Tonga Room, photo by Eric October, from Critiki
As most everyone and their mother has heard by now, one of the most beautiful, historic tiki bars in the world, San Francisco’s Tonga Room, is going to close sometime between, erm… now… and uh… never. My money’s on the time being something closer to the “now” end of that spectrum, I’m afraid. After many, many months of waiting and worrying, I think that the end times are finally here.
The short version: the Tonga Room is in the Fairmont Hotel, which is one of the higher-end hotels in a very high-end district of a generally high-end kind of a town. The hotel wants to be able to do a better job of handling very large conferences, and in order to do that they need to clear out a large, somewhat contiguous area within the hotel and turn it into a ballroom and series of meeting rooms that can be used flexibly. That, and they want to add condos. It’s the march of progress, folks, and I just don’t think it can be held back.
A lot of people have been working very hard to make the argument that the Tonga Room is historic and worth saving. It’s been a hard argument to make with the hotel folks—the hotel itself is historic, having been built in 1906, and they have not been terribly warm to the idea that this room full of ’60s relics is anything but an embarrassment. (The Tonga Room itself has been around longer than that—it went tiki relatively late in its life.)
But the preservationists’ work seems to have at least partially paid off… the city’s Historic Preservation Commission is due to recommend today that the artifacts be saved. I think everyone has given up on the idea of the room being preserved as-is, but at least the point is being made that the items within can’t just get sent to a junkyard. Now the San Francisco Chronicle reports that a “local restaurateur” has a letter of intent to purchase the items, and has a plan to move them to a new location. The identity of the restaurateur, and any other details, won’t be announced until the deal gets worked out completely… but the announcement could come at the commission meeting.
That’s as good as it’s going to get, folks. I can’t imagine the pool will be recreated—that pool represents an awful lot of square footage that could be seating—but hopefully the pieces will at least continue to be on display somewhere. Beyond the thorny pool/thunderstorm problem of relocating the Tonga Room, the pieces in that space are simply massive… it’ll take a very large space to hold them. Let’s hope that this mystery restaurateur has very deep pockets.
There’s been plenty of murmuring around town that this would be a perfect project for Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove, which… duh. And, yes please. I can’t imagine sinking the kind of money that would go into this venture and not including the tiki home run king. If Martin knows anything, though, he’s silent about it, which is par for the course. He’s famously good at keeping secrets. If nothing else, we owe Martin some thanks for showing that tiki can be great. A few short years ago, I don’t know that a restaurateur would have been interested in investing in tiki on this scale.
UPDATE 10/21 at 7:55pm:
Per KGO, at the meeting today the decision from the Planning Commission has been delayed until next year. There are “too many concerns,” not just the pleas from citizens to save the Tonga Room, but also issues spanning from job losses to neighborhood congestion. This would likely also put the brakes on any deal to relocate the Tonga Room.
UPDATE 10/22 at 1:47pm:
The mystery restaurateur has been revealed: Peter Scully, a Marina district nightclub owner and event promoter.