January 25, 2024

Photo Essay: The Tonga Room, A Tiki Bar Survivor of Some Near Misses

I hadn't been to San Francisco for any proper amount of time since 2006—and back then, the only tiki bar in the area I knew about was the now-closed Trader Vic's. 

I didn't find out about the other Bay Area tiki bars until well after I'd returned home. 

And since then, the Tonga Room has been on my bucket list. 

Oh, I did make it to SF for a couple of hours in 2022. My friends and I even made it to Forbidden Island in Alameda on that trip. 

But I had much more tiki-ing to do. 

Google Street View circa Feb. 2023

So when I finally got back to the city by the bay earlier this month, I made sure to cross some more off my list—Pagan Idol, Zombie Village, Smugglers Cove, and, of course Tonga Room.

It's located in perhaps the unlikeliest of places—the basement of the Beaux Arts-style Fairmont Hotel at the top of Nob Hill. 

The rideshare driver had dropped me off at the side door of the hotel on California Street, which is the closest entrance to the Tonga Room—but I missed the sign and awning that would've indicated I was in the right place. 
So I ended up going into the hotel's front entrance, through its opulent, marble-pillared lobby and domed Laurel Court restaurant, and down two flights of stairs through the famed 1907 luxury hotel.

I think I probably first caught wind of the Tonga Room when it was announced in 2009 that it would close—a surefire way to pique my interest. Turns out, not only does the space date back to 1945 (though not "tiki" yet), but it had also been built on top of and around the hotel's circa 1929 swimming pool, the former Terrace Plunge!

My Friday night dinner at a poolside table for one put me under thick thatching and floater lights, surrounded by the remnants of the S.S. Forester (which date back to a circa 1967 tiki-fication of the restaurant, according to SF Gate)...

...right next to the floating barge that functions as a bandstand in the center of the room, in the middle of the 75-foot "lagoon" (but safe from the thunder and lightning that would occasionally strike). 
The band (The Island Groove) was surprisingly good, despite the odd and culturally inappropriate repertoire they performed—everything from Jimmy Buffett's "Margaritaville" to Lionel Richie's faux-African party anthem "All Night Long" and the complete non-sequitur of "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" by Tears for Fears.

Personally I thought their particular milieu should stay in the vicinity of Yacht Rock. But it would be nice to hear some Pacific Islander/Pacifika musicians playing some authentic music from the South Pacific (like, maybe the nation of Tonga??) so it doesn't totally feel like a cheesy wedding reception version of a tiki bar. But whatever they choose to play, it's a nice continuation of the historic dinner entertainment when an orchestra would play on a floating stage all the way back in 1945.

Like many tiki palace restaurants, Tonga Room's food menu is a hodge-podge of pan-Asian influences—I had the miso salmon with kimchi fried rice and grilled bok choy, which was excellent by the way—but I'm guessing most guests go there for the drinks, like the infamous Zombie. 

They used to serve their tiki drinks in tiki mugs, but too many customers stole them—so now you get your mai tais in clear glasses and have to buy your own mugs (which, of course, I did). 

I can see why Anthony Bourdain had such a good time at the Tonga Room during an episode of his Travel Channel show The Layover

Do I need to go back? Maybe not. 

Unless it's threatened for closure again (which wouldn't surprise me, given what an anachronism it is with the rest of the hotel—not to mention the changing times). 

Then it would be good to say goodbye. 

Related Posts:

1 comment:

  1. A local treasure that should be kept thriving.