Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Mai Tai "Wave"
A Revitalized Trader Vic’s is set to reopen at its Emeryville location - Tuesday September 28, 2010!

The year is 1934: Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow die in a bloody shootout in Louisiana. Babe Ruth played his last game as a Yankee. Hitler’s Third Reich is beginning its rise to power in a troubled post-WWI Germany. An America struggling with the Great Depression finds escape at the cinema with the likes of young Shirley Temple.

It is against this background that “Trader Vic” Bergeron opened his first eatery, titled simply “Hinky Dink’s” (legend has it that the title came from his favorite World War One ditty, “Hinky-Dinky Parlez Vous”). Trader Vic’s unique vision for his venture was that it should be an escape to paradise for his patrons. The singular “themed” nature of his restaurant, coupled with great food and his engaging personal style, all combined to increase the popularity of what had now become Trader Vic’s. In short order it became one of the Bay’s hottest eateries.

In a few short years it was 1940. Sinatra had begun his remarkable singing career. Walt Disney’s “Pinocchio” debuted in theaters. Mussolini and Hitler were joining forces, Lucille Ball wed Desi Arnaz, and a second Trader Vic’s opened in Seattle, Washington.

Another decade passes; the year is now 1950. Einstein warns against the dangers of the hydrogen bomb. The Great Brinks Bank Robbery occurs in Boston. Joe McCarthy is hot on the trail of communists in the U.S. State Department. Jackie Robinson signs with the Dodgers. Trader Vic’s restaurants are thriving as the Trader opens a third location in Hawaii — a year later he adds a fourth venue in San Francisco.

In 1972 the Trader closes his original location, moving the party to the current site on the waterfront in Emeryville. Janet Lynn wins the US Women’s Figure Skating title. On Bloody Sunday British Troops fire on the Catholics in Londonderry. East Pakistan becomes Bangladesh.

History happens around us, moving us forward in time, forever changing the world around us. To cope with the chaos, we identify with, and cling to, that which is familiar. It is human nature. When we find those places that comfort us, we revisit them. They become a safe haven, that familiar place where we can come together with others to share that which we are experiencing. We discuss the events that are happening in the world. We share the things that make us happy and bond over the things that make us sad. At the core of most human gatherings is the breaking of bread and the consumption of libations. A savvy restaurateur can capitalize on this tradition to draw patrons into an environment of his creation. Successful from the get-go at establishing the right blend of food, drink and welcoming space, Trader Vic’s has long been such a haven, relied on by its patrons to carry them through over seventy years of change.

Yet after so many decades, that which was once seen as a constant can become perhaps too familiar. The icon can get a little dusty. How to polish it up? Straddling the past while welcoming the future — this was the task at hand for the group currently charged with the Trader Vic’s legacy. They needed to take a restaurant that had grown so familiar to generations of patrons that it was almost revered and move it solidly into the twenty-first century so that it would continue to welcome the next generations. The challenge became how to introduce their particular brand of magic to a new generation of patrons, while preserving intact the legacy of the Trader himself.

It should be acknowledged that the Trader was possessed of a foresight and vision remarkably similar to that of Walt Disney. He understood that in creating a uniquely distinct Polynesian setting and realizing it with the utmost attention to detail, his restaurant would become so distinct that once his patrons had spent some time within its walls, it’s very distinction would evoke a strong flood of memories that brings visitors back time and again. No one who approaches the familiar tiki-themed doorway can keep from being imprinted with an image of the gates to paradise. Over time, the sight of iconic structures inevitably recalls the lifetime of shared events that have taken place inside them. So changing anything requires enormous care and attention to detail.

Restaurants that have endured as long as Trader Vic’s, provide an authentic voice for the history that has transpired within their walls. They are an echo chamber, a stage for the play of life. Trader Vic’s has become a time capsule of its own history.

You may find yourself asking at this point, “What have they done to change it up?” The answer may more accurately be “what haven’t they done?” The space within the restaurant has been reconfigured to allow for a more natural flow of traffic by its guests. The menu is re-envisioned. The bar areas have been reworked, and the new monkey wood fairly gleams. The Beverage Manager has taken the classic Mai Tai and — guided no doubt by the spirit of its inventor, Vic Bergeron himself — has created many new varieties of the Mai Tai, including a particularly intriguing Mango version I personally sampled. It was a delightfully tangy, citrus-y and refreshing take on the classic rum concoction.

Perhaps the biggest continuing struggle in the overhaul of Trader Vic’s was how much of the current food menu to retain and how much to change. At the end of the process, the balance they struck was near perfection. The new menu retains the flavors of the Pacific Islands, keeping a few of the favorite dishes and introducing many new ones, including a contemporary refocus on seafood dishes. That refocus will feature a Friday Fish Night where fresh fish specials will be offered in collaboration with the world-famous Honolulu Fish Market.

Even more exciting, there will be a monthly menu with options from the Trader Vic’s archives.  As yet untitled, this menu will rotate many of the old favorites, allowing the patrons who miss particular items to re-experience them, while reviving dishes for new visitors who may never have experienced them previously. They will honor the heart of the old recipes, yet present them in a modern context.

The lounge will feature small plates: “Menehune” and “Vickies” both with price points designed to be accessible to a family budget. Several of the bar menu items were served at a press avail recently, and I was able to sample them to provide a preview. The Crab & Chicken Spring Rolls were still hot out of the fryer. The rolls had a perfect crunch to their exterior. Once they had cooled slightly, a hearty bite revealed the wonderfully flavorful interior. Overall, a lovely reinterpreting of the classic egg roll. Next up, the Pacific Crab Sandwich, a splendidly decadent combination of a rich, creamy crab meat, slivers of avocado, and oranges on a blissfully perfect roll, topped off nicely with a sprinkling of pine nuts. This sandwich was absolutely delectable.

In addition to the Menehunes will be smaller plates, meant to be a cross between bar snack and small plate. These little bites are aptly titled “Vickies” and include a Macadamia Nut Hummus with mango, Wok’d Edamame and Fries. The flavors of the Middle East combined with those of the Pacific Islands... nice!  The proprietors want the bar to be both welcoming and happening. The variety of foods served is intended to allow even the largest party of revelers to find items that suit their tastes. In addition to the large variety of food, there will be a new and improved selection of Mai Tais, including a sampler called “the Wave” --- a  precious little surfboard platter that features three mini-sized servings of their “flavored” Mai Tais, including Guava, Maui & Mango.

Amu w/ Macadamia Nuts
 Some of the other NEW dishes we tasted were an Amu with Mango Macadamia Nut, an absolute ambrosia of seafood ceviche with mango fruit. The delightful open-faced Steamed Bun w/BBQ Pork was likewise a light & airy perfection of pork bun, brimming over with sweet chewy pork. The Shrimp with Apple arrived on a skewer, a seafood version of the Chicken Lollipops. The sauce was strong and tangy — perfectly enhancing the hot puffs of fried shrimp. Everything we sampled was first-rate, beautifully plated, while retaining that Pacific Island sensibility we’ve come to expect from Trader Vics.

The happy hour bargains are truly impressive. Twice daily — Tuesday through Sunday, from 4pm - 6pm and 9pm - 11pm — Trader Vic’s will feature any food item with the “Happy Menehune” symbol at half the usual cost. The selection is a large one, a sizeable portion of the lounge menu.  Selected cocktails will be $5.00, including Mai Tais, with the exception of the 1944 Mai Tai, which will be $6.00.  But anyone whose had one can tell you it contains a glass full of rum, and at that price, is still a steal.

I have to say I was impressed, and that doesn’t happen often. The staff has really thought this through and come up with every possible way to refresh an icon without losing its integrity. The chef is a master whose enthusiasm for revisiting the menu archives is infectious. The bar staff are competent mixologists, eager to introduce the public to a classic Trader Vic’s Mai Tai that has been given a new flavor profile for the modern drinker.

Seventy-nine years after the Trader first opened his doors, the flagship in Emeryville will reopen for another shot at making history. In less than a week, the tiki doors again swing open for regular business, and I plan on stopping by. I suggest you do, too. Check it out, and E ‘ai ka-kou!

Trader Vic’s Emeryville
9 Anchor Drive
Emeryville, CA 94608-1510
(510) 653-3400