San Francisco's Tonga Room Is Still a Tiki Staple - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

San Francisco’s Tonga Room Is Still a Tiki Staple

Tonga Room
The S.S. Tonga, circa 1945.

Midway through the 20th century, the hotel became to the tiki bar what the tropics are to lei-bound plumeria: a profitable place to sprout up, where proliferation occurred naturally. “In the 1960s, expensively outfitted Polynesian restaurants could be found in many hotels,” says tiki expert, author and Latitude 29 owner Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. “Sheraton had the Kon-Tiki restaurant franchise, Hilton had the Trader Vic’s franchise and Marriott had the Kona-Kai chain.” But the faux Polynesian bar and restaurant in the windowless basement of Fairmont San Francisco didn’t follow suit. “What’s interesting about the Tonga Room is that it was—and still is—a stand-alone restaurant in one Fairmont location, not part of a chain of Tonga Rooms in other Fairmonts across the country.”

A singular site for drinks derived from tropical flavors for the past 74 years (which, according to a vintage menu, once included the Honolulu Cocktail, made with rum, pineapple juice and ¾ ounce of something called “pinky”), the Tonga Room has held its own beneath the Fairmont’s palatial glamor and glitz, where former presidents are rumored to rest their heads while visiting the Golden City. The venue itself dates back to 1929 and begins with a swimming pool.

Nearly destroyed by fires following the city’s 1906 earthquake two weeks prior to its planned opening, the Fairmont San Francisco welcomed its inaugural guests the following year and quickly became an oasis for the rich and famous. Soon, they required somewhere to splash. An Olympic-size hole in the ground formally known as the Terrace Plunge opened, and attracted aquatic-enthusiasts of inimitable skill. But eventually the pool lost its appeal and towel rentals declined. In a stroke of forward-thinking ingenuity, in 1945, the hotel’s new owner sought to transform the lonely pool into a restaurant and bar, the type of place so over-the-top even travelers could momentarily escape their own vacations. Naturally, Hollywood was called.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s lead set director, Mel Melvin, was hired to execute the job. Preserving the room’s nautical ambiance, Melvin hauled the S.S. Forester, a lumber schooner that once coasted between San Francisco and the South Sea Islands, from the muck near Martinez, California to the basement of the ritzy hotel. Several weeks of construction later, the S.S. Tonga was born: the ship’s deck hosted dance numbers, Chinese food was served alongside bright and boozy drinks, and smackdab in the center was the Plunge, now an electric-blue lagoon upon which an orchestra floated nightly. (It occasionally reprised its role as swimming pool for patrons after one too many Zombies: “Well, it finally happened; a couple of spiffligated gents stripped down to their shorts in the F’mont’s Tonga Room the other night–and leaped into the swimming pool!” wrote Chronicle columnist Herb Caen in 1946.)

Several minor renovations occurred in the following decades, including the 1953 installation of lighting-bedazzled rainstorms scheduled roughly every 30 minutes. Though the Tonga Room received its most dramatic facelift in 1967 from architect Howard Hirsch, whose remodel solidified the space as a “high tiki” hallmark. Lava-rock walls, thatched-roof huts, canoes roped to the ceiling and custom-carved tikis followed the Polynesian Pop aesthetics of the time. “As much as I love it, I don’t think it was ever a trendsetter,” Berry says. “The Tonga Room jumped on the bamboo bandwagon in the 1967, well into the second decade of the Polynesian-themed restaurant boom.”

But something about the bar proved uniquely alluring, and even as tiki lost ground to Margaritaville, the Tonga Room outlasted the competition, likely due to the bon vivants from above who ventured from their rooms to the subterranean hideout to mouth-wrestle two-foot-long plastic straws poking from fishbowl-sized drinks. (The bar, slowly modernizing, is now looking to go eco-friendly with paper or washable sucking devices.)

With the genre’s revival, tiki enthusiasts have bountiful options across the country at which to raise a coconut. But San Franciscans, global travelers and tiki devotees all find themselves drawn back to the Tonga Room, the only one of its species, for a potent dose of the past. Anthony Bourdain once described it as “the greatest place in the history of the world.” An estimated 750 guests now turn up nightly, many opting for the menu’s golden child Mai Tai—alleged by some as the best in the Bay Area. It even survived a condominium-driven demolition plot in 2009 thanks to its rallied fans who claimed landmark status.

“Like an extinct exotic insect preserved in amber, it’s an intact example of a midcentury ‘Polynesian Palace’ on a grand scale, which no new restaurant could ever afford to outfit today,” says Berry, a fact that keeps the bar close to the hearts of purists. “It proves the validity of the aesthetic on an unironic level, not just as camp or kitsch. That classic, elegant, white-tablecloth Polynesian-themed boîtes haven’t gone the way of the dinosaur.”

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