I was lucky enough to have a front-row seat back in the high-flying days, when places like the Fifth Floor, Ana Mandara, Elisabeth Daniel, and Gary Danko were opening on a week-to-week basis (not to mention more modest delights like Blue Plate, La Villa Poppi, Rooster, Takara, Street, the Monte Carlo, and Alcatraces). So where does the retiring critic go nowadays for his celebratory final column? Although a few favorites came to mind -- Buca Giovanni, mc2, Yank Sing, Alfred's -- the indelible choice was always the Fairmont Hotel's Tonga Room. Not only is it the most delightfully kitschy nightspot in San Francisco, combining Polynesian décor, umbrella-sprouting cocktails, Lido Deck dance music, and an honest-to-God tropical downpour into one untidy package, but the place also reverberates with personal history.
My father attended the room's grand opening in 1946, and had such a good time that he had to sneak out the men's room window before the bill arrived. More recently, I headed for the Tonga to celebrate an upcoming three-month sojourn abroad and, after a few too many rum-laden drinks, accompanied the band's cover version of "Billie Jean" with a dance number my fellow celebrants still whisper about today. The Tonga is the perfect place to celebrate a bon voyage, a closing chapter, or, most important, the Giants winning the pennant.
This isn't to say that the cuisine is particularly inspired. The Tonga Room came into being during San Francisco's giddy, pleasure-loving postwar era, when the tiki exotica of Trader Vic Bergeron inspired such plastic-frond imitators as Trad'r Sam, Skipper Kent, Don the Beachcomber, and another Fairmont habitué, the Papagayo Room. The year the Tonga opened, Trader Vic wrote about the sort of quasi-Polynesian food he and his competitors were serving in Trader Vic's Book of Food and Drink: "Chinese, Javanese, or Tahitian dishes have been changed to suit American tastes for the simple reason that my customers, for the most part, like good food, well cooked and seasoned, but their taste buds aren't educated enough to take foreign dishes first hand with appreciation." The trouble with the Tonga Room's food is that the kitchen still subscribes to the Trader's tentative credo even though we San Franciscans have evolved enough by now to enjoy the flavors of the Pacific Rim. Although the map on the cover of the menu showcases the Kingdom of Tonga, an exotic-looking group of islands between Fiji and Tahiti, the menu itself is the same old Midwestern-Chinese business-as-usual.
Sweet-and-sour glop is a recurring culinary motif. It dominates the papaya salad, an otherwise attractive bushel of enoki, jicama, mixed greens, and (flavor-challenged) fruit. It overcompensates for the kung pao chicken's surprisingly tame nature. It smothers the Triple Delicacy -- shrimp, beef, chicken, and all -- and throttles the sautéed scallops and gulf prawns into submission. The potatoes, apples, raisins, and mint of the chicken curry are rendered indistinguishable from one another, and even the exquisite flavor of Maine lobster isn't allowed to shine, larded down as it is with some unidentifiable starchy substance.
The simpler dishes fare a bit better. The crab-meat and corn soup, while unremarkable, is warm and satisfying. The five-spice duck is not only tender, smoky, and pleasantly fatty, but it's also served atop a bed of creamy, slowly cooked onions. A whole striped bass is deep-fried, boned tableside, and served crisp and succulent, with much of its delicate flavor intact. Best of all is the pepper beef: thick fillets of juicy steak subtly accented with soy sauce and bok choy. For dessert, order the chocolate-macadamia tart, a dreamy concoction offered up in a buttery shortbread crust. The banana beignet, the coconut cream cake, the mango mousse pyramid, and even the Kona Kahlúa Diamond are singularly unimpressive, and the green tea crème brûlée tastes like crème brûlée with a few drops of green food coloring added.
But you don't go to the Tonga Room for the food. You go for the moment when thunder threatens from the far corners of the room, flashes of lightning streak across the ceiling, and a torrential rain pours down onto the old swimming pool, in which the band floats on a thatched-roof raft. You go for the totem poles, the tropical foliage, the ship's riggings, the immense fertility-god icons -- the whole thatched wicker/ Enchanted Tiki Room ambience. And you go for the cocktails: wondrous things served in ceramic vessels, hollowed-out pineapples, league-high flagons, and faux coconut shells, with tiny umbrellas, blossoming flora, and speared fruit overflowing from their rims. The Pineapple Royal, a simply delicious combination of rum, brandy, and pineapple juice, and the Pipeline, a mix of dark rum, creamy coconut, and orange juice in a surfer-motif beaker, are my two favorites. The best time to sample them is during happy hour, when a drink and six bucks entitles you to unlimited scarfing from the appetizer buffet. The overcooked chicken satay and the perfunctory coconut-coated prawns should be avoided, but you'll find delicate shrimp and spinach dim sum dumplings and perfectly tasty short ribs, chicken wings, and lumpia, too.
If sitting down and actually writing these damned columns has been the hardest part of being a restaurant critic, the best part was when my fellow diners and I would repair to a neighborhood saloon and discuss our restaurantgoing experience over a few rounds of drinks. Heading elsewhere after a night at the Tonga Room is often anticlimactic, but San Francisco is a city of watering holes, sidewalk cafes, dark little nightspots, family-run storefronts, and world-class restaurants. The hell of it is that most of them are worth exploring. Just remember to order the weird stuff, take public transit, and always tip big.