By Molly Gore
By Lou Bustamante
By Anna Roth
By Anna Roth
By Anna Roth
By Anna Roth
I was preparing for an evening of gulping and masticating when I happened to notice that I was putting on a necktie. Since I've donned a tie on fewer than half a dozen occasions during my dozen years as a restaurant critic, it was a noteworthy moment. I reflected. The other times I did so on company time were for a variety of not necessarily culinary reasons: a farewell dinner, a high-toned brunch, the sorts of get-togethers at which a touch of class lends a note of respect or interest. Occasionally, in the plusher dining palaces, the tie was employed in sartorial self-defense. This time was different, though. This time I was going to Trader Vic's.You don't have to wear a necktie to get into Trader Vic's; in fact I can't think of any place anymore where you have to wear a necktie. This is a departure. Back in the day, when San Francisco's elite could make dining out as viscerally snobbish an exercise as it still is in Paris and New York, the San Francisco branch of Trader Vic's (and its lushly upholstered inner sanctum, the Captain's Cabin) was our own Stork Club. Hans Brandt, the Trader's trusted captain, saw to the culinary desires of his mink-swathed clientele like a suave, soothing family retainer. Even Lucius Beebe, that chronicler of all things hoity-toity, bestowed his blessings on the place, deigning to write the introduction to Trader Vic's Book of Food and Drink. ("During the war years battle-scarred warriors in New Caledonia and Tunisia dreamed of the cool, dim recesses of Vic's, of illimitable vistas of Planter's Punches and steaks Hawaiian as big as barrelheads," et seq.)
I have the Book of Food and Drink at hand as we speak, and Trader Vic's Kitchen Kibitzer too. My corner grocery store features in its aisles tubs of Trader Vic's Hot Buttered Rum Batter and Trader Vic's Tom and Jerry Batter and, for all I know, Trader Vic's Navy Grog Mix. And in home kitchens across the continents, blenders are buzzing with the base ingredients to the Trader's most reverberative concoction, the Mai Tai, far from its birthplace in Oakland, Calif.
It was in Oakland in 1932 that Victor Bergeron Jr. opened a pub across San Pablo Avenue from his father's grocery store and started serving his clientele goofy tropical cocktails and Americanized island grub, aided and abetted by South Pacific paraphernalia he had obtained over the years. By 1936 young Herb Caen was writing that "the best restaurant in San Francisco is in Oakland," and the rest is history: a veneer of refinement (a startling development, given the rambunctious machismo that leaps from the pages of the Kitchen Kibitzer), an expanding empire of chain restaurants (18 at last count, including locations in Bangkok, Singapore, and Düsseldorf) and food products (the aforementioned batters have been selling like hot cakes for 62 years), the inevitable imitations (Trad'r Sam's, Don the Beachcomber, the Tonga Room), and even a few contemporary-fusion descendants (checked out Ponzu yet?), all of them aglimmer with that Jungle Cruise amalgam of Polynesian kitsch and gleaming napery.
Emeryville, CA 94608
Happy hour with complimentary appetizers Monday through Friday 4:30 to 7 p.m.
Reservations recommended. Wheelchair accessible. Free valet parking.
Public transit: Call Emery-Go-Round at (510) 451-3862.
Noise level: convivial.
Mai Tai $7.25
Beef Cho-Cho $7
Bongo Bongo Soup $6
Seafood taro nest $21
Macadamia-crusted mahi-mahi $19
Kona ice cream flambé $6
The San Francisco Vic's has been closed for nearly a decade but the flagship restaurant is still in the East Bay, though it's moved from its San Pablo Avenue birthplace to large and comfortable quarters at the Emeryville Marina. The water views provide an appropriate backdrop as you're bellying up to the bar, which is the best part of going to Trader Vic's. Here you can survey the surrounding tiki and antique firearms and angrified alligators and other Gilligan-esque icons while congenial, expert bartenders in tropical shirts mix up one technicolor cocktail after another. Primary among them is the aforementioned Mai Tai, a concoction of rum, lime juice, curaçao, orgeat, shaved ice, and fresh mint that was invented a few miles from here in 1944. On that fabled night, Vic served the first one to a Tahitian-American buddy who called it mai tai-roa ae ("outta this world -- the best" in his native tongue). The drink itself is beautifully balanced, disarmingly uncloying, and very tasty.
Another classic, the Piña Colada, is as delicious as a scoop of sherbet, a tall icy snowball tasting of coconut and pineapple with white rum sneaking in at the fringes. The Doctor Funk of Tahiti, which was allegedly invented in Papeete as a cure for heat prostration, combines two kinds of dark rum with lime, lemon, seltzer, and the licoriced aroma of Herbsaint, with truly medicinal results. The Pogo Stick is a different story altogether: no rum, just gin, pineapple, and grapefruit, and as a result it's the most refreshing cocktail on the menu.
My favorite offering, though, is the Scorpion. It encapsulates, in potable form, the entire Trader Vic's ethos: The brew (a couple of light rums tinged with orange, lemon, almond liqueur, and brandy) is served ice cold in what can only be described as a soup bowl with a fresh gardenia floating on top. The drink sneaks up on you (it's like sipping a good agua fresca, and before you know it you're really, really happy), and every time I lifted the bowl to my mouth (a two-handed job) I got a whiff of the gardenia, which added an undefinable something to the flavor combinations and reminded me of my senior prom at the same time.