Tiki bar called the Coral Reef. Almost every night there are DJs that play non-Tiki music so it is best to get there as early as possible to avoid the loud music and cover charge, but even with the DJs it is still a must-visit destination.
From here you will need a car to drive across town to the Potrero Hill area where you will find the LiLo Lounge at the corner of 18th Street and Connecticut (415-643-5678). Owners Mark and Sebastien are not only much nicer than the folks at the Tonga Room, they are a billion times cooler. The drinks are on the fruity side but all were invented by Mark and the bartenders so you gotta give em credit for that. The atmosphere is warm and the food is excellent. they are open til 2 am 7 days a week but sometimes have house music DJs that can blast you off your barstool. But unlike the Tonga there is no cover for the entertainment so you can stay all night and if you sit along the side wall you can take in a spectacular view of downtown SF!
If you are in town for more than one night and you want to cover it all drive (or take a long bus ride) down Geary Street to Tradr Sams (6150 Geary Bl. 415-221-0773). This neighborhood bamboo bar used to be divey but now is very popular with the younger crowd. They have a long drink menu but every time I was there the bartenders either didnt know how to make the drinks or the recipes sucked. The drinks usually err on the strong side. I think the sign out front is the best part of this bar.
Here is an article from issue #11.
The Tonga Room by Baby Doe
Another foggy cool night in San Francisco, we slid through the fanciful Fairmont hotel lobby and into The Tonga Room to catch a drink before Happy Hour is officially over. Somehow one PipeLine turns into two, and everything is getting a little bit fuzzy. I turn from my seatat the bar toward the tropical storm that has erupted over this exotic restaurant, and Iam reminded that this isn't the usual watering hole. But what is the history of this place? How did The Fairmont Hotel end up with the best Tiki joint in town? As a Tonga Itch is ordered for me, I make a promise to myself (say this in slurred speech) I'm gunna get to the bottom of The Tonga Room mystery. Early the next day, well not that early, I set out on my new mission.
Long before the Tiki Gods cast their spell on the Fairmont Hotel.... it was 1906 and the hotel was ready to open its doors to the well-to-do and famous when the San Andreas Fault caused the earth to shake for 47 seconds. The earthquake left the hotel intact except that by noon the following day the Fairmont was gutted by the menacing fire that had engulfed the majority of San Francisco. Due to good construction the Fairmont still stood. Serving as a symbol of a reborn city The Fairmont was able to open exactly one year later.
The home of the future Tonga Room (the corner of Powell Street and California) was first the Norman Hall, which boasted being the largest banquet room east of Chicago. In 1929 it became the hotels swimming pool The Terrace Plunge (at left). In September of 1945 The Plunge closed to be re-opened as a restaurant, The S.S. Tonga. This restaurant was in a maritime style. Elements of the decor included: cloud and sunset effects painted on walls, a simulated ship built beside the pool, and a promenade deck to overlook the water. At this time no dancing or musical entertainment was offered. It was not til the late 1950s that Hawaiian music, the scent of gardenias, a floating raft for live bands, and simulated tropical storms graced what was now called The Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar. The bar featured exotic tropical drinks such as the Tonga Tabu, Honolulu Cocktail, and Tonga Red (all of which are no longer available). But still the Tiki Gods were not present. The Tonga Room would go through one more faze before becoming the Polynesian Paradise it is today. In the 60s the maritime shipboard ambiance was abandoned for a more exotic influence. Angular swirl patterns on the walls, bamboo sticks, palm trees, chinese lanterns, and a lowered ceiling gave the Tonga a Modernist Chinese atmosphere.
In April of 1967 Oceanic Arts worked with Howard Hirsch & Associates on the re-designing of The Tonga Room. By December of 1967 Oceanic Arts started to supply most of the decor and completed the job by 1968. Oceanic Arts describes some of the supplied decor as: A couple dozen glass floats, rattan chains, heavy ropes, rice thatch, thatch panels, a 7 hand carved Tongan Tiki, and a 9 hand carved Tongan Tiki. Easter Island style shakers and Tiki bowls were also used from this time until the early 90s (Unfortunately, they eventually met their demise at the hands of thieves). Today new Orchids of Hawaii mugs are being used, as well as, rendered on menu. The backside of the menu boasts that the Tonga Room dance floor itself was built from the remains of the SS Forester, a four masted lumber schooner that once traveled between San Francisco and the South Seas Islands.
Usually I bypass the Fairmont lobby when going to the Tonga Room. I prefer walking on Powell Street toward California where there is mural on the hotel wall stating: Paradise is just around the corner- The Tonga Room. As I turn the corner I know the Tiki Gods are smiling.