Late last week we visited two Bay Area tiki meccas, San Francisco's Tonga Room and Alameda's Forbidden Island bar. After suffering through hellish traffic (waiting for 101 traffic to diverge at I-80 during rush hour can kill anyone's Mai-Tai anticipation) we started our evening at the Tonga Room, located downstairs in the gorgeous Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill.
The Tonga Room earns points for one reason only: atmosphere. The island vibe begins with thatch-roofed tables surrounding a "lagoon" (once an indoor swimming pool), complete with an occasional fake tropical storm of rain, lightning, and thunder. That's it: a reason to visit the Tonga Room once. Beyond that, as is well documented elsewhere, the food is bland and overpriced, the service is acceptable but hardly worth the bill, and the drinks -- oh, those pitiful drinks. Suffice the say that the "Zombie" tasted like cough syrup. And I'd never confuse their Kool-Aid-quality "Singapore Sling" for the complex concoction I've had at the Raffles Hotel. Bottom line: Go to the Tonga Room if you're a completist bent on seeing well-known tiki-spots, but don't get too excited about the food or drink. And certainly avoid the "floor show."
Our night picked up at The Forbidden Island in Alameda. Here, Jenny revealed just how cool she is. A devout Mormon, my wife doesn't visit bars. But she understood how much I wanted to see this place, which is quickly ascending the ranks of must-see Polynesian-Pop spots. So she came with me and ordered a virgin Piña Colada. The bar is filled with tikiabilia: mysterious lighting, exotic idols, classic advertisements, and (on the night we visited) a DJ who spun an eclectic mix of rockabilly and jazz, offering an odd harmony with the tiki vibe. Signed dollar bills are tacked above the bar, a remembrance of days when sailors would post money for their returns to port. Best of all, the drinks are sublime. Freshly squeezed juices, generous portions of the hard stuff, and quirky mugs (see below for one example) prove that the owners of The Forbidden Island are serious about repeat business.
One reminder, though: The drinks are potent. Really potent. When that little voice tells you not to order one more Zombie, listen. The "Technicolor Yawn" isn't as pretty as it sounds.
(Photographs by Andrew Wood)