Crab Rangoon and Bongo Bongo Soup
When I think back on my many dinners at what was once, without question, my favorite restaurant, I recall first and maybe most of all the seductive aromas: the faint hint of smoldering wood from the Chinese ovens; the perfume of gardenias garnishing drinks; the sweet fragrance of the hot towels presented after the finger-food appetizers; the meaty scent of the rum-and-sugar-glazed barbecued pork and the roasted Indonesian lamb, with its hint of curry.
After the aromas, I remember the music: soft, slightly fuzzy, the sounds of slack-key guitar bands and Martin Denny–esque exotica, issuing from little speakers under palm-leaf ceiling panels above the replica tikis, giant conch shells, or amber glass fishnet floats. Then I remember the almost military orchestration of the service: the hostesses in their tailored hibiscus-print dresses, the captains in their jaunty crested blazers, the three (if not four) levels of waiters and busboys in uniforms of descending grandeur; the practiced presentations at the table of communal servings of stir-fried vegetables or crusty cottage-fried potatoes dished up with unobtrusive flair, and the deft carving of heroic slabs of glistening mahogany-hued meat.
And of course there was the way things tasted: simultaneously sweet and salty and moist and crisp and, hey, all right, maybe sort of silly sometimes, but good, really good. I loved Trader Vic's.
The piece of real estate that juts out, a spit of land into a sea of traffic, from the western side of the ×-shaped intersection of Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards in Beverly Hills was occupied by a gas station when I first noticed it as a very young boy—a Union 76, if I'm not mistaken. When I was eight or nine, the gas station disappeared and little by little became a handsome eight-story '50s-modern hotel called (I appreciated the punning elision even then) the Beverly Hilton. And in the prow of the hotel, on the very tip of the spit, was installed a restaurant known as—originally, when the hotel opened, in 1955—The Traders. Even just driving by in the car with my mom, I figured out pretty quickly that this was no ordinary restaurant. The windowless exterior walls were textured with stylized Polynesian (Maori?) patterns and guarded on one side by a quartet of 12- or 14-foot dark brown wood tikis set on pedestals (a fifth one stood by the entrance on the other side, off the parking lot); banana trees sprouted along the perimeter; and every time we passed, I was inevitably thrilled by the savory, smoky siren smell that wafted out from the place.
The Traders was in fact a Trader Vic's, of course—it was officially renamed that after a few years—and it wasn't long before my parents started taking me and my sister there for dinner. On my earliest visits, my favorite dish was a combination plate—I don't remember what it was called—that involved a hamburger patty, a toasted english muffin, a fried banana, and a heap of crisp shoestring potatoes. I subsequently learned to love the Cosmo tidbits—an appetizer assortment that included crab Rangoon (fried crabmeat-filled wontons), sweet barbecued spareribs, slices of lacquered pork loin, and deep-fried shrimp. I also developed an affection for the mahimahi, which was scattered with shards of almond, and, later, macadamia nuts—and certainly for the snowball: a big scoop of coconut ice cream topped with chocolate sauce and coated in shredded coconut.
But it wasn't just the food that attracted me. Trader Vic's introduced me to a whole new world. Stepping through the beautifully polished hardwood doors off the parking lot into this fragrant, romantic place—there was tapa cloth on some of the walls and an outrigger canoe, a real one, hanging from the ceiling!—meant more to me than just going out to dinner. It was an adventure in paradise—to borrow the name of what later became, perhaps not coincidentally, my favorite television show.
The South Seas were big in the 1950s. The Kon-Tiki Expedition, Thor Heyerdahl's account of his voyage by balsa-log raft from Peru to Polynesia, was much talked about in the early '50s, and the musical South Pacific—based on James Michener's 1947 collection of war-in-the-Pacific stories, Tales of the South Pacific—was running on Broadway (it was made into a movie in 1958). Michener's epic novel Hawaii came out in 1959, and at more or less the same time the Michener-inspired Adventures in Paradise debuted on TV, starring Gardner McKay as the dashing captain of the schooner Tiki, which sailed from one Pacific island and, well, adventure to another.
That was also the golden era of the tiki bar—a genre arguably invented back in 1933 by one Ernest Beaumont Gantt, a former bootlegger from New Orleans, when he opened a bamboo-and-palm-frond watering hole in Hollywood called Don the Beachcomber. Gantt, who later changed his name legally to Donn [sic] Beach, was an expert at concocting exotic cocktails, many of them combinations of rum and various fruit juices (he invented the zombie, so named because more than a couple were said to turn you into one). It is also quite possible that, after he expanded his establishment in 1937 to serve American-Cantonese food, he was the first to offer that assortment of snacks—dim sum as reimagined by a Hollywood art director and a fry cook—known as the pupu platter. Over the next two decades, Don the Beachcomber grew into a chain, and imitations and elaborations of the place opened all over the country.
None was to prove more successful, influential, and (in its extensions) resilient than Trader Vic's, which had its origins up in Oakland, also in 1934, when Victor J. Bergeron, a young entrepreneur with a wooden leg (he lost the real one to tuberculosis of the bone at the age of six) and a gregarious personality, opened a saloon called Hinky Dinks. Food became available, with a menu offering items like steak sandwiches and roast chicken; the only hint of things to come was a dish of ham and eggs with fried pineapple and bananas on the side, which Bergeron dubbed "ham and eggs Hawaiian". After a vacation that took him to Havana by way of New Orleans, though, Bergeron added daiquiris, planter's punch, and other "tropical" cocktails to the Hinky Dinks repertoire—and in 1937, inspired (he freely admitted) by a visit to Don the Beachcomber, he remade the place into a "Polynesian" restaurant, with an exotic-drinks menu and a Chinese-flavored bill of fare. Bergeron's wife suggested that he call it "Trader Vic's" because he loved bartering and making deals. He installed a barbecue pit behind the restaurant—the ancestor of the huge, tandoorlike cylindrical wood-burning ovens that Trader Vic (as he quickly started to call himself) later put in all his restaurants, claiming that their design dated to the Han dynasty.