Tiki Tired

The new edition of Trader Vic's misses the boat

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).

Trading Space: Vic's Outrigger Room, in 
timeless Fantasy Island style.
Anthony Pidgeon
Trading Space: Vic's Outrigger Room, in timeless Fantasy Island style.

Location Info

Map

Trader Vic's

9 Anchor
Emeryville, CA 94608

Category: Restaurant > Eclectic

Region: Emeryville

Details

Fried calamari $9
Bongo Bongo soup $7
Seared tuna $26
Duck breast $22
Dessert sampler $15
White Cloud $7

775-6300

Open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday from 4 to 10 p.m.

Reservations accepted

Wheelchair accessible

Parking: valet $9, otherwise difficult

Muni: 5, 47, 49

Noise level: moderate to high

555 Golden Gate (at Van Ness)

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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.

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