Crab Rangoon and Bongo Bongo Soup

courtesy Trader Vic's

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.

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 remoulade 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 crepe packets of ham and melted cheese. Or, if I'm feeling more like an adult, perhaps some bongo bongo soup (a silky if improbable puree 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.