Our first night in San Francisco, at the start of a week long, 500 mile road and train trip down the coast to San Diego, we did the only sensible and perhaps the most important thing one could do: We went to the Tonga Room. Just walking up to the door, you know this is going to be good. You sense that it might even be great. When you’re seated and open the menu, your suspicions are confirmed. At the top is a quote from Anthony Bourdain in the San Francisco episode of The Layover:
“This is like, the greatest place in the history of the world.”
As he would say, “Yes, yes it is.” For me, and a generation of Americans raised with South Seas fantasies formed by Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, reruns of Gilligan’s Island, and classics like South Pacific, places like the Tonga Room are shrines to our childhood (and probably adulthood) dreams. They represent the wanderlust, mystery and decadence we long to permanently indulge.
Officially The Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar in the venerable Fairmont Hotel, this historic San Francisco hot spot does not disappoint! The decor is simply amazing. If it looks like a movie set, that’s because it was built in 1945 by a set designer from MGM Studios. The centerpiece is the 75-foot lagoon, originally known as the Fairmont Plunge. It was installed in 1929; an instant hit with celebrities and VIPs of the day. There is no swimming in the pool today, but a floating barge ferries the band to center stage – or rather, lagoon – for several shows nightly.
When you step into the Tonga Room, you find yourself on the deck of a lumber schooner, complete with masts and rigging surrounding the deck-turned-dance floor. The hallowed Hurricane Bar is starboard, the lagoon ahead with a necklace of bamboo railings and patio lights. Tables surround the pool beneath thatched umbrellas on one side, and outrigger canoes suspended from the ceiling on the other. Elaborate tiki torches and Polynesian carvings decorate the walls, interspersed with nautical and island touches. Much of the decor actually came from the lumber schooner SS Forester, lending detail and authenticity to what might otherwise feel contrived, especially when the hourly thunderstorm begins with flashes of lightning and rain falling on the lagoon.
The outstanding decor is perhaps greatly enhanced by generous libations. You can celebrate your good fortune at being in this shrine of Tiki Bar coolness with the nearly mandatory Singapore Sling or the requisite rum specialties served in pineapples and coconuts. If you’re in a mood to share, try the ginger-laden Smuggler’s Golden Punch Bowl for two. Of course, you’re in a Tiki bar so it’s only fitting that you order a drink that comes in a Tiki mug: the infamous Zombie. Bourdain did it; you can too. To my dismay, I noticed nothing on the cocktail menu came in a skull or was set ablaze, which I’m almost certain was shown on The Layover.
As tempting as the cocktails are, there is a food portion of the menu with three starter sections: Na Lau’ai & Kai (salads and soups), Manapua (Dim Sum) and Na Mea Pupu (appetizers). Prices start at $10 and go up to $30 for the Quintessential “Pu Pu” Platter. Really hard to pick a favorite or a bad one unless, like me, you don’t care for calamari, even when it’s called Muhe’he. Just to make it easy, I’d order one of everything.
Except then there’s the actual dinner portion. Two options: order Ohana-style with Pa Ka’ana (to share) entrees, or go solo with Pa’Oe (personal plates). The entrees are just that. Vegetables and rice dishes are sides, or Pa Kihi. (Yes, I am a sucker for island sounding terms. Who isn’t?) Our party of three ordered two Pa Ka’ana entrees (Kalua Pork and the Tonga Hot Pot), a side of asparagus, and one order of Hawaiian Fried Rice. The dishes were excellent. The Tonga Hot Pot is a sort of fish stew with crab, squid and baby bok Choy that was full of flavor. The “Stone Mountain Ranch” Kalua Pork, served with jasmine rice, was rich and tender. The asparagus was served with a tasty hollandaise and the Hawaiian Fried Rice was an awesome mix of Forbidden Rice, pineapple and Spam. Yes, Spam. Ono! We were well fed.
And then came desert. Here is where the Tonga Room staff really outdid themselves. We were celebrating a birthday so I snuck off to order a surprise desert. Cake was not available; they offered an ice cream desert but the birthday girl is lactose intolerant. I mentioned that fried bananas (not on the menu) were her favorite but that we’d just order the desert sampler. No worries. However, once our plates were cleared, the band wished her a happy birthday and the best plate of fried bananas we’ve ever had was brought out.
Awesome is an overused superlative, but Bourdain was absolutely right when he said, “this place is completely, completely awesome!” Our evening at the Tonga Room was nothing short of it. The atmosphere was fabulous, the service was excellent, and the food “broke da mouth, bruddah.” The manager even stopped by a couple of times – before and after the surprise – to ask how everything was going. But the initiative to take a comment and make a guest’s visit extra-special is what sets the Tonga Room apart, and does credit to the reputation of the Fairmont. Well done, Cousins, well done. Mahalo nui loa. We will be back.
Disclaimer: While TravelLatte was extended a gracious discount at the Tonga Room, all opinions are our own. Yes, research is hard work, but somebody has to do it!