September 11, 2010

Trader Vic’s Emeryville: A New Hope

Filed under: News,San Francisco,Tiki,Trader Vic's — Humuhumu @ 4:56 pm
Looking into the Outrigger Room from the back hallwayLooking into the Outrigger Room from the back hallway

This past Thursday, I got to have an early look at the newly updated Trader Vic’s in Emeryville. There’s a lot to talk about, so I’m breaking this up into a few posts. I know you’re dying for pictures, and more are on their way, along with a whole mess of details. But first, my more free-form thoughts about the state of affairs in Emeryville. (In case you missed it, here are a few of my pictures from Twitter to whet your appetite.)

In many ways the Trader Vic’s in Emeryville is the heart of the Bay Area tiki scene, and is certainly the heart of the Trader Vic’s organization. Tonga Room may be older, but the sense of tradition is stronger in Emeryville.

“Tradition” is exactly what has been Trader Vic’s challenge. What to keep, what to change, what to let go? It’s easy to think that we’d like Trader Vic’s and other historic locations to stay trapped in amber, but do we want museum pieces? Or do we want stirring experiences?

Everyone says we’re out of date! We need to get with the times! And no wonder, this place looks like a dust-filled attic! It’s easy to imagine this has been the line of thinking at Trader Vic’s. Case in point: when Trader Vic’s returned to San Francisco in 2004 they tried to attract their same old fine dining audience by offering essentially the same menu of food and drinks (with some flavor tweaks for modern palates). Operation Modernize seemed mostly about the decor, which was simplified, more open and airy, and generically tropical (right down to the bizarre Latin music).

It didn’t work. I’d love to blame the loss of that old-style Polynesian Pop goodness, but that wasn’t really the problem; tiki buffs are not enough to keep Trader Vic’s afloat alone. The problem was that they updated the wrong thing. The competition for restaurant dollars was far too stiff. Extraordinary and world-renowned restaurants are liberally peppered throughout the city, and offered amazing meals for about the same price. Less expensive restaurants of every ethnic stripe bring the exotic within arm’s reach. Choosing to eat dinner at Trader Vic’s simply didn’t make sense.

But while Trader Vic’s has had some very obvious stumbles in recent years, it turns out it has not been for naught. They’ve been paying attention, they’ve been learning. They’ve realized that the big thing that needs to change, the one thing that needs updating, is the food. Not the taste, mind you: those Chinese ovens turn out some lovely meats. But the model. Smaller portions, less stodgy, less expensive, more… with it.

Carved panelA new carved panel sliding door for the Captain Cook room

They seem to have figured out that the old decor wasn’t repelling people, it was the old food. And if the decor wasn’t repelling people, why change it into something that definitely will repel the folks who do like you? So they seem to have knocked that off.

Here’s a simple example that demonstrates how this change of thinking manifests at Trader Vic’s Emeryville: the tables no longer have linen tablecloths. Does that seem like a shame? It’s not, trust me. You’re not going to miss that fussy, stiff, bland expanse of white on your table one bit, because you’ll be eating on gorgeous koa wood instead. The tables are new, but they look straight out of a great old golden-era Polynesian restaurant.

I have so much more to say… so, so much more. I’ll be back soon with lots of details about the food offerings, the drinks, and lots of great news about the decor. And plenty of photographs!

3 Responses to “Trader Vic’s Emeryville: A New Hope”

  1. Damon Says:

    I couldn’t agree more about the food. Trader Vic’s in Chicago, which is the closest Trader Vic’s to me, seems to be in the same spot. I was last there this spring. The food was fine, but it did seem out dated, and the place felt a bit stuffy. That may have worked for my parents or grandparents, but the last thing I associate with Polynesian is stuffy. Even if it is fine dining. Mahalo for the great pictures, I look forward to the rest of your review.

  2. Humu Kon Tiki : Trader Vic’s Emeryville: The Decor Says:

    [...] Part One: Trader Vic’s Emeryville: A New Hope [...]

  3. Kenike Says:

    Great post Humu!

    Some of those panels on the sliding door definitely came from Dallas. I’m still going through my pictures but I’ve positively ID’d at least two.

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Humuhumu is the creator of several tiki websites. She is a designer and programmer based out of San Francisco.

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