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Tiki Tired 

The new edition of Trader Vic's misses the boat

Wednesday, Feb 23 2005
I can't say I missed having a convenient Trader Vic's when I moved to San Francisco, even though, if you poked around in the back of my china closet, you'd find a few ceramic coconuts and grog mugs (from the days when the comically high price of certain of its tropical drinks included the container). These were souvenirs of the evenings when, every couple of years or so, it would seem like a good idea for a bunch of us to visit the Trader Vic's in the Beverly Hilton, for drinks and nibbles, thereby getting a double dose of kitsch, as somebody would inevitably bring up the fact that the hotel was owned by Merv Griffin. We weren't there for the food or the drinks, really, but for the décor: a sort of timeless Fantasy Island, Polynesian/ Hawaiian/Tahitian, heavy on the exotic woods and carved idols and such, all now labeled, generically, tiki. Was this style ever considered sophisticated? The place certainly charged sophisticated prices.

I knew from my childhood that Trader Vic (real name: Victor Jules Bergeron) had famously started his career as a restaurateur with a modest eatery called Hinky Dink's in Oakland in 1934. (He was always a favorite source of ink for Herb Caen, who liked to repeat this fact often in his columns.) Within a few years, he switched the name of the place to Trader Vic's. The San Francisco outpost opened in 1951, on Cosmo Alley, and I don't think I ever went there because I'd heard it was a pricey tourist trap. The original S.F. Trader Vic's closed almost 10 years ago, though locations remained in Emeryville and several other U.S. cities (as well as about 20 more around the world). Oddly, the first new Trader Vic's to open in the United States in 28 years was in Palo Alto, in 2001. And now there's a brand-new Trader Vic's in the old Stars space (wipe away a tear for the vanished talent of Jeremiah Towers) near Civic Center.

A couple of months ago, after seeing Philip Glass perform at Davies Symphony Hall, Tom and Monique and I were in the mood for a drink and a bite, so we wandered over. It was a Friday night, and the joint was jumping. We'd phoned as we walked for what I call an instant reservation, and when we arrived we were led almost immediately to a table in the big central bar room (which I later learned is called the Outrigger Room, because of the canoe suspended directly overhead).

That was the last time we were treated with alacrity. We had to beg for everything we received -- water, drinks, food -- and were served by a confusing number of waiters, who seemed themselves confused. But eventually we received our drinks and the items we'd ordered: "Cosmo tidbits" and fried calamari from the list headed "Tidbits and Finger Food," and crab cakes and the grammatically challenged "Tartare's of Scallops Opihi, Ahi Tuna Poke and Salmon Lomi Lomi" from "Starters."

The huge illustrated bar menu is a beautiful thing, though it is infuriatingly discreet on the actual composition of its drinks. (How can you tell a Zombie from a Fog Cutter if they both contain fruit juices and rum?) Monique, in a nonalcoholic mood -- unlike the many lively celebrants around us, riotously taking pictures with their cell phones when they weren't talking on them -- tried a virgin Mai Tai. (Did you know that Trader Vic invented the Mai Tai? He has much to answer for, especially since he is also often cited as the first fusion restaurateur.) I ordered a Suffering Bastard (bar lore has it that the name is corrupted from "Suffering Bar Steward"). Tom refused to go along with us to Tropical Drinkland, and stuck to pinot grigio. Our large drinks came filled with chipped ice, which quickly turned them watery (or more watery), and they tasted much the same to me, rum or no rum.

The crab cakes were uneventful, the three chilly tartares edible if not exciting (best was the ahi tuna poke; least authentic -- and that's probably a good thing -- the salmon lomi lomi). The tidbits, closest in spirit to the kitschy "pupu platter," were very '50s indeed: pork spareribs, crispy panko-crusted prawns (well, in the '50s, panko hadn't yet reached our shores), slices of barbecued pork, and the rarely seen crab Rangoon, a cocktail nibble of crab and not-very-Burmese cream cheese stuffed in a won ton wrapper and deep-fried. All of these items would have been more fun to eat if they hadn't been temperature-challenged. I asked our server for some Chinese mustard; he seemed nonplussed, but eventually (again) we received some. The plates were carefully decorated, but the cooking seemed careless. The best thing on the table was the fried calamari, with a slightly hot wasabi mayonnaise, but you can get good fried calamari nearly everywhere.

The combination of the noise, the disappointing drinks, and the undistinguished food meant, alas, that Trader Vic's wouldn't be a useful addition to my before-or-after-the-symphony-and-the-opera list (even though the bar stays open until midnight). But the restaurant had only been open a few days at that point -- we'd been on something of a shakedown cruise -- so I returned for dinner with Hiya and Jonathan a couple of months later.

I'd chosen my guests carefully, knowing they had a great appetite for both retro kitsch and cocktails. It was a quieter weeknight, and we got a table in an alcove off the main room, where we had a good view of the beautiful, huge wood-fired oven, given dramatic pride of place in a special glassed-in enclosure next to the open kitchen. We studied the menus, which listed all the worldwide Trader Vic's. Why, we wondered, are there four Trader Vic's in the United Arab Emirates, including two in the dubious Dubai, an entire city constructed as a tourist trap from the ground up? From the cocktail menu, we ordered a Zombie for Hiya, another Suffering Bastard for Jonathan (who prides himself on his own version of the drink, made with blue curaçao), and I went for the Menehune Juice, fatalistically, only because it comes with a toy Menehune (a Hawaiian forest sprite) stirrer, and I figured I might as well get a souvenir for my $9. Once again the drinks tasted eerily alike, as though there were a spigot on the bar connected to a huge tank of tropical mixer.

Hiya wanted crab cakes, and I was agreeable, because my memory of the ones I had had last time was dim. This time they were, indeed, forgettable (Hiya liked them more than I did, but I swiftly reminded her of the better versions we've shared, as recently as last month). I was perplexed that Jonathan had ordered the Trader Vic's salad when there were items on the menu called Beef Cho-Cho (complete with a flaming hibachi) and Cheese Bings, but he said he was intrigued by its Javanese dressing. It turned out to be a big, crunchy salad with hearts of palm, but the dressing tasted like a regular old vinaigrette to me. When we inquired what made it Javanese, we were told it had Asian ingredients, like shoyu sauce and hoisin. Well, I said, soy sauce is Japanese, hoisin is Chinese, so why call it Javanese? (When I called about this later, a staffer explained kindly, even charmingly, that it was a traditional Trader Vic name for a traditional Trader Vic recipe.) Unlike Jonathan, I had gone the choose-by-the-name route, and was pleasantly surprised by my Bongo Bongo soup, a smooth purée of spinach with a slight briny oyster tang, prettily glazed with a float of cream browned under a broiler or salamander. It was the best thing I had tasted here.

Our main courses came from three different menu headings: seared saku tuna from a list, headed "Entrees," of around a dozen fusion dishes (such as veal medallions with morel sauce, pake noodles -- whatever they are -- and asparagus); maple leaf duck breast "from the wood-fired oven," a collection of another 10 dishes; and lamb from the four choices under "Trader Vic's Calcutta Curries." (We skipped the Chinese dishes "from our woks," although I was, once again fatalistically, tempted by chicken chow mein at $18.)

The duck and the tuna, though not particularly exciting or boldly seasoned, were much better than I'd expected: The ingredients were good, the portions generous. The tuna tasted a little dull under its coating of (prominent) sesame seeds and (reticent) pink peppercorns, but it was fresh and sweet. I'd anticipated a much smokier duck ("the heating source, natural smoke and heat, is derived from split oak or seasoned wood ... the delicacies are slowly cooked, producing a unique and original flavor"), but it was ducky enough, although once again its Malagasy green peppercorn sauce was timid. The only loser on the table was my curry, which came with a tricky little compartmentalized side dish filled with sunflower seeds, raisins, chopped cucumber, chopped banana, shredded coconut, chutney, a nice mustardy chowchow, and one wan wedge of tomato, fun items to play with that failed to enliven the characterless small chunks of lamb drowned in a dark curry sauce whose clearest spicy note was that of heat.

We finished with a dessert sampler, not on the menu but offered by our server after Hiya asked what the gentlemen at a neighboring table were having. It turned out they were arranging a banquet, so our plate was different from theirs (and also different from what our server had told us we'd receive), but we were happy enough with our assortment -- a coffee crème brûlée, a couple of banana fritters with vanilla ice cream and rum sauce, and two chocolate items, a cake and a mousse -- especially since we washed them down with two dessert drinks, a tiny White Cloud (coconut, crème de cacao, and vodka) and a Black Stripe (honeyed spiced rum surprisingly served in a white china skull, with disappointing maraschino cherries hiding in its depths).

When I got home, I consulted the one Trader Vic's item on my bookshelves (he authored at least 10 titles, including a children's tale -- about the Menehunes -- and a Mexican cookbook), the Trader Vic's Bartender's Guide, Revised from 1972, and found that many of his 143 tropical drinks (including the Suffering Bastard and the Menehune Juice) feature the same thing in their recipes: Trader Vic's Mai Tai mix. Hmmm. When I read that Queen Elizabeth II visited the San Francisco Trader Vic's in 1983, and that it was the only public restaurant the queen ever visited, I felt, for the first time, a sudden wave of pity for her.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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