Tonga Room Execution Stayed. Does Anyone Care?

Categories: Local News
tonga room.jpg
Like smoking at work, camel hair coats and a budget surplus, tiki bars are relics of a bygone era, of when Cesar Chavez Street was called Army, when nobody in San Francisco knew what a bike lane was, and organ meat was nothing more than fodder for the cows that we turned into delicious 15-cent hamburgers.

That's why we can't understand the flap over the Tonga Room. Sure, the Fairmont Hotel's tiki bar is... unique, but the hotel wants it out of its ground floor. Now. But this is San Francisco, and the Tiki Lounge was declared historic back in May, meaning all parts of it must be preserved. That didn't help the decision-making ability of the Planning Commission on Thursday, who booted a decision on what to do with the Polynesian Lounge until January 2011.


Evidently, enough people care to bother the Planning Commission with this issue for three hours yesterday. Members of the public issuing comment at public comment were roughly split on the issue, according to reports in our newspapers of record.

"We all know the Tonga Room is about as Polynesian as Hawaiian pizza," said one, according to the Chronicle's food blog.  This is true, because Hawaiian pizza was either invented in Canada or in Italy, and either way it has nothing to do with a historic preservation label slapped on postwar kitsch.

Whatever happens to the Tonga Room, it's going to happen somewhere else. The Fairmont's owners reiterated their desire to get the Tonga Room the hell out of its property. (There is a mystery benefactor who has claimed he or she will move the bar in its entirety to an undisclosed location in S.F., so there's that.)

So if you want to pay a cover in order to sit underneath a faux bamboo canopy and sip a Singapore Sling, now's the time. In the meantime, you can find us at Trad'r Sam's (shortly before you find us dead from alcohol poisoning), where you get a similar experience for 1/10 of the price.

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Jeffbeucler
Jeffbeucler

If you think that Tiki bars are a part of a bygone era then you are obviously not aware of their resurgence...perhaps you should attend the Tiki Oasis convention in San Diego in August...oh wait...you can't...it's sold out...

K9RADIOTIKI
K9RADIOTIKI

This reminds me of when Trump closed Trader Vic's at The Plaza in NYC to put in a day spa. The NYT article (Published: January 25, 1989) headline was "Trump to Close a 'Tacky' Trader Vic's". In the article, Trump states: ''Trader Vic's does not fit in with the image of the hotel that I want to achieve". You should see the Plaza now (owned by El Ad Properties)....tacky as hell, with access to the Palm Court restricted to condo owners only, and.... no sign of Eloise anywhere. Look at pictures of the original Penn Station and the junk that is there now. To think that developers were trying, and almost succeeded to demolish Grand Central Terminal makes my skin crawl. I will never understand why people want everything new and so antiseptic? History is critical....oh.....loook.......shiney...Chris...Chris....Chris, Stay with me here...oh never mind. SAVE THE TONGA ROOM!

TC
TC

Leave the Tonga Room where it is! I'm not even from SF, and I've only been to the Tonga Room once, but things lke this need to stay put.

This reminds me of the fight to save Coney Island (see attached petition). Though not everyone's taste, old places like Ruby's or the Tonga Room have a place among shiny new chains. There are plenty of Americans who do not like shiny new generic chains. Let's let some of the places with character live!

Mark Walsh
Mark Walsh

I live in San Francisco and the only reason I step inside the Fairmont to spend money is the Tonga Room. It is because of the Tonga Room that I recommend the hotel to visitors, and if they stay elsewhere I make it a point to take them to the Tonga Room for dinner. To me, it's as essential a visit as Coit Tower. It's a San Francisco treasure.

Fairmont needs to understand that I will not be recommending or spending anything in their direction if Tonga leaves.

Wayne Hadfield
Wayne Hadfield

My girlfriend and I actually hunted out the Tonga Room on our visit to San Francisco from Australia......we had dinner, a few drinks and a fantastic time. If it's still there when we get back, we'll be there again. It was a highlight of our trip.

Double Crown Records
Double Crown Records

I've been there twice and it was one of the main reasons I wanted to visit San Francisco. It's a landmark of San Francisco, pure and simple. Yes, the drinks and food are overpriced, but there are few places left like this in the country. I hope it's still there the next time I visit SF!

Rick
Rick

Um, yes. Some people DO care. Just because you don't, please do not shit on those of us who do. Long live the Tonga Room!

Alabama Greaser
Alabama Greaser

Wow, of all these comments, only twowere positive conserning Chris Roberts. And they both were written by him.

Vast Majority
Vast Majority

When the Tonga Room ends, the Fairmont boycott begins.

Brezlo
Brezlo

Actually planning a trip to SF to visit the Tonga Room one last time before the forces of bland-ification wipe it out for good. So sad the Fairmont is ruinovating!

Brezlo
Brezlo

We stop at the Tonga Room every time we visit SF (from NY)...every chance we get, actually. It's a special place that we hope will stick around for a long time.

Koop Kooper
Koop Kooper

Pleased to see so many positive comments from all over the world and all over the US in support of this wonderful Tiki Bar.

I have made some comments on this weeks show about Mr Chris Roberts and the Tonga Room that might interest you all, especially Chris Roberts.

you can hear the Cocktail Nation show by heading to www.cocktailnation.net

Koop Kooper

Jeffrey Cook
Jeffrey Cook

Yes people do care about the Tonga Room.Up here in Seattle we've lost almost all ofour most unique properties for dining and drinking because some developer mowed them under for cheap condos. Seattle has become just another average city which means myself and others up here like must travel to SF for experiences like the Tonga Room.And we do! I go every year and wish I couldgo more often. Please don't just throw this little gem away. It is the last fully atmospheric (ie raining) cocktail lounge in the country! Don't let yourselves become another boring Seattle.

Jeffrey

JokeIII
JokeIII

Notice the following things:

1- The overwhelming number of comments this piece has attracted.

2- The rather surprising (to some) number of responses from East Coast reader. (Like, say, me.)

3- The comments run vastly in favor of keeping the Tonga Room as is.

That all said, the Tonga Room not only runs the risk of the wrecking ball, but also of starvation. If the hotel's management decides to neglect the quality of food & beverage served there it only bolsters their case the Tonga Room is a cash hemmorhage and the only way to remedy this is to wreck it and put in meeting facilities. Now, a cynical person would say this is exactly what's happened. Not I, but a cynical person would.

The issue here is not whether there are any Tiki venues left, it's how many ORIGINAL Tiki places exist. During the Regal Beagle years, many went under, many were demolished (here S. FL area I can think of five) and many more were neutered into homogenized blandness.

Of the places original to the period, I can count how many remain on one hand: Trader Vic's in Atlanta (the last of the original ones), the Mai-Kai in Ft. Lauderdale, the Tiki-Ti in L.A. and the Tonga Room.

30 years from now, nobody (and I mean NOBODY) will be saying "Whew, thank goodness we had the foresight to demolish that ol' Tonga Room and put in a ballroom! Our lives were so immeasurably improved by this!"

Once it's gone, it's GONE...and there's not enough buyer's remorse in the planet to resurrect it.

Smoking Tiki
Smoking Tiki

I don't agree with the author's dismissive summary of the Tonga Room, but I get what he was trying to say: The decision has been. It's over. The only thing left is to enjoy the place while it lasts.

Don's could be next. The last time we were there in August, the bartender said they had only made money only one month since they've opened. They've cut out the Sunday brunch and scaled back happy hour. As a member of the Tiki community, I feel responsible to make an effort of supporting these places while they are open. I want them to be around for my grand kids. When our family goes out, we spend our hard-earned money at Don's and I hope everyone else does the same with their local Tiki bar.

I'm now planning a family trip to the Tonga Room in December which wouldn't have happened if I hadn't seen this article. The place sounds amazing.

Tonga Guy
Tonga Guy

It's truly unfortunate that the owners of the Fairmont Hotel have never understood how to embrace and promote the ambiance and experience of the Tonga Room. The current ownership is being driven by it's bottom-line profit mentality and bean-counting exercises;unlike days gone by when the Swig Family owned and ran this unique hotel with a true sense of pride and class which filtered down into the Tonga Room. Nothing will shock me re: the fate of this venue, but after numerous nights and years of personal experience in the Tonga Room,I can safely say that it is Easy to tear something down and Never Easy to replace the special memories this room can provide......

Shannon
Shannon

What I want to know is, who doesn't want to "sit under a faux bamboo canopy and sip a singapore sling"? The Tonga Room is kitschy and great, and many people appreciate its history. It would be a shame to lose it in the name of progress, and this article is a shameful and misguided rant. Our buddy Chris needs to cool his warm jets or get his four-stroke kick-started bitching about the prevalence of crap like Applebee's franchises that level American cityscapes.

Karen Walter
Karen Walter

It would be a very sad day if the Tonga rooms go. I finally had a chance to check it out in 1998 and it was a blast. It would be the first place I would go to if back visiting in San Fran. The USA would lose a very cool landmark.

Critiquer
Critiquer

I agree with everyone who wants the Tonga Room to be preserved, and that it is a valid cultural icon. The list of places, monuments and things that fell out of popularity and were destroyed, only to be regretted later when the pendulum of public opinion inevitably swings back is long. Chris represents the typical backwards, ignorant attitudes that are responsible for so much loss of our historic fabric in this country.

Sacto Rick
Sacto Rick

Chris, I drive from Sacramento to San Francisco and spend lots of my hard earned money to enjoy a night out at The Tonga Room and other Tiki places in the Bay area. Tear The Tonga Room down and move it to Sacramento and I won't have to drive so far or spend my money in a city which doesn't care about its culture icons!You must be brain dead for thinking that by moving The Tonga Room it makes everything alright. San Francisco is a great city because of the preservation of past generations. Don't demolish San Francisco just because you have such poor taste for the past. Apologize for your poor judgment.

Velveteen Lounge
Velveteen Lounge

Everything I have to say has already been said by the majority above, so just add one more voice to those who care very much and would consider the loss of the Tonga Room a very sad occurrence.

Tanuki Ben
Tanuki Ben

No Chris, you are dead wrong. People DO care. Obviously, you know nothing about the subject. The Tonga Room is a part of San Francisco's living history and a unique icon of contemporary Tiki culture. So, do some research, have a decent tiki drink or two (NOT from Trad'r Sam's!) and think about what you've said.

Matt Clowry
Matt Clowry

Keep up the good fight. Landmarks are meant to last!

Sad Truth
Sad Truth

The current owners of the Fairmont Hotel are from the Middle East. It is my understanding that their religious background is very intolerant of other religious icons and "deities". In this case, the imagery of "pagan" tiki gods. As artificial as the tiki imagery may be, it is still an assault on the owners religious sensibilities. As a result, they feel it is their religious duty to extricate and destroy the "infidelic" Tonga Room.

christopher
christopher

Hi Chris,You might not get it and that's fine. But there are people out there that would like to preserve certain cultural icons. The Tonga Room is just that. It should be saved and better yet, not moved.

Club Noum�
Club Noum�

Hello Chris,

According to a group of Tongan women seated across from me the last time I was at the Tonga Room, the Tongan royal family dines there when they visit San Francisco. If the Tonga Room is good enough for them, then it's certainly good enough for the rest of us.

By the way, I'm from New Zealand, so I actually do know what authentic Polynesian cuisine is, but that's not why you go to a tiki bar or restaurant, any more than you would go to McDonalds expecting authentic Scottish cuisine, so it seems your ethnographic approach is somewhat disingenuous.

CN

Alice Berry
Alice Berry

Chris,

Count me as another who cares.

My fellow tiki-lovers here are not exactly expressing the usual Ohana spirit (go look it up) that is our norm, so you have obviously gotten the rise out of us that your column's wording seemed to request.

Every trip I make to SF includes the Tonga Room, and I started my birthday night there as well on my last trip. One reason: where there have been a couple of rainforest/rain schtick clubs in America's past (now all gone, of course), no other had an actual "lagoon."

C'mon! There's a frickin' LAKE in the middle of the bar! How cool is THAT!!

And I'm talking North and South America, not just the USA.

My native Houston has the disease with which you seem to be afflicted. That is, if it's old and past its official cool [first] period, tear it down.Well, if it's 50 yrs-old, no.

But guess what; if you tear down all 45 yr-old buildings, you don't *have* any 50 yr-olds to preserve.Which the developers LOVE.

Trad'r Sam's is a great dive bar.The Tonga Room is a gorgeous, lush, themed, mysterious link to another era. Apples and oranges.And the best part is, that era is as fantasy-laden as the TR. That is, we who love places in the vein of the TR know fully well that even "back then" wasn't like the "back then" that we wish it had been.But we can pretend ;)

BTW, words and feelings have indeed been made known to the owners, but venom would be unproductive there. Looks like you tossed out the poised-and-waiting venom bait, so to speak.

flipflopfrank
flipflopfrank

My uncles went there when they returned from WWII - one from Germany, and one from the Pacific...My dad went there when he got back from Korea. The stories they would tell...

Does anyone care about the kitsch? - looks that way...

I have one uncle, and my pops left, need to get them two old duffers back to the city for a mai tai!

fff

Sam
Sam

The "writer" of this article should be fired for writing one of the worst articles I have ever read. How can you give an opinion and know nothing about the subject matter? I guess SF Weekly is now hiring uneducated douchebags to write articles.

On a side note, obviously this guy has no idea about the history of Tiki bars and the impact that it had on the history of California. Currently, there is a large renewed interest in the Tiki bar scene. This is mostly due to the economy and the need that people have to escape to somewhere that reminds them of paradise.

Should the "writer" decide to grow a brain and research Tiki culture and the Tiki scene, I would be willing to buy him a Mai Thai at the Hukilau. Just please stop writing about something you have not researched. And shame on you SF Weekly, for allowing this to even me printed or posted.

Long live Tiki bars and long live independent businesses.

Tiki Chris Pinto
Tiki Chris Pinto

Wow, it's amazing to read a post by someone so obviously out of touch with current pop culture and the importance of preserving and enjoying our country's pop history. Tearing down the Tonga Room would be like tearing down the Abby Road studio to put up a Baby Gap. The ONLY problem with places like The Tonga Room is that the owners have lost interest, therefore allowing it to slip into obscurity. Want to see a highly successful, world-renowned Tiki Bar? Check out the Mai Kai in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, built in 1955 and packed to the bamboo rafters 6 nights a week. All from proper marketing. People WANT places like the Tonga Room. Ok, maybe not neatly unshaven, Starbucks-drinking dooshes, but people who love the exotic, adventure and fantasy of having a cool tropical drink next to a waterfall. You don't have to like the Tonga Room. But don't get in the way of the thousands who want to enjoy it.-Tiki Chris P, TikiLoungetalk.com

Carola Von H.
Carola Von H.

Wow. So sad to see such a clueless take on the glorious Tonga. My guess is that Chris needs to twirl under half-a-dozen tiny umbrellas.

otto
otto

Hey Chris, here,s about 80 people who care about the Tonga Room and looks like they,re still comin in. Probably double your readership for the week? Maybe you should write another column retracting your comments?

Boris Hamilton
Boris Hamilton

Tonga Room = Good.

Chris Roberts and his trying really hard to be cool column = Not Good.

tiki thomas
tiki thomas

im about to head out the door, so i dont have time to formulate any eloquent response, so ill leave it at this:

snide hipsters peices o' shit, who dont know a damn thing about what theyre reporting on, shouldnt be the ones reporting on it.

Trad'r Bill
Trad'r Bill

Ru serious Chris? I feel you must not believe your own words, but rather are simply trying to get a rise out of us. I believe the number of comments has answered your question: "Does anyone care?" Simply put, yes!

Bob Mitchum
Bob Mitchum

The Tonga Room is unique and has stood the test of time and should be treasured for this, as well as the cultural history it represents (and yes, it does represent a specific time in American post-war pop culture). The treat it as kitsch or a relic is a mistake and the Fairmont is being short-sighted. Do we really need another "upscale" nightspot that will flame out in a few years, only to be replaced by another trendy joint?

Btw, this blogger is a complete dope and sounds like a shill for the Fairmont ownership.

Jaye MacAskill
Jaye MacAskill

Chris, you obviously don't have the knowledge or depth of understanding necessary to appreciate the importance of historic preservation, both social and economical. I live in San Diego. When I go to San Francisco, where do I always go? Answer: The Tonga Room. Why? Because there is no other place like it in the world. Indeed, it's no Gettysburg, but it is an irreplaceable historical artifact from a different time, and it is unique enough to have compelled locals and tourists alike to have enthusiastically supported it for over half a century.

johnpingpong
johnpingpong

Chris, Chris, Chris,

I am TIKI hear me roar.From east-to-west man, this phenomenon is real and widespread. Check out Hukilau.com.in Ft. Lauderdale. It's the greatest revival of mid-century kitch to grace our planet in decades. Tonga Room must remain in-situ. What you want? another Starbucks?

johnpingpong
johnpingpong

I am TIKI hear me roar.

All the way from the east coast, Chris. TIKI is a solid phenomenon in our time. It is woven into every area of this nation and it's cool! Don't tear down what you don't understand, man. America doesn't need another Starbucks but we could use a few more Tonga Rooms.

Mai Tai
Mai Tai

Why do I get the feeling that Chris Roberts is waiting on pins and needles for the Tonga Room to close, so that he and his FauxHawk sporting "City" foodie douchebag friends can dine in "the next Gary Danko" restaurant at $300+ a plate, then bash it on Yelp because the waiter couldn't tell him if the grapes in their $80 per glass Chardonnay were grown on the sunny side of the vineyard or not.

Anonymous
Anonymous

you just cant have too many tiki bars! rock on tonga room! MR J.

Kapu Cabana
Kapu Cabana

As Chris Roberts says:

"...we can't understand the flap over the Tonga Room."

This is exactly what's wrong with this column and so many like it. When a self-adoring knucklehead experiences the miracle of a thought or opinion passing through their skulls, they feel compelled to bless the world with the output of these random firings of neurons, even with full acknowledgement that they never actually understood the matter at hand. YES, Mr. Chris Roberts, the world is clamoring for your uninformed opinions, give us more O Great Oracle! Please enlighten us with more opinions on topics you don't understand!

Let's look at some of the specific shining stars of brilliance in this column...

1. Tiki bars are relics of a bygone era. "We" (= Chris Roberts? = the SF Weekly collectively?) can't understand why anyone would want to preserve relics of a bygone era.

If Roberts really can't understand this, then his problem is deeper than one might think. Nonetheless, Roberts probably means to say that he can't understand why SOME relics merit preservation. So whose opinions matter on WHICH relics merit preservation? Apparently not the members of the general population, who "bother the Planning Commission with this issue." Tut tut, what an irritant. It would appear that Chris Roberts believes these opinions should be disregarded in favor of much more insightful opinion-makers, like for instance, Chris Roberts. People who don't need to be distracted by an understanding of an issue before taking a position.

2. Members of the public were split on the issue

Yes, and...? All we get is an irrelevant comment about Hawaiian pizza? What was the argument from the HALF OR MORE who wanted to preserve the Tonga Room? Oh yes, that's right, they're in the group that this column is trying to discount and ignore.

3. "Hawaiian pizza .. has nothing to do with a historic preservation label"

Well, at least Roberts got that one right. But why'd he cite it in the first place then?

4. "...the Fairmont Hotel's tiki bar is... unique" BUT "I simply found it to be an over-priced, kitschy bar, and not a particularly unique one at that (the Tiki-theme has certainly been done elsewhere)"

Well which is it? Is it unique or not? Many comments here have already outlined how the Tonga Room is unique, but since this is beyond Roberts' capacity for understanding, here is some more information. First some history from the Fairmont website...

"The Fairmont created an indoor 75-foot swimming pool on its Terrace Level in 1929. Known as the Fairmont Terrace Plunge, the elaborate tile pool attracted local crowds as well as celebrities... In 1945, Metro Goldwyn Mayer�s leading set director, Mel Melvin, was hired to transform The Terrace Plunge into The Tonga Room. The pool became a lagoon, a floating stage for the orchestra that entertained guests each evening. Not surprisingly, The Tonga Room was an instant success."

Still don't understand the historic appeal? Here's some commentary from other, more insightful outlets...

From NYTimes..."FOR many, the Tonga is more than a sight gag. It�s a potent nostalgic touchstone, a place where the combination of cocktails � like the Scorpion, a rum-and-something that carries a menu warning (�Beware! One too many may sting�) � and two-foot-long straws have lent a warm glow to untold numbers of honeymoons and anniversaries, first dates and last dances, birthdays and bar mitzvahs. [...] ...with dark wood walls, thatched overhangs and a formidable totem at the front desk, the Tonga Room has also been the site of more than a few clandestine canoodlings, some of which were immortalized by Herb Caen, the famed San Francisco Chronicle columnist, who trumpeted the room�s happy hour and its famously strong mai tai. Mr. Caen, who died in 1997, had seen other famed Fairmont bars close during his lifetime, but believed the tropical basement dive would always survive." (hopefully Roberts must have stumbled across Herb Caen's name somewhere along the line)

From SFGate..."The Fairmont Hotel's campy tropical lounge and restaurant is a local institution, a cavernous tiki fantasy uniting tourists, conventioneers and kitsch-seekers in rum-soaked harmony."

From the Fairmont's own website again..."Today, The Tonga Room is riding the wave of the tiki revival and recently has been recognized as one of the nation�s hottest bars by InStyle, Gourmet, Travel & Leisure, Harper�s Bazaar and Wallpaper magazines as well as The Food Network."

DOES ANYONE CARE? Yes, many people care.

Chris Roberts
Chris Roberts

If folks are this mad at me, I don't even want to know what they tell the owners of the Fairmont (you know, the ones who have been trying to demolish the Tonga Room for several years...).

Randy
Randy

Hey Chris,Don't be an idiot (too late). How did you miss the retro poly-pop extravaganza that is sweeping the nation (among those in the know). Hawaiian pizza's got nothing to do with it. It exists for people who are tired of the never ending next big media "hype" and are exploring the rich history of our American past for remnants of a real "culture" before it is all plowed under, paved over and synchronized to an "American Idol" soundtrack from hell. You've been brain washed like all American youth into thinking that the 20th century is ancient history. Thus the fascination with the new messiah supposedly leading America into an era of hope and change. Give me a tropical drink and a place like the Tonga room and do with the world what you will. Be careful what you wish for ...you might get it.

Jason Smits
Jason Smits

Wow - that may be the most uninformed column I've read in quite some time. Not only are tiki bars still in vogue (take a visit to Smuggler's Cove in San Francisco or Forbidden Island in Alameda), but they are part of our history and cultural landscape. You may not care, but many of us enjoy the opportunity to connect with the past - and the post-war years are a particularly interesting part of American history.

Emetiki
Emetiki

Just the fact that you compared Tradr Sams to the Tonga Room proves you have NO clue what you're talking about. Don't write about stuff without doing the research. Makes you look like an *ss. But I'm thinkin' you are no matter what.

kevin w
kevin w

chris, maybe you should move to phoenix. they dont really care about history there and all the beige buildings are shiny and new

Irish Californian
Irish Californian

Apparently someone (city builder maybe) greased the palm/wallet of Chris Roberts.Why would he go out of his way for such a pathetic article?

Even though it's old, the Tonga Room rocks!

Christine
Christine

i love the tonga room! please dont tear it down!

David Ghandehari
David Ghandehari

Of course the Tonga Room needs to be preserved. OF COURSE! If the Fairmont wants to revitalize business, keep all the decorations the way it is, and fire whoever was managing it. Get rid of the cover charge, the crappy band, and the bad drinks. There are a ton of craftsman bartenders in San Francisco who would love the opportunity to bring the drink quality up from terrible to decent.

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