The bar at Trader Vic’s Emeryville
I’d wanted to continue my series on the newly refreshed Trader Vic’s Emeryville in September, but I found the offerings to be a swiftly moving target: the menus I’d had during the previews were still undergoing changes even after they opened, and some monkeying may still be happening. But I can’t sit on this forever! And my general, overall impressions of the new Trader Vic’s have gelled a bit.
For pictures of Trader Vic’s Emeryville’s new look, check out the entry in Critiki, which has pictures of the final decor, and this earlier Humu Kon Tiki post, which has preview pictures.
The word during the previews was that dining was going to be much less stuffy, and I’ve found this to be partly true. The lunch and bar menus are full of reasonably priced, delightful food options. The dinner menu, though, looks very much like it did before, and while the tablecloths are gone, the service is friendly but still rather formal.
There are several new items that I have fallen in love with. They appear on different menus, but it’s always worth asking your server if they may be available when and where you’re dining.
I absolutely adore the Edamame Ravioli. It’s a starter on the dinner menu; saucer-shaped homemade ravioli with bright, fresh flavors of edamame, mint and ricotta. It’s so delicate, and so good.
The Twice-Cooked Pork Sliders are excellent, and may be my favorite mid-size meal item. Slabs of pork with a hoisin-like sauce, served with fresh cucumber slivers on a soft, Asian roll. If you like the traditional Crispy Duck entree, you’ll love the Twice-Cooked Pork (much more than the crispy-in-the-wrong-way Crispy Duck Tacos). The Twice-Cooked Pork seems to be slipping around the menus, and the name Twice-Cooked Pork doesn’t really sell it: hopefully this item will become a mainstay, perhaps with a better name?
Vegans luck out with one of the best additions to the whole menu: Smoked Tofu and Seaweed Salad. Very flavorful, filling and fulfilling.
Gun Club Punch
I wish the drink news was as positive. The new additions have a too-sweet, too-chemical bent. If you love the drinks that are available in any tourist bar in Hawaii, you’ll love the new drinks at Trader Vic’s, but they’re just not for me. I’m unsure what the intent is with these new drinks. It could be that they’re giving people who are trying to recreate Hawaiian vacation memories exactly what they’re looking for. It could also be that the bar staff has had their hands tied with a limiting palette of ingredients to work with (they are using their own famously mediocre “Trader Vic’s” brand rums). Either way, it’s a mis-match with Trader Vic’s storied history, and with San Francisco’s current focus on high-quality cocktails.
There are some bright spots on the drink menu, though: plenty of old stand-bys are there, including the return of the from-scratch Mai Tai. For a long time now, Trader Vic’s has been using a mix, unless you specifically asked for a Mai Tai made from scratch (the locations varied a bit on how to do this, but in most locations “San Francisco style” meant scratch, while “the Old Way” meant with an extra rum float). Now, finally you can get a truly from-scratch Mai Tai with no fuss, no muss: it’s on the menu as the 1944 Mai Tai. It costs just one dollar more than the regular Mai Tai, a no-brainer upgrade. I still gravitate to my go-to Trader Vic’s drink, the Gun Club Punch, and have found it to be just as I remember it.
There are lots of new—and young—faces at Trader Vic’s these days. Despite the relative green-ness of these new Trader Vic’s employees, I would say they are by far the biggest improvement, and the reason I’m excited to go back. The service I’ve received has been simply stellar. Friendly, approachable, speedy and accommodating. They make dining a pleasure.
The dining room at Trader Vic’s Emeryville
The music! Oh, the music has been enchanting. Such a pleasant surprise. Lovely, midcentury Hawaiian… it sounds like someone has been busy with their vinyl collecting.
I wish I had a happier report on the televisions. I’ve been there when no one is watching them, and yet all three are on, casting their garish, inescapable light on all the patrons. The staff needs to learn to read the room, and get aggressive with the off button. The World Series is over.
There’s lots to be excited about in Emeryville, and it’s been a relief to everyone. The restaurant appears to be regularly packed with a great mix of old-timers and young folks, and the bar in particular has a life it has been missing for years. Stick to your old favorite drinks, look for new favorites on the food menu. Take some time to walk around and see the changes. If you haven’t already, make plans to get to Emeryville!
Trader Vic’s Emeryville Sneak Peek: