Although I’m a self-professed foodie (okay, fine, I’m a food and drink snob), I fully admit that sometimes you just have to look the other way – culinarily speaking, that is. And it’s not always a matter of “taking one for the team” in group outings. In fact, one of my favorite bars in all of San Francisco has terrible cocktails; the drinks at the Fairmont Hotel’s Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar flaunt just about every rule of fine mixology. They’re dispassionately made with mediocre liquors and the same bottled mixers you’d find at BevMo. They are incredibly sweet and all kind of taste alike. They come with umbrellas and bear hokey names like “The Bora Bora Horror.” And worst of all, they’re expensive.
So why do I keep going back to the Tonga Room? Well, it’s an experience like no other. The tiki-themed bar and restaurant was once the grand hotel’s indoor swimming pool, and was transformed into a South Pacific paradise in the 1940s. The pool itself remains as the centerpiece of the now-restaurant, and serves as a kelpy lagoon upon which the skies open every thirty minutes; like clockwork, the thunder rolls, lightning flashes, and a strategically arranged sprinkler system releases “rain” down onto the pool. And when it’s not raining, a band plays on a raft that floats in the middle of the lagoon. Elsewhere in the dining room, the deck and riggings from an actual ship serve as a buffet area and dance floor. Thatched roofs hang over dining tables, and palm trees and bamboo abound.
It’s tacky, hokey, and completely fun. Even though it’s a tourist trap, when I lived nearby I would take friends there at every chance, and now I try to visit whenever I’m in the neighborhood. What I like most about the Tonga Room is that it’s authentically kitsch – after all, this is no retro-tiki establishment of modern conception. The Tonga Room was doing tiki when it first became a fad, kept at it long after it went out of style, and hung in there until it came back into fashion again. It’s a time capsule that has somehow managed to survive for more than half a century.
Sadly, the Tonga Room may not be around much longer. The Fairmont Hotel is being considered for conversion into condominiums, and current plans do not mention preservation of this longstanding San Francisco institution. I sure hope I don’t have to say goodbye to this temple of tiki – but until then, I’ll write a few letters to the powers that be and drink as many Mai Tais as I can.
A Mai Tai, complete with over-the-top garnishes.
This is the only place you'll catch me drinking a blue cocktail.