rss feed | youtube | links | the burning log
Saturday, June 23, 2007
In the tiki, tiki, tiki franchise
Tiki bars are a rare breed of drinking establishment. Portland is fortunate enough to have two excellent ones, the long-running Alibi Restaurant and Lounge (4024 N Interstate Ave) and new-comer Thatch (2733 NE Broadway St), which opened back in January. Once upon a time, the city once served as the home of no less than four tiki bars, one of which was a Trader Vic's next door to the Benson Hotel. It closed before long before I was old enough to drink and my parents never thought to take me down there for shish kabobs.
Back in the day, Trader Vic’s was a driving force, bringing tiki culture to the masses with 25 restaurants worldwide and a collection of popular drinking manuals. The franchise has been in steady decline for a few decades but the current owners seem to be staging a resurgence. One of their new restaurants/lounges recently opened in Bellevue, just outside of Seattle. I made a pit stop there during a recent trip north.
So how does this new version of Trader Vic's stand-up against the likes of Thatch and the Alibi? Not all that well. There's clearly a reverence for history at work up there. Just past the main doors, the Bellevue branch has a display case filled with decades of knickknacks. The drink menu in the lounge looks like a reprint of one from the 50s, complete with cheesy descriptions of each concoction and fairly offensive native stereotypes throughout. I'm surprised that topless Polynesians in hula skirts and grinning cartoon sailors on the menu's cover still fly with drinkers in the 21st century.
While the restaurant itself is under-themed with white tablecloths and downright boring altogether, the lounge holds up better. The tikis themselves are all elaborate, including a six-foot tall one near the entrance. The walls are loaded with décor and the candles on each table were cool enough for me to briefly plot how to smuggle one out of there. When you're paying $12 to eat a cheeseburger and $9 for a Pina Colada, shouldn't the meal come with a complimentary tiki candle?
Still, the bartenders didn’t skimp on the booze and that Pina Colada was probably the best I've ever encountered. Trader Vic's was supposedly the first place to bring Mai Tais to the states but I was disappointed with the one that was brought to the table after I finished my first drink. It was stronger than a Long Island Ice Tea and bland but maybe I've just been thrown off by years of improperly made, over-sweetened Mai Tais. Trader Vic's prides itself on coming up with the drink first and supposedly doing it up right. Is this what a Mai Tai is supposed to taste like?
The food menu was spendy, in the $$ - $$$ range, and this new Trader Vic's seems bent on drawing the over 40, Lexus-driving crowd. While it's clear that the designers tried to update the tiki theme for the 21st century, this latest incarnation of the franchise looks and feels more like a classic tiki bar mashed into a Cheesecake Factory. Will I ever go back? Probably not, but mostly because I can't think of when I'll be back in Bellevue. The food and the restaurant are best avoided but, if you've got the cash, the lounge is worth an occasional escape from the Seattle area's perpetual clouds to the faux-tropics.