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happy hour at the Tonga Room

A handful of hounds met last night for happy hour at the Tonga Room. Two of us arrived by 5:15 and already you couldn't get a table. People were camped out and saving seats all around. We snagged two bar stools as a starting point.

We ordered two mai tais ($7.50 each, $1 off) and paid $7 for all you can eat appetizers. By the time our next cohorts arrived, the buffet line was snaking around the dance floor.

Results were mixed. In some ways, the food was better than expected. Spareribs were meaty and decent quality pork, if not enhanced by any noticeable sauce. Fried won tons and egg rolls weren't bad, although I couldn't tell you what was inside, and a giant wok of thick noodles with cabbage and long beans was surprisingly decent.

Cocktails varied. Mai tais were pretty good, if low in alcohol. My Blue Hawaii was undrinkable. Service was generally surly. Our waitress checked back once at 7 to see if we wanted any more drinks at happy hour prices and then again to place a sign on the table that there was $5 cover charge after 8. No one noticed we hadn't finished any of our drinks.

The rain shower and pirate music were amusing. One friend commented the water reminded her of the hourly produce spray at Safeway.

The atmosphere is virtually unchanged since I first walked into the Fairmont 20 years ago (when there was still a doorman in charge of pressing the F into the ash trays) and maybe longer than that. Beautiful wood, maybe insufficiently ironic or kitschy. The tourists seemed happy enough, although it's hard to know why.

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  1. Well, you're either into tiki lounges or you're not. People who are tiki fanatics do not generally consider the Tonga Room ironic or kitsch.

    1. There are tiki fanatics who aren't into ironic kitsch? I thought that was the whole appeal.

      Maybe the standard recommendation should be updated to say (1) go at happy hour for the show, (2) eat elsewhere, and (3) order beer or wine if you don't want to risk getting a bad cocktail?

      8 Replies
      1. re: Robert Lauriston

        or maybe once every 20 years is enough. Fridays are probably worse than other nights.

        And I love mai tais and drinks with umbrellas! The last time I went to Trader Vic's was much more fun than this.

        A $5 beer probably wouldn't kill you if you were in the neighborhood or could find street parking (easiest up by Grace Cathedral).

        1. re: Windy

          If you love mai tais, you should definitely go to LiPo on 900 block of Grant in Chinatown - their mai tais are excellent and STRONG. Plus, the bartender is nice and its everything a person could want in a dingy Chinatown bar (except that the patrons are more likely to be tourists than residents of Chinatown).

          1. re: larochelle

            I love LiPo. I had some scary looking snake juice from a jar last time I was there but have never tried their mai tais.

            Do they have bar snacks?

            1. re: Windy

              no snacks, we usually bring them in from the place across the street.

        2. re: Robert Lauriston

          Wine at a tiki bar? Now -that- would be ironic kitsch :)

          Glad to hear the tonga room is still going strong. Last time I was
          there a couple of years ago, it was nearly empty and I feared for its
          imminent demise. To Robert's comment I'd add that it helps a whole
          lot to arrive pre-drunk.

          1. re: Chuckles the Clone

            The Tonga is what it is, a pretend world. I agree it is always better to be pre-drunk when entering. Sometimes we
            all could use a little Tonga.

          2. re: Robert Lauriston

            I'm not into it for those reasons. I think tiki culture and its trappings are exotic and beautiful. Tonga Room is a great tiki bar, but yes, the waitresses are very surly and the drinks expensive. But the atmosphere is like going home for me.

            1. re: Atomica

              In the 60's, my dad was a chef at Kahiki in Columbus, Ohio—going home for me is a trip down memory lane to tiki huts. The Polynesian long-house was demolished in 2000 for a Walgreen's.

              www.ohiopreservation.org/Kahiki.htm

              www.roadsideamerica.com/tips/getAttra...
              "Going to The Kahiki as a child was such a treat. That was back in the day when ladies had to wear either skirts or dresses and gentlemen had to wear coats and ties. When you walked in past the Tiki gods with the flames coming out of their heads you walked across a wooden foot bridge with running water on either side. It was dark. They used a black light to illuminate the stones and water. Then the large wooden doors opened and a hostess seated you. One of the drinks was carried out by a lady in a grass skirt. And if you had a birthday, the men and women in grass skirts and the men in loin cloths would come out and dance for you. Great food and fun times. They even had a gift shop. I still have one of the glasses that the Headhunter drink came in and skewers that the cherries came on from other drinks. And Tiki god salt & peppers!"

              I wonder if the Tonga Room's "not-happy-hour Mai Tai" has more alcohol for $1 more.
              My second drink was a Campari & soda for $9 - it was a real drink! I like Negroni's, Lillet, ...my Campari & soda at the Tonga Room is the best I've had in San Francisco, not too much ice, not too much soda and it was a hefty pour.

              If you go to the Tonga Room, go early, go with friends, eat those meaty ribs and drizzle them with the mustard sauce or the other one that I didn't taste, order a real drink/tip the bartender — not a happy hour drink...and remember to request a table at the door as you enter.

          3. My drink was the Tonga something or other, not bad. I was surprised at how tasty the noodles were, made with thick Shanghai-style noodles, charred onions, slivers of carrots, long beans and a seasoned soy sauce. The meaty baby back ribs were better than most of the ones in Chinatown but would have benefitted from a bit of honey glaze . . .although we would have needed more napkins which were in short supply. Steamed pork bun was awful, and the chicken wonton I bit into was off. The buffet table also had some vegetable crudites and fresh fruit. Our waitress was as surly as the reputation here.

            Happy hour at the Tonga Room -
            http://static.flickr.com/97/244788618...

            1. Could anyone please compare and contrast the Tonga Room and Trader Vic's (SF or Emeryville)?

              2 Replies
              1. re: Saccade

                Trader Vic's is a restaurant.

                The Tonga Room is a hotel bar with a campy floor show. Their drinks and food are the same concept as Trader Vic's but not as good.

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  I've never gone to Trader Vic's for the food, but maybe I should try it from that perspective. "Not as good" is helpful; thanks.

              2. I mentioned the Tonga Room to someone about a year ago for some dumb fun and she said, "What?!!!, I went to senior prom there...I'm not going." That sentiment sort of nailed it.

                1 Reply
                1. re: ML8000

                  Once is enough, or once every 20 years.