The great thing about returning home to the San Francisco Bay area after a summer vacation, is not just that you’re returning to a great place, but it’s possible to stretch out the spirit of the trip through food. When I returned from Italy one summer, I assuaged my hunger at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market with fresh figs and a porchetta sandwich. After coming back from India last summer, the pangs I felt for masala dosa were easily mollified at Dosa. And this summer, I went to Hawaii for the first time, to the island of Maui for a week’s worth of warm tropical waters, star filled skies, Mai-Tais at sunset, and fresh seafood and kalua pork. So what to do upon returning to San Francisco to cure these post island blues? I headed to the luau at the Fairmont Hotel’s Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar.
Admittedly, I did not go to a luau in Hawaii, as these looked like resort affairs that sat 700 people, which never bodes well for the food quality. However, there is a subtle yet important difference between touristy and kitsch. The Fairmont’s Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar is a sort of surreal, Hollywood re-imagines Polynesia, and then tucks it into the basement of a luxury hotel in San Francisco. Which, in fact, it is. This room had once been The Terrace Room, site of a 75-foot indoor swimming pool built in 1929, where Olympic swimmers trained and Hollywood stars like Ronald Reagan and Helen Hayes swam laps.
Following World War II, when American soldiers returned from the South Pacific sporting tattoos and carrying carved totems and crafts, Polynesia became romantic, exotic, and the scowling totems of far off gods a little menacing, yet somehow sexy. And so tiki bars entered their golden era. In 1945, The Fairmont San Francisco hired Mel Melvin, a set director from Metro Goldwyn Mayer to lead the transformation of the Terrace Plunge into the Tonga Room.
Arriving at the Tonga Room, I was greeted with a synthetic lei, and then stepped into a huge, dark room sparkling with strands of multicolored lights, walls covered in tribal patterns, and in the middle of a swimming-pool-turned lagoon, a small boat sporting a deejay traveled back and forth. There were even sporadic tropical thunderstorms, complete with thunder and lightening.
I met three friends there—two of them, having lived in Hawaii before, claimed it was their favorite bar in San Francisco. They were shocked I had never been to the Tonga Room. But for me, it was missing the magical elements of Hawaii. The warm breeze that wraps around you, the rainbows that appear just past the sugar cane field after a flash rain, the galaxies of stars, impossibly bright in the dark sky—in fact, the room actually made me sadder. So I had a Mai Tai. Rum is always a good drink for vacation nostalgia—mixed with a little fruit juice, it’s an instant taste of tropical. While it wasn’t made from Maui gold pineapple and Haleakala Rum, it wasn’t bad. And the little umbrella cheered me up.
I’ve never been to a luau before, but I knew it involved pork. Many of the restaurants in Hawaii served “kalua” pork, which traditionally is a whole pig, slow roasted in an underground pit. Lo and behold, I rounded a corner and there was a whole pig–a huge one, with crispy skin, tender flesh, and a little bowl of pineapple chutney next to it. The buffet was Pacific Rim, with curried macaroni salad (which is a staple at plate shops in Hawaii), fried jasmine rice with pineapple, coconut and a bit of SPAM, and lemongrass-fennel crusted basa with yuzu cream. They also had touches of their traditional Chinese menu, like pork buns, spring rolls, and snap pea and oyster mushroom dumplings. I looked around at the tables full of diners—families, young couples, groups of friends, all wearing leis, sipping drinks garnished with pineapple and cherries and I wondered if they had honeymoons in Hawaii, had vacationed in Tahiti, done a tour of duty in the South Pacific, or just wanted to try something new.
A traditional South Pacific band started playing and beautiful hula dancers, hips in harmony, hands and arms swaying a melody, elevated the festive atmosphere. I started to appreciate this experience for what it was, not just try to recapture Hawaii. After all, San Francisco is a Pacific Rim, multicultural city. It’s a place of natural beauty, amazing food, and even a Tonga Room. I was sitting with friends who were talking about the next trip they wanted to take to the islands. But they claimed that they wouldn’t move back. Everyone agreed. Hawaii is a wonderful vacation, but we love living here.
The next luau at The Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar is scheduled for October 31. The cost for this one was $55 per person with Happy Hour cocktail prices from 6:00pm to 9:00pm.
The Fairmont Hotel’s Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar
950 Mason Street
San Francisco, CA 94108
Phone: (415) 772-5278
Wed – Thu: 5pm-11:30pm
Fri – Sat: 5pm-12:30am
Facebook: Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar