Bergeron already had an East Bay following, but now, as San Francisco columnist Herb Caen noted in his introduction to Bergeron's "candid and informal autobiography", Frankly Speaking: Trader Vic's Own Story (Doubleday, 1973), "a few limousines were beginning to appear" outside the restaurant. By 1941, Caen added, he was able to write of it that "[t]he best restaurant in San Francisco is in Oakland". When Bergeron invented the mai tai "around 1944" and the drink became a sensation, the fame of the place redoubled.
Trader Vic's began evolving into a chain in 1949, when Bergeron opened his first outpost, at the Western (now the Westin) Hotel in Seattle. San Francisco followed, then Beverly Hills. Today the chain has some 22 restaurants around the world, mostly in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. (The group also runs Mexican-themed Señor Pico eateries in Bangkok, Muscat, and Cairo and a Japanese restaurant in Giza.) There are only six Trader Vic's currently open in this country, however; among others, the restaurants in New York City and Washington, D.C., have closed. The Trader Vic's experience is different now from what it once was (hamachi tartare and crab cakes with wasabi rémoulade appear on the menu these days; the tikis are gone from the Beverly Hills dining room); we're different now.
Much of the food at Trader Vic's is made up. It is highly doubtful that any Burmese cook ever wrapped crabmeat and cream cheese in a wonton skin and deep-fried it, or that any Chinese noodle shop ever tossed its lo mein with clarified butter, or that any denizen of Calcutta ever served curry with an array of condiments that included sunflower seeds and pickles in mustard sauce; but the results of so doing—which were Bergeron's crab Rangoon, pake noodles, and Calcutta curries, respectively—were delicious. Maybe even more important, they were fun—food that was its own entertainment.
But Bergeron could boast of more serious gastronomic accomplishments, too. Through his travels and his network of friends, he was forever discovering new ingredients and new ways of preparing them. He was the first restaurateur to popularize kiwifruit (under the name Chinese gooseberries), limestone lettuce, morels, mahimahi, and green (or Malagasy, as he called them) peppercorns. He was one of the first, outside strictly ethnic restaurants, to use fresh cilantro, tofu, and Chinese (i.e., snow) peas. (You could make a pretty good case, if you wanted to, for Vic Bergeron as a pioneer of fusion cuisine.) He was also serving thin disks of fried parmigiano as an appetizer years before anybody outside Friuli had heard of frico—and until the late 1970s, his were almost certainly the only upscale restaurants in America that cooked much of their food on wood fires.
Trader Vic was also an early supporter of California wine, and wine occasioned my only personal contact with him: I wrote to him, in the early 1970s, complaining about the wine list at his Beverly Hills restaurant, meager compared with its San Francisco counterpart. He replied that the matter was out of his hands, that the Hilton management wrote the list—but he arranged for me to have access, whenever I dined at Trader Vic's, to the considerably larger list offered at the hotel's pricey French restaurant, L'Escoffier. This allowed me to enjoy more than one bottle of 1949 Clos des Lambrays with my Javanese sate. Of course, that was after I'd grown up, and rediscovered Trader Vic's on my own terms.
It's 1970, more or less. I drive up to Trader Vic's in my dark blue Beetle, get out, mount the steps, and walk through the front door, maybe alone, maybe with my cinematographer friend and co-trencherman Allen Daviau, maybe even with a date. I have cascading long black hair and what my mother likes to call, with distaste, a Fu Manchu mustache but am wearing a coat and tie; and anyway, they're used to me here. Host Laurence Abbot, always tan and jaunty looking, greets me at the podium and hands me over to some vision of serenity in a flowered dress who leads me to my table. On the way, I stop to exchange pleasantries with Alex Kaluzny, the genial Russian-born manager of the place and a longtime Trader Vic's mainstay (he opened the San Francisco restaurant). As I sit down, my favorite captain, Jack Chew, appears, greeting me like some long-lost relative. Depending on my mood (or my date's mood, if that's an issue), I order a serious rum drink—a tortuga or a suffering bastard, probably—or ask for the wine list and choose something red and good. Then the food starts: Cosmo tidbits, possibly, or at least one or two of the assortment's constituent parts; maybe some cheese bings, little crêpe packets of ham and melted cheese. Or, if I'm feeling more like an adult, perhaps some bongo bongo soup (a silky if improbable purée of spinach and oysters) or just a limestone lettuce salad. Next, maybe messy, garlicky pake crab—one of those dishes whose flavorful residue lingers on your fingers for a day, hot towels or not—as an intermediate course. Then, almost certainly, meat: Indonesian lamb roast or Javanese sate or a triple-thick lamb chop, or possibly veal filets in tarragon sauce, a dish long vanished from the menu but still available to those who ask for it. And on the side, pake noodles or cottage-fried potatoes, Chinese peas with water chestnuts, asparagus Chinese style… Alex comes by to ask how I like the wine. Jack wonders whether I'd like some more peanut sauce. The room is glowing. I'm glowing. I smell the meat, the wood, a gardenia. I'm in paradise.