Epic Tiki Charm At The Tonga Room

San Francisco’s Tonga Room is hardly a secret (especially since Tony Bourdain shone his spotlight on it awhile back) but it is off the grid for most uninitiated travelers, especially in a city awash in great restaurants. In fact, The City has 39.3 eateries for every 10,000 households which crushes the number two spot, (Fairfield county, Connecticut of all places) with nearly twice the number of shops by that measure. Simply put San Francisco is a perfect place to find some exceptional grub, almost the point of it being a cliche, and if you wanna see it at it’s worst take a leisurely stroll down a sidewalk in Noe Valley and tell me what you think.

But there are some great, old spots like John’s Grill, Tad’s Steaks, The Savoy Tivoli and a few others holding their own in all the newbie madness. TheTonga Room is an apt addition to this list and most definitely ranks among the finest of classic tiki joints. It being a landmark located inside a landmark, housed inside the stunning Fairmont Hotel located at the top of Nob Hill, which survived the Great Quake, the Beaux-Arts exterior belies the precious piece of Polynesia located in it’s depths. It’s conveniently located across the street from the Mark Hopkins hotel and it’s beyond spectacular bar, The Top Of The Mark, that has debatably the best view in town. The Mark is also where my grandparents used to grab a couple quick pops before walking across the street to dance at the Fairmont back in 40’s when the number there was DOver-2-8800 (I have their old address book to prove it).

The Tonga Room was designed and built by MGM set design hotshot Mel Melvin in 1945 where the original 1929 pool, dubbed the “Terrace Plunge” was located. The concept as first built incorporated the SS Tonga, keeping the original pool as a lagoon (a la Gilligan’s Island) and adopting a nautical theme, with lifeboats and a steamship feel. Updated in 1967 to more closely resemble it’s current form, sort of a cross between Don The Beachcomber and the recently shuttered Bahooka in Rosemead. It’s popularity has waxed and waned over the years with the ebb and flow of various fads but in 2009 it almost lost the battle for good. The new owners of the hotel proposed to demolish part of the building and replace the Tonga Room with (eeewwww!) condos. A great hue and cry arose across The City and indeed across the country with tiki-files and preservationists coming on board to oppose the slated destruction. In 2010 it was declared “of historical significance” with a sweeping endorsement of it’s value stating “Its association with the broad influence of Polynesian Pop culture in the United States is a stronger tie than its association with the Fairmont Hotel.” Deed done.

A few years back it underwent a million-dollar renovation that breathed a bit of life back into the battered venue and if you’ve never been inside to appreciate the interior you are missing out. Floating in the former pool is a floating stage/barge/boat that is patiently waiting for Don Ho to crawl out of his crypt and croon “Tiny Bubbles” once again but when not doing that it’s hosting other acts. There are frequent tropical storms that shower the pool with rain, flashes of lightning and rumbling thunder all of which would fit in perfectly at The Enchanted Tiki Room. There are loungy banquettes with low tables and the whole joint exudes a perfect musk, combining the scents of spilled pineapple juice, stagnant pool water and fried food-and I mean that in the epically good sense.

Speaking of the food, Wednesday through Friday they do a happy hour buffet that, although less than outstanding, is an absolute steal at 10 bucks a head and perfectly suited to soak up all that booze. I’ve eaten there a lot in my visits over time and have had some dismal experiences in the past. Although the food used to be on par the the grease-soaked nonsense of lesser joints, it’s offerings seem to have improved considerably in recent years. The current menu varies with various seafood dishes, a couple of snazzy entrees, some apps/dim sum to share and the updates have done much to the overall eating experience. Actually, their Pupu platter is to die for.

But you don’t really come here to eat, do you? Of course not. I gotta give this place credit, they have a heavy hand pouring and I could be wrong but I don’t think I’ve seen nary a jigger in the whole joint. Their selection of concoctions isn’t that original but it is varied and they do a great job on all the standards, I’m a big fan of their hurricane and even wifey, who doesn’t bend an elbow nearly as much as I do, is tempted to split a giant shared drink from a tropical tureen, maybe two. But a word of warning-Those drinks pack a punch and, although it’s alluring, and happens once a week from what I’ve been told, do not get drunk and jump in the pool while the band is playing like two members of the Memphis family did on a recent group run up there. You will be escorted from the building-as we were (but they were nice about it!).

For now the Tonga Room is thriving and Bourdain’s endorsement certainly helped, along with some more recent press from otherwise lame mainstream outlets. The last time I was there the place was packed with revelers soaking up the history and guzzling beverages. Certainly nothing lasts forever but this place deserves a nice, long run into the future. Condos be damned!

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