The Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar re-opened with Polynesian-infused fanfare at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco this summer. Sure, you can order tiki drinks and pan-Asian food at many restaurants. But only at the Tonga Room do you watch the band perform on a thatched covered, floating barge in the lagoon strategically located at the center of the restaurant.
The opening coincides with the trend for retro in fashion and food. Though Prohibition cocktails and siracha sliders are popular now, tiki drinks and appetizer “pupu” platters never completely disappeared from the gastronomic landscape.
Amidst the nautical décor of ropes, life preservers, and tiki statues, I enjoyed what felt like a homecoming of sorts. Since moving to California, I have shared the spring rolls, ahi tuna poke tostadas, chicken wings and house made spam on the pupu platter with many family and friends. My teenage niece and nephew loved the unexpected setting for their meal, their virgin tiki drinks in faux coconut shells and learning that the word pūpū is Hawaiian for “small bites.”
The Fairmont’s general manager, Ana Carolina da Silva, is as excited with the opening as those seeking a not-so-ordinary drinking and dining experience, noting, “Dating from the mid-1940s, Tonga Room grew in popularity following America’s obsession with Hawaiian culture in the early 1960s and today features faux straw huts, a floating band, thunderstorms and the best Mai Tai in the Golden State. Anthony Bourdain called Tonga Room ‘…the greatest place in the history of the world.’”
I don’t agree that the Tonga Room is the greatest place on earth. But I met Bourdain twice and can picture his intrigue with the contrast between the restaurant’s raunchy South Seas and the stately Fairmont Hotel which evolved into the preferred San Francisco accommodation for many presidents, world leaders and celebrities.
Meanwhile, the Tonga Room has evolved from its origin in 1929 as an indoor pool called the Terrace Plunge. The leading set designer for MGM transformed the pool into the lagoon setting for the restaurant in the 1940s. In the 1950s the short “thunderstorm” began booming on the half-hour with a quick downpour and several claps of thunder. A dozen years ago a major upgrade of the room and menu occurred and since then, the kitchen staff has adopted a more farm to table approach. The Island Groove band plays Top 40s hits, and some guests take to the dance floor in front of the bar after dinner.
The Hurricane Bar mixes up some classic tiki drinks with a few originals. Before we dive into Mai Tais in those faux coconut shells and Zombies in tiki glasses, let us note there are 64 solid quality rums on the menu along with a very small, well curated wine list with Bouchaine Chardonnay from Napa Carneros and Arrowood Cabernet Sauvignon.
Tiki drinks such as Zombie, Jungle Bird and Fog Cutter populate the menu. Given the number of “Fog” drinks available in not-always-sunny San Francisco, this Fog Cutter is attributed to Hollywood’s Don the Beachcomber. There are also Tonga Room original drinks such as the Hurry Kane with Barbadian rum, Cognac, overproof rum, Port, and passion fruit and the Adult Swim for those who prefer vodka to rum and yearn for the days you could jump in the pool.
Food options are ideal for sharing. The pupu platter is an easy way to taste four of the appetizers including savory ahi tuna poke tostadas, garlic chicken wings, and house made spam, a popular Hawaiian specialty. Though the spam presentation with passion fruit mustard and pickled veggies on grilled bread appealed to many, I’m not a spam fan despite growing up near Philadelphia where it is also popular.
Though small, the menu shows creative touches. The salads feature a Caesar salad with kimchi dressing and white anchovy; the tuna poke salad includes edamame and sesame dressing. From the wok comes Maui sweet onion beef, coconut curry seafood, and vegetarian noodle stir fry in mushroom ginger broth. Ribeye in an oyster sauce glaze and miso salmon are grilled up to order.
As for dessert, I have always been a sucker for the Tonga Baked Alaska topped with toasted meringue and melted chocolate at its peak resting on an orange-passion fruit sauce. At the re-opening event, I plunged into the tray of guava panna cotta cups that were delicious.
“Hawaii” never tasted so good without the long flight from the mainland. From the smooth Mai Tai through the appetizer bites, rice noodles and ribeye, the nautical atmosphere and friendly staff made me feel like I was in a far away place. The hula dancers who entertained at the reopening, the music and even the “rainstorm” made me feel at home. My small town can’t offer the Tonga Room—only the Fairmont can pull off this fun, retro dining experience.
The Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar is located at 950 Mason Street in San Francisco, CA www.tongaroom.com