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Hail the Tiki!

Hail the Tiki!

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TikiIf you haven't seen a Tiki lounge somewhere along the way, you've probably been living under a rock for the last 60 years. The Polynesian theme invaded taverns across the country back before World War II. Places like Don the Beachcomber's or Trader Vic's made fruity rum drinks all the rage. But don't stop there! You'll miss a bunch of fun if you do!

Disney fans are no strangers to the Tiki theme. From Disneyland with the Tiki Room and the Tahitian Terrace to Disneyworld and the Polynesian Hotel right up to "Lilo & Stitch" with Ohana, we're all set to enjoy ourselves!

But just how far are you willing to go to embrace this laid back lifestyle? Well, it doesn't take a whole closet of Hawaiian shirts or proficiency with the ukulele. All you need is a little imagination and a taste for adventure!

Let us go back a bit and look at one guy. He knew what folks wanted and gave it to them. Now depending on how many of those fruity rum drinks you may have had, here is a tale of how worth the telling.

Famed author and bon vivant Lucius Beebe had the following to say in the introduction to the 1946 original edition of the "Trader Vic's Book of Food and Drink":

Lucius Beebe"There is, in the better saloons which handily line both sides of San Francisco's Market Street and overflow into the precincts of Union Square and Nob Hill in gratifying profusion, a legend, carefully nourished and cherished by its principal, that Trader Vic's missing leg was long ago chewed off in tropic waters by an embittered man-eating shark. There is, of course, another school of thought, emanating from the less choice whisky-sling bazaars of the Mission District, which holds this tale to be no more than a base canard, a romantic fiction dreamed up by Trader Vic himself to gloss over the true circumstance; i.e. that he became one of the world's notable peglegs after an unseemly and riotous encounter with a Powell Street cable car.

Trader Vic's disdain for mongers of this low libel almost equals his disdain -- a very great disdain indeed -- for customers at his Oakland trading post who are found to be possessed of insufficient funds to meet their obligations, or who become boisterous after sampling his wares.

Trader Vic's, however, is really a great deal more than just an Oakland institution. Its influence is as wide as the Pacific and as deep as a Myrtle Bank Punch. In the back room of the stately Plaza of far-off New York pious and determined scholars have been known to rise from the table, command transportation to LaGuardia Airport, and embark for Trader Vic's to learn the true proportions and properties of a Southern Cross. During the war years battle-scarred warriors in New Caledonia and Tunisia, who would rather have been bottle-scarred, dreamed of the cool, dim recesses of Vic's, of illimitable vistas of Planter's Punches and steaks Hawaiian as big as barrelheads.

Vic's trading post is long on atmosphere, and it is possible for the ambitious patron with a talent for chaos to get into more trouble with obsolete anchors, coiled hawsers of boa-constrictor dimensions, fish nets, stuffed sharks, capstans, long boats, ship's bells, Hawaiian ceremonial costumes, tribal drums, boathooks, and small bore cannon than the waiters can drag him out of in a week. In surroundings conducive to a certain amount of nautical hooray the clients engage in stirring skirmishes with Fish House Punch and Queen's Park Swizzles and are apt to break into old chanteys and seamen's songs if not tactfully discouraged.

But Vic is more than a merchant of South Sea atmosphere. He is deserving of public esteem on two counts: first, he has been the most notable apostle of rum in the confined definition of the word in the contemporary record; second, he has contrived to make oriental food not only sound enchanting but also extremely edible. This gastronomic miracle shows up all other vendors of bamboo shoots and pressed duck as the merest traffickers in baled ensilage and coolie fodders of dubious nutritional value. Chop-suey barons in numbers past counting have waxed criminally wealthy through the circumstance that boiled grass and peanuts are inexpensive merchandise and that patrons of chop-suey stores will eat anything anyway. But not Trader Vic."

The legend of the Trader actually has a humble beginning. His father, Victor Jules Bergeron, was well established as a waiter at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel, and grocer on San Pablo Avenue across the Bay in Oakland. Victor Junior, the son could not help being exposed to the family business. Living in an apartment above the grocery, it was natural that he would help out. It was a childhood accident (not as described above by Mr. Beebe) that took his leg, and he was forever adding to the stories when the need arose.

In 1932, he opened his first pub with the support of family and friends. Across the street from the family store, he called it "Hinky Dinks", and it became legendary among the watering holes of Northern California. For many of his patrons, this would be their first sample of potent and exotic tropical concoctions -- both victuals and potables! Polynesian classics were interpreted for the locals with style and flair.

By 1936, the name had changed to "Trader Vic's", with the Trader a popular host with "a pungent vocabulary and a ribald air". When the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition opened, the reputation of this little favorite soared. During the war, it became a preferred spot for many of the men and women both coming from and going to points in the Pacific Theater.

Perhaps the single greatest accomplishment to which the Trader can claim credit for is the creation of the legendary Mai Tai. From the Trader Vic's web pages:

Trader Vic's Mai Tai mix"In 1944, after success with several exotic rum drinks, I felt a new drink was needed. I thought about all the really successful drinks; martinis, manhattans, daquiris... All basically simple drinks.

I was at the service bar in my Oakland restaurant. I took down a bottle of 17-year-old rum. It was J. Wray Nephew from Jamaica; surprisingly golden in color, medium bodied, but with the rich pungent flavor particular to the Jamaican blends. The flavor of this great rum wasn't meant to be overpowered with the heavy additions of fruit juices and flavorings. I took a fresh lime, added some orange curacao from Holland, a dash of Rock Candy Syrup, and a dollop of French Orgeat, for its subtle almond flavor. A generous amount of shaved ice and vigorous shaking by hand produced the marriage I was after. Half the lime shell went in for color... I stuck in a branch of fresh mint and gave two of them to Ham and Carrie Guild, friends from Tahiti, who were there that night. Carrie took one sip and said, "Mai Tai - Roa Ae". In Tahitian this means "Out of This World - The Best". Well, that was that. I named the drink "Mai Tai"."

(Having enjoyed my fair share of "hand-made" "Mai Tai's" at both the San Francisco and Emeryville locations, I can attest that this concoction is all that and more!)

In 1951, a new location opened on Cosmo Alley on San Francisco's Nob Hill. As popular as ever, it featured a private dining room called "The Captain's Cabin". While I personally didn't dine there, my parents enjoyed entertaining the members of their wedding party one anniversary. My siblings and I celebrated their 40th anniversary in the Captain Cook room of the Emervyille location several years back.

Trader Vic's  menu

The highlight of the San Francisco location's history was in 1983 when it was visited by royalty.

During her visit to America, Queen Elizabeth II, who was touring San Francisco with the Reagans, ate a meal for the very first time in any restaurant. Trader Vic's was the place. In the Trafalgar Room, the Queen, Prince Philip, the Reagans, and their party were served Indonesian lamb roast with peanut sauce, Chinese pork, smoked salmon, and three California wines. In addition to the wines -- Chardonnays and a cabernet -- the queen had a daiquiri on the rocks and a Tanqueray martini. Dessert was rum ice cream with praline sauce and fortune cookies.

Trader Vic's napkins

Sadly, the Trader passed on to greater glory in 1992, and the family closed the Cosmo Alley location in 1994. Still, today there are 21 Trader Vic's locations from those here in California to more exotic locations such as Singapore and Abu Dhabi. It's a long way from "Hinky Dinks", and many smart cocktails later.

For more about the Trader and his famed cocktails, visit these links:

Trader Vic's web site

Views of a classic Trader Vic's location - Munich!

Trader Vic's Emeryville review

More from "Trader Vic's Book of Food and Drink"

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