Trader Vic's used to be larger than life. Celebrities and society column nabobs jockeyed for tables, and queens and kings and presidents gathered to talk politics over egg rolls and Mai Tais.
But the Beautiful People, who once flocked there in droves, decided long ago that Trader Vic's was so over. They moved on to other places even more sexy, more exclusive--establishments where they didn't have to worry about being hit up by autograph-seeking fans as they stumbled out of the bathroom after drinking too many drinks capped by little umbrellas. Now us commoners can take our family there for special occasions and wonder at the old menus and say, "Gee, back in 1942 a beer was cheap."
Most people refuse to believe that Trader Vic's started in Oakland, on the corner of 65th and San Pablo. It's much easier to believe that this chain was born on the beaches of Hawaii or Tahiti or any other tropical place where people walk around all day clad in only a thong and a slather of sunscreen.
But Oakland? A friend of mine actually lost ten bucks on a bet; he stubbornly insisted that Trader Vic's originated in London, or at the very least, New York. He still couldn't quite believe it when a friend pulled out some proof--a pamphlet from the restaurant. I knew what he meant. I was guilty of believing that the chain started in San Francisco, can you imagine?
Trader Vic's was the dream of globetrotting culinary buccaneer Victor J. Bergeron. He was born in 1902 and died in 1984. In between, he opened up the original Trader Vic's restaurant in 1932. Now eighteen Trader Vic's span the globe, and at this very moment, architects in Cairo, Egypt and Fukuoka, Japan are drawing up blueprints for more. If you find yourself shanghaied in Singapore, there's an ice-cold kamikaze waiting for you there. If you're lonesome for a faraway isle as you winter in Düsseldorf, don't despair, there's a Trader Vic's!
As we drove up to the faux-thatched building and had the valet park the car (hey--it's the only kind of parking there is), I felt a rush similar to the thrill I had when I first stood in line for "Pirates of the Caribbean" so long ago. First to greet us was a table full of all manner of Trader Vic's merchandise.
Trader Vic's is "Home of the Mai Tai" and just as Pat O'Brien's in New Orleans peddles its famous Hurricane mixes, you can purchase powdered Mai Tai drinks at the restaurant. Not only that: you can buy T-shirts, paper umbrellas, and other Trader Vic's stuff so you can replicate the magic when you arrive back at your boring old home.
Although I knew in my heart that Trader Vic's was well past its prime, I still had expectations. When I saw the merchandise, I realized my expectations were perhaps too high. It felt like Benihana and the Hard Rock Café all over again. Besides, there were no bejeweled celebrities tossing back Mai Tais, as Herb Caen had promised so long ago. Nor was there even a smug werewolf drinking a piña colada, knowing, of course, that his hair was perfect.
The place was crowded that Friday evening, but only with limo-loads of swanky teenagers pretending to be sophisticated grown-ups. Turns out they were having a pre-prom dinner.
If you've never gone to Trader Vic's but thought to yourself, "Hey, I bet it's decorated with tiki idols," well, you'd be correct. Mammoth carved tiki idols scowl down on the vast dining room. For that nautical touch, old bronze diving equipment is scattered here and there, and shellacked sport fish and turtle shells hang from the ceiling. We waited for our table underneath a large picture of a tight-lipped Queen Elizabeth and a sour-looking Prince Philip.
The view overlooking the bay was predictably gorgeous, with mini waves lapping on the craggy shoreline. The correlation is well known: the more stunning the view, the more terrible the food. As sundown approached, the view grew more exquisite by the minute, and that's when I really started to worry. In an effort to assuage my fears, I opened the drink menu and tried to ignore the impending glorious sunset.
In addition to the celebrated Mai Tai, there is a drink called the "Suffering Bastard," which I suppose is an accurate prediction of how you'd feel after knocking back a few. My dining companion and I made fun of the drink menu for about half an hour which, in retrospect, was the best part of the evening. I didn't feel like rum, which eliminated about 75 percent of the drink selection. I finally decided on the "Captain's Big Ohu" ($10), although I thought it strange that some rugged swashbuckler favored ladylike champagne over more machismo rum. Not that I'm implying anything about the Captain's masculinity.
I had a nagging suspicion that something combining champagne, gin, and mysterious "pleasant liqueurs" was a potentially frightening libation. My suspicions were correct.
Ramona ordered the "Manehune Juice" ($9). The drink, in typically cryptic Trader Vic's fashion, was described as containing "rum and nectars." Mysterious! It also came with a plastic little man that she played with all evening.
As Ramona played with her man, I looked at the extensive menu. Although Trader Vic's specializes in seafood, there is also a lengthy section for "oriental food," and you won't have a problem getting a steak. Specials are also offered daily. We ordered two appetizers, one that staple of the tropics, cheese bings ($9). We didn't want to go overboard, but we were eyeing the chicken satay ($9) as well. For entrées, we went with one of the specials, the Chilean sea bass wrapped in a banana leaf ($21), and the mahi mahi encrusted with macadamias ($19).
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