Jul 1, 2013

Why not go "High Tiki" on the 4th of July?

Tired of the usual July 4th fireworks and parades? Here’s one of the most appealing ideas that’s crossed my desk in a long time: a Fourth of July Beach Party at Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar in San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel.

The Tonga Room dates back to 1945. In those days, battle-weary GIs returning home from the Pacific, usually via Hawaii, brought back fond memories of palm-laden beaches, exotic drinks and unusual foods like egg rolls and barbecued ribs. Before long the nation was brimming with Polynesian-themed restaurants decorated with tiki gods and thatched huts, and serving pupu platter appetizers and coconut-flavored cocktails adorned with tiny beach umbrellas.

The rage continued well into the 1960s, with restaurant chains like Trader Vic’s and Don the Beachcomber becoming extremely popular in locations around the country. They had plenty of imitators, too.

The Tonga Room, according to its website, “reigned as a swanky outpost of South Seas high style for much of its storied history” and was “an icon of tiki’s pop culture heyday of the 1940s and 1950s.”

The Tonga Room distinguished itself from all other tiki palaces by its central hallmark: a 75-foot swimming pool transformed by MGM’s leading set designer of the 1940s into a tropical lagoon with a floating stage for musicians. Every now and then a rainstorm broke out, with indoor rain showers cascading into the lagoon (flashes of lightning and sounds of thunder completed the fantasy).

Following a recent $1 million renovation, the Tonga Room is as popular as it’s ever been, and has stayed true to its roots. The updated and delightfully contemporary menu continues to be inspired by Polynesian islands. The cocktails are still served in exotic glasses and still sport colorful umbrellas (I want to come with three friends and order the four-person LavaBowl, which purports to be the “nectar of the Gods,” but maybe I’ll settle for an old-fashioned Zombie).

Best of all: the lagoon still tantalizes, the rain still cascades, and the bands--well, the DJs, anyway--play on.

What you need to know:

What: Fourth of July Beach Party, a festive beach ambience in the bar area, including a ton (literally 2,000 pounds) of real sand being brought in just for this event and, beginning at 7 p.m., a DJ.

Date and time: July 4, 2013, 5 p.m.-1 a.m.

Where: The Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar (at the Fairmont San Francisco), 950 Mason Street, San Francisco 94108.

Cost: For those dining, the cost is $65 per person for a family-style buffet that includes roasted suckling pig. Drink specials include the Tonga Mojito and Pina Colada, which will be $10 throughout the event. If you’re stopping in just for a drink, the usual cover charge of $5 during live music hours (7 p.m. onward) will be waived on the 4th.

Tiki Road Trip: A Guide to Tiki Culture in North America ($15): Extremely well-reviewed by buyers, this guide to tiki culture lists, describes, and reviews every known tiki bar, Polynesian restaurant, and other site of interest to fans of “Polynesian Pop.” From tiki godfathers such as Edgar Leeteg and Don the Beachcomber to contemporary tiki artists like Shag and Bosko, this resource covers all things tiki in prose that is witty, entertaining, and essential for anyone who has ever stepped up to a bar, glanced up at the pufferfish hanging from the ceiling, and ordered a Singapore Sling.

An expanded offering of recipes for classic cocktails, a larger glossary of tiki terms, and more resources for buying tiki goods and artifacts are included in this revised edition. Reminiscences of famous points of interest that have closed are provided for the completist, for historical perspective, and for those seeking information on the current status of a favorite tiki site. Buy Tiki Road Trip