Back in 1932, a wayfarer and roustabout named Victor Bergeron, Jr. opened a bar on San Pablo Avenue where he served goofy tropical cocktails and Americanized island grub among an extensive collection of South Seas paraphernalia. By 1936, a young Herb Caen was writing that "the best restaurant in San Francisco is in Oakland," and the rest is history: cookbooks, an empire of chain eateries, home-kitchen accessories, and a flattering deluge of imitations (from Trad'r Sam's and the Tonga Room to Forbidden Island and the recently incinerated Tiki Tom's) — all marked by that surefire Jungle Cruise mash-up of Polynesian kitsch, sweet and sour pork, and sneakily potent tropical cocktails.
The Trader Vic's empire's flagship restaurant is still here in the East Bay, although it's been located in a rambling, memorabilia-bedecked expanse at the Emeryville Marina since 1972. The last time we headed out there a decade ago, the tables gleamed with napery and silver, the service was just this side of snooty, the ceilings and walls dripped with antique firearms and stuffed alligators, and the food was as overcooked, heavily textured, and inoffensively "exotic" as any preserved-in-aspic relic of the Eisenhower era. But in April of this year, the place closed down for an extensive five-month renovation and reinterpretation. The result is a more casual, economy-savvy new-millennium rendezvous with enough of that old special-occasion tropical-staycation Trader Vic's ambience to inspire a fun and celebratory holiday getaway.
Just past the totem-guarded vestibule and the gardenia-coiffed hostess is an expanded bar and lounge with enhanced views of the marina. The ceilings are draped in Bac Bac matting, while the bamboo-edged walls are covered with vibrant brown and black Polynesian tapa cloth accented with vintage chalk drawings of Tortuga island maidens. The bar itself (recently imported from the chain's Osaka branch) is thick lacquered koa wood illuminated with light fixtures that allegedly date back to Vic's original San Pablo Avenue watering hole. The overall effect is languid, inviting, and island-y, especially after one of the gorgeously conceived cocktails that are the best part of an evening at Vic's.
Primary among them is the mai tai, that world-renowned concoction of rum, lime juice, Curaçao, orgeat, shaved ice, and fresh mint that was invented a few miles from here by Vic himself back in 1944. We sampled five different varieties of the drink and enjoyed the sweet, potent original version the most; the updated variation was light and refreshing but lacked 1944's warrior's wallop. You can also get a flight of three miniature mai tais attractively presented on a lacquered surfboard, tiny umbrellas and all: a pleasantly dry guava, a sweet and musky mango, and a pineapple version that tasted like Hawaiian Punch.
Another classic, hot buttered rum, served in a leering ceramic skull, was strong, sweet and soul-warming — a perfect cocktail for the winter solstice. Although the Samoan Fog Cutter was powered with rum, gin, sherry, and brandy, it was fruity, floral, and not aggressively boozy. The Honi Honi — spiced bourbon on ice — was tasty enough, but the best thing about it was its surprisingly racy chinaware vessel depicting the courtship rituals of some unnamed isle. By the time we got around to the house grog, the rum-fruit juice equation was attaining a certain sameness, but the Bahia was something special: light rum, pineapple, and coconut served over shaved ice, like a grownup sno-cone, and wonderfully refreshing.
The dining room resembles a well-appointed South Seas schooner, with canoes and crab traps hanging from the ceiling, gleaming koa wood tables, tribal masks from New Guinea, a seashell chandelier, the occasional palm frond, and an impressive lineup of life-size tiki gods. Here we sampled the second-best part of the Trader Vic's experience, the appetizers. The Cheese Bings, a longtime favorite, were like tiny deep-fried ham and cheese sandwiches, crunchy on the outside, volcanically gooey within: irresistible. The Cosmo Tidbits is a compendium of the Trader's greatest hits — slices of tender, smoky barbecued pork from the venue's wood-fired Chinese oven; crisp, juicy, deep-fried jumbo prawns; rich, meaty little spareribs; the blissfully inauthentic crab Rangoon, crunchy pot stickers filled with cream cheese and crabmeat. Another classic, Bongo Bongo Soup, was a satiny smooth purée of creamed oysters and spinach with lots of rich briny flavor and a nice peppery afterbite.
For the most part, the entrées weren't as memorable as the drinks, starters, and surroundings. Despite top-drawer ingredients, the Beef 'n' Reef — wok-fried strips of tenderloin with shrimp, veggies, jasmine rice, and teriyaki sauce — tasted like something you would've ordered in Chinatown circa 1967. The cedar-planked salmon looked great, but despite its foray in the smoky wood-fired oven, the fish was dry and unexciting and the artichokes and potatoes that shared the platter were forgettable. But the Indonesian lamb satay featured skewers of tender meat and onion and three dipping sauces, and the crispy duck, while unexciting, did have a nice fatty-tender texture and came with delicate mu shu pancakes, strips of cucumber and scallion, and a not-too-sweet plum sauce.
Desserts included a dry and disappointing pineapple upside-down cake; a dense, almost fruitcake-like macadamia chocolate tart, packed with nuts and sticky-chewy goodness; crisp little banana fritters drizzled with rum syrup; and, our favorite, a big scoop of boozy rum ice cream studded with pecans and topped with a buttery praline sauce.
Although some of the menu items need more spice or a lighter touch or a fresher approach, Trader Vic's continues to be one of those restaurants where the overall experience trumps the particulars. It's unlikely that you won't have a good time — especially now that you don't have to worry about spilling your mai tai on a starched tablecloth.