Lovers of Tiki decor and a good cocktail within reach of London are doubly blessed for, lurking below the Hilton in Park Lane, is not just a fantastic Tiki-themed cocktail bar, but also one of the original chain of post-War Trader Vic’s, now one of the longest surviving anywhere.
First the history bit. ‘Vic’ is Victor Bergeron who, as a 31 year-old entrepreneur, opened his first Polynesian-themed restaurant in Oakland, near San Francisco, in 1934. By the time the Second World War rolled around, he’d opened another in Seattle, but it was the explosion in Tiki culture, fuelled by the thousands of former Servicemen who’d experienced a little of the local culture in the South Pacific, that saw Trader Vic’s take off as a chain. By the late 50s and early 60s, there were up to 25 outlets operating worldwide, all sharing the same theme and drinks menu.
And that’s where London comes in. In 1962, Conrad Hilton was preparing for the opening of his new hotel in Park Lane and, as he’d done elsewhere with new venues, invited Bergeron to open a London branch of Trader Vic’s in the basement, capitalising on the worldwide popularity of the brand that matched the Hilton image of affluent modern eating and drinking. It’s my great fortune to know someone who was there at the opening in 1963 – the Executive Assistant Manager for the new hotel, Douglas Gordon. Douglas has confirmed that the Trader Vic’s we know now is pretty much as it was on that first night under the management of Helmun Petrak, when Conrad Hilton attended the opening with former wife Zsa Zsa Gabor.
As the popularity of the Tiki theme waned in the 70s and 80s, branches of Trader Vic’s started to disappear, including most of those in the United States (the Wikipedia entry has a full list of opening and closing dates). Thus the London branch is not only one of the most long-standing, but thanks to the longevity of the hotel itself, is one of the most original. A fire a few years ago had many of its fans holding their breath, but the damage was limited to a small area. More worrying was its closure in 2013 for a half-century refurbishment. Would it be ruined in the drive to attract more customers in search of West End ‘bling’? We made our first re-visit with some trepidation, but were delighted to find that this was genuinely a concerted effort to return the venue to its original freshness, cleaning away 50 years of nicotine from the bamboo walls and ceiling, and replacing the worn upholstery with something new but very appropriate.
Trader Vic’s is a place best visited with friends, and we were lucky enough to make our most recent call with some of our very closest, and those for whom, no matter how often they visit, Vic’s represents a special pilgrimage in search of a slice of 1950s Americana. The drinks are expertly mixed, with many of them faithfully following recipies from the original 1940s cocktail list, including the signature 1944 Mai Tai. Indeed the list itself is barely changed from the original design; sadly, the prices have kept pace with inflation, but in comparison with what you would pay elsewhere in London, let alone the West End, are fair for what you get. Going with friends allows you to compare and share, as deciding is hard. Will it be one of the original mixes, something in an outrageous drinking vessel (and I mean vessel – if there’s enough of you, try the canoe!), or something with a Menehune or Parrot attached to the straw that you can take home? Needless to say, you can eat there, too, though on this occasion we were warming up for a night at the 100 Club, about which I’ll be writing tomorrow!
For addicts of the Tiki scene, there are a couple of gorgeous Tachen books, starting at the light end of the bookshelf with Tiki Style and going up to a coffee table monster, but an absolute gem in Tiki Pop. Of course, Trader Vic’s in London has its own website and Facebook page where you can pick up on the various events that they run.