As one of the original tiki bars in the United States, the Tonga Room guards its 71 years of tradition with great pride. And if you’ve ever visited this tropical getaway underneath the Fairmont Hotel, you’d know exactly why. An immersive, Polynesian-themed interior, straddling a turquoise pool — with its own intermittent rainstorms — it is the quintessential representation of the genre.
Elevating the ideal is typically a foolhardy endeavor. So when the bar recently took to modernizing sections of its menu — several years after the previous remodel — it was for damn good reason. The tiki trend continues to expand and evolve, and for all its OG street cred, the Tonga Room finds itself vying for relevance in the era of Pagan Idol and Smuggler’s Cove.
“This menu is more of a ‘craft’ tiki menu,” explains Addison Jolley, the Tonga Room’s manager. “We have broken it up into two parts: Classic Tiki and Modern Tiki. The classic tiki cocktails are original recipes that we have dug out and brought back to life.”
These include ingredient-driven drinks made precisely as they were in the 1930s and early ’40s, around the time tiki was invented here in the Bay Area. The 1934 Zombie, for example, follows exactly the recipe laid out by Don the Beachcomber, the so-called “Godfather of Tiki.” His recipe called for absinthe, pomegranate, and falernum — a syrupy cordial containing nuts and spices that’s more or less a sexier orgeat — to join the assortment of rums and citrus juices that have come to characterize present-day bastardizations. This faithful re-creation invites subtle herbal notes to the party, rounding out those sweeter edges.
For those looking to skew bitter, the Jungle Bird is a dusted-off classic worthy of consideration. Invented in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in the mid ’70s, it combines a dark, oak-laden rum from St. Croix, with Campari and pineapple. The result is a sort of island Negroni.
Half a dozen distinct concoctions conceived on-site are what anchor the other side of the menu.
“The modern tiki cocktails are a mix of original cocktails with a ‘Tonga’ twist,” Jolley says. This is where you’ll find boozy elixirs with playful names like the Hurry Kane — a startlingly convincing balancing act of over-proof rum, Cognac, and port — or the Adult Swim (vodka and coconut, bonded under orgeat’s floral tones).
“Each cocktail is very unique,” Jolley points out, extolling the greatest virtue of the changes here. “Each one tastes very different than the other,”
Too many tiki menus exist as mere rearrangements of the same basic rums, fruit juices, and syrups. Tonga’s new list draws from an eclectic smattering of ingredients to arrive at a kaleidoscopic conclusion. This is before you even consider the Monk Walks into a Luau, a large-format arrangement for up to four drinkers. It’s an improbable fusion of cachaça and Chartreuse, earthier and far more elegant than anything that usually ends up in a punch bowl.
In modernizing its menu, the Tonga Room was careful not to tinker with its most precious formula: pure escapism. The transportive decor here isn’t ever going to change. (Whew.) So long as it serves that, it will remain a revered tourist destination. But as its home city continues to drive the craft cocktail scene forward, this historic watering hole clearly craves local attention. Now’s as good a time as any to pay your respect.
Tonga Room, inside the Fairmont Hotel, 950 Mason St., 415-772-5278 or tongaroom.com.