Tiki Culture

Trader Vic'sI’ve always had a thing for tiki culture. It must have started when I was a kid and my Mom liked to go with her friends to a restaurant on the Peninsula called the Castaways that had a fashion show while you were eating and women [usually in bikini tops] would walk up to your table and give you an up close view of their outfit. Because of this I think I started to go through puberty at about seven.

It was more than the girls though, Tiki Culture was still kind of big when I was a kid having hit its peak in the 50’s when Hawaii joined the United States as its 50th state. The whole Tiki Culture thing started long before Hawaii became a state though.

It actually started in 1934 when A guy named Ernest Gantt started a bar and restaurant called Don The Beachcomer in Hollywood. He invented lots of tiki drinks that had nothing to do with Hawaii or anywhere else in the tropics other than the fact that they used rum which was pretty cheap at the time. Ernest changed his name to Donn Beach to solidify his place along with one of the mainstays of tiki cocktails, the Zombie.

Not too long after Don The Beachcomber opened though then a man by the name of Victor Bergeron visited the Beachcomber and thought to himself…I can do this one better. Trader Vic’s soon replaced Hinky Dinks in Oakland and with his keen eye for business Trader Vic’s blossomed. There were locations opening up all over the US with the last one oddly enough opening up in Hawaii. Victor Bergeron has himself seated at the tiki hierarchy along with Donn Beach because of this and Trader Vic created the famous Mai Tai.

Not so surprising Trader Vic’s caused a blossoming in the San Francisco Bay Area of tiki bars. There is of course the Tonga Room at the Fairmont Hotel that has been saved for now from closing. For those in need of more of a dive tiki bar there was Trad’r Sam’s in the outer Richmond which is probably one of the last places that you would expect to find a tiki bar.

These were all the old school tiki bar/restaurants. The drinks were strong and the food, while somewhat pedestrian by today’s foodie standards were Americanized version of Asian food with appetizers like Crab Rangoon or Rumaki usually being served. The entire environment was dress how people expected the tropics to be, not necessarily how they were. My wife and I went to Hawaii and when the heat and humidity hit here when we got of the plane I was surprised she didn’t turn right back around and fly home. In San Francisco you don’t have to worry about heat and humidity though so the cheap grass skirt hangings and wooden canoes were just nice and not what you would see in your everyday life.

Tiki bars and their culture were a form of escapism and San Francisco was no better place to escape from it all. There were other places around the city that had bits and pieces of tiki influence that weren’t tiki bars. If you go to Bimbo’s 365 club they still have the fish tank behind the bar where through optical effects a girl down below dressing in a mermaid outfit looked like she was swimming around in the tank. Most bars would make a Mai Tai or Zombie, but they never did it as well as where they originated.

The Vietnam war started to cause a fade in Tiki Culture, but it never disappeared as a form of necessary escapism for many. I know of several friends who’ve created tiki bar like home bars that are always a lot of fun to have a drink at, but when those drinks come cheaper your liver might protest a bit more.

The Tiki Culture of yesterday has made a comeback though which is a good thing. Trader Vic’s, the Tonga Room and Trad’r Sam’s are still in business now joined by Smuggler’s Cover, Bamboo Hut and Tiki Haven among others. The older places have updated a bit [well, maybe not Trad’r Sam’s] and the new places are giving a spin on Tiki Culture for the new millennia. Definitely check out at least one of the old and one of the new so you can compare and don’t forget your Hawaiian shirt!


Throw Down with the Food Network!

I read an article today that has been on my mind for a long time. Every since the Food Network came to the Bay Area we have yet to see one of the star chef’s open up a restaurant here. Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Anthony Bourdain [who dislikes San Francisco because of Alice Waters in Berkeley] Mario Batali and the several others don’t want to even bother opening a restaurant here because the competition is too stiff.

Now we do have Wolfgang Puck who opened up Postrio and Roy’s Hawaii Cuisine, but not a single Food Network star has bother with San Francisco. Well I suppose I could include Martin Yan, but he’s no longer a part of the network. I haven’t seen Tyler Florence much lately, but he’s busy with his restaurant here at the moment. Now to me, if you’re going to talk like you’re a world renowned chef you should at least be able to thrown down in Baghdad by the Bay and pull it off. We’ve got some really hefty chefs here already like Michael Mina and Jeremiah Tower who have changed the restaurant industry, but for some reason we scare off the big guns of the media. Had I the money I would travel to one of Bobby Flay’s restaurants with a small camera crew and pull his throw down move with him to get him to come to SF and try his hand in the restaurant business here.

San Francisco, while being seven by seven miles has the largest number of restaurants than any other city in the United States. I was walking around the Embarcadero yesterday and found that there were more places to eat than I remembered. One block alone had six restaurants on one side of the street and these were Subways or McDonalds, but real white linen, sit down restaurants [I’ll still count the Tadich Grill since it’s so good, but no white linen table clothes.]

I like the Food Network and consider myself a bit of a foodie, but not a food blogger. I’ve got more to write about than Mom’s great recipes or the great dishes you can get around town. I watch it at least a couple of nights a week and do have a fondness for Guy Fieri’s Diner’s Drive-in’s and Dives, probably because he’s not afraid of San Francisco. I would love to see some of those Iron Chefs give it a shot in San Francisco, but apparently we scare them off. Could they even handle going up against one of our great food trucks at Off the Grid on a Friday night at Fort Mason? I don’t think so. Could they stand up against the falafel at Sunrise Deli or a shawarma at Yumma’s? I don’t think so.

Bobby Flay, I challenge you and your East Coast Food Network crew to a throw down to open restaurants in San Francisco and see how you fare in our Kitchen Stadium.


Pacifica, CA

I had a chance to travel just a touch south of San Francisco yesterday to visit a friend who was in town and I decided to write about Pacifica for today. Pacifica is a bit of an isolated area in that you can get to it from Highway 280 or Highway 35, but the two intersect and the only way out is Highway 1 which turns into Highway 35, so I think you can see that it’s one way in and one way out.

Now Pacifica has a few little towns such as Lindamar, Vallmar and Rockaway Beach that aren’t really towns, but they kind of think they are. We met up at their hotel in Rockaway Beach which is the part of Pacifica where all the surfers go. If you’re not a surfer then you’re probably there to eat at Nick’s Restaurant. Nick’s was always a kind of getaway for people from San Francisco. It has a feel of the old school restaurants of Las Vegas without today’s prices. If you want seafood, Nick’s is the place to go. My parent’s and everyone in my family have a soft spot for Nick’s. I learned to actually enjoy a dish they have there called, scalone which is a mixture of scallops and abalone served as a sandwich. It was a treat that Nick’s started and while you can find it at other places, stick to Nick’s. They have things other than seafood, but if you want the experience of an old school Italian seafood restaurant it’s probably better than anything you’ll find on the wharf. Nick’s is less crowded, except on Sundays when they have their special brunch menu, but you’ll still be able to get a seat and have some good food while watching the waves and [hopefully not] watch the surfers change out of their wetsuits.

Just as a side note, my friend and his wife I was meeting are from way up north in California and they live in a place that’s somewhere between red and neck [any questions? Just drop Modoc County into google]. It turns out I found out that he has an elaborate set up at home for making his very own corn whiskey moonshine. I received a mason jar full of 145 proof corn whiskey that if I survive the drinking of it I will try and write about that if I can keep my eyes focused and my hand steady. He’s a good old boy and I appreciate that he brought some of his mad scientist brew for me to try.

Now back to Pacifica…Specifically Rockaway Beach is an interesting part of the area because if you look at the picture you’ll see that it has a lot of grass and rocky areas that remind me of pictures I’ve seen of Wales. This is definitely a place for hardy folk as the winds can pick up here in the afternoon and blow you over. On a calm sunny day [which is a bit rare for Pacifica] watching the sunset is one of the joys of this place.

If you go a bit north up to Sharp Park you’ll find one of the few black sand beaches in the area. I unfortunately didn’t have the time to stop and take pictures of the beach there, but the sand had a higher amount of iron oxide in it that gives it a black look and is fun to show off to your kids how cool the beach is with a magnet. Just a touch further north is Manor Drive which has the main shopping district of Pacifica. I have to say that with a bit of a wink because it’s not like any shopping mall you’ll encounter. It’s basically a grocery store with a few small shops around it. My wife and I were in Pacifica years ago looking at the possibility of buying a home there and stopped in for breakfast at Manor Drive at a coffee shop and while looking out at the early morning surfers and shore fisherman had to wonder how often the fisherman and surfers got entangled. We didn’t see any fights, so I suppose they’ve found a way to keep away from each other.

If you stop at Manor Drive, be sure to stop and look up on the hill to the southeast. You’ll see a castle up there. I don’t know if the original owner is still there, but he bought the house that looked like a castle and decided that if it looked like a castle on the outside he should make the inside look like one too. The only sad part was that aside from the occasional local TV show that would showcase him, he never offered tours. For a place like that I’d pay to walk around in.

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The Old Clam House Changes Hands

I didn’t realize this, but the Old Clam House is the oldest restaurant in San Francisco having opened it’s doors in 1861 [the same year Abraham Lincoln was elected President] and has remained in the same family’s hands until just recently. For those people familiar with the East Coast fried clams are second nature. Everytime I get to go back east I always have to get a clam roll, lobster roll and if I happen to be in New York, PIZZA.

But I digress. I remember the Old Clam House from a time when I worked in that part of the city and the companies out there tended to have their Christmas parties there. I looks like a bit of a dive from the outside, but it was very old school on the inside. I mean old school like California gold miner old school. At one of the parties I was at there after my co-workers had gotten a few drinks in me I tried the fried clams. I wasn’t a big seafood person back then and I still to this day can’t bring myself to eat an oyster, raw or cooked, but you could fry up just about anything and I’ll try it.

The clams were excellent. The steak sandwich was a little tough, but do you really go to a place called the “Old Clam House” for steak? I found myself going back to the clams which were cherrystone clams. Now under new ownership a few things have changed.

First off, it was bought by the people who brought you the Stinking Rose in North Beach so I’ll assume that chef Andrea Froncillo of Bobo’s will make the steak much better. They’re adding prime rib to the menu which is always a plus in my book. Lots of crab and other fish in addition to of course the clams they even have a few items that would satisfy the odd vegan who might follow you to the Old Clam House. Prices aren’t to bad which is always good in this economy. Sadly though, I didn’t see fried clams on the menu. I’m hoping they’ll show up again. An interesting side note is that when the Clam House opened it was a southern waterfront restaurant connected to downtown San Francisco by two miles of plank road. That’s kind of interesting when you stare out at about a half mile of land to get you to the bay.

Time to re-visit the “Old Clam.”

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