The thatched roof of Trader Vic’s in Emeryville, California, is visible from the parking lot, boats bobbing in the marina around it. There’s classic tiki flair everywhere: the swaths of bamboo and wooden carvings of unnamed gods and totems, the pu-pu platters, the Hawaiian music playing overhead, and, of course, the Samoan Fog Cutters (a cocktail made of rum, brandy, gin, and sherry).
Trader Vic’s Emeryville opened in 1973, a replacement for the Oakland, California, original that debuted in 1934. Renovations in 2010 made the space even more tiki-fied, with artifacts Trader Vic himself picked up during his travels, and others directly sourced by the corporate team from South Pacific islands and other far-off locales. Lighter dishes have been added to the menu alongside the deeply sweet cocktails. It’s a blend of high- and lowbrow, healthy and not really, excess celebration and laid-back lifestyle, not much different than the original was 85 years ago. In fact, over the last 20 years, not much has changed at any Trader Vic’s location — the few still open around the globe, anyway.
The chain once had almost 30 locations around the world, with 80 percent located in the U.S. Only two remain in the country today: Emeryville and Atlanta, open since 1976. The company has had much more luck overseas, with restaurants in London (the oldest open since 1955), Tokyo, Dubai, and Germany, among others.
Times have changed, though. Back then, sipping mai tais surrounded by island kitsch was a big night out. No one questioned whether the masks and tiki gods were direct rip-offs from other cultures. It was an escape. Today, that old-school aesthetic can feel a little dusty or even outdated to some. To others, it can be straight-up offensive. Diners might find it hard to ignore cringe-worthy scenes depicting men chasing half-naked native women, like the one on the cover of its cocktail menu; same for the caricatures of Menehune, Hawai‘i’s mythological forest dwellers, as drink decoration, a throwaway topper like a paper umbrella. Detractors, and there are many, say that this faux-tropical ideal erases the actual experience of indigenous people, and that it’s insensitive to swill from a glass shaped like native symbols, warriors, and gods.
Trader Vic’s has used this kind of imagery since Bergeron served his first mai tai. It was all a part of the story, the mystique; the selling of a momentary break from reality. But as the company plans a comeback — hoping to open new locations around the country and world, using the familiar branding, design, decor, and recognizable tiki kitsch — it’s difficult to tell if it’s looking forward while looking back. With larger conversations surrounding modern-day tiki culture, focusing on topics like cultural appropriation, imperialism, and racial injustice, is there still room for an OG like Trader Vic’s?
In 1934, when Bergeron opened Hinky Dinks, the progenitor of Trader Vic’s, the country was in the throes of the Depression. It was basically a shack, a “bean and beer” house, in Oakland. It wasn’t long before Bergeron got bit by the tiki bug (thanks to traveling around the Caribbean, not the South Pacific, and maybe influenced a little by Don the Beachcomber, which opened in LA in 1933) and started filling the place with items he picked up during his travels. He came up with things for the menu like bongo bongo soup, with oyster and spinach; crab Rangoon, the fried crab- and cheese-filled wontons of his own invention; and the mai tai. Soon he changed the name to Trader Vic’s, and within a decade he started franchising, with the first non-California location debuting in Seattle.
Thanks to Hollywood’s depiction of tropical islands, the post-World War II affection for the South Pacific, and Hawai‘i becoming the 50th state, nearly a dozen Trader Vic’s opened around the country during the 1950s and ’60s, including in Portland, Oregon; New York City; Beverly Hills, California; and Chicago. In LA, the location at the famed Beverly Hilton was known as a hangout for Dean Martin, Ronald Reagan, and Hugh Hefner, among others. Everyone from uptown teenagers to Richard Nixon were regulars at the New York outpost (that is, until 1989, when Donald Trump took over the Plaza Hotel and closed it; he said Trader Vic’s, which opened there in 1965, was too tacky).
Bergeron capitalized on where someone can go in their mind with one sip of a rum-based drink, served in mugs depicting everything from skulls to tropical themes, the most popular being tribal mask carvings of gods and warriors adapted from Maori, Tahitian, and other South Pacific cultures. The drinks usually come topped with swizzle sticks and plastic toys. Tricks and flair like cherries jubilee or bananas flambeed tableside, and 151-proof Coffee Grog that’s set on fire, are part of the experience. When the brand expanded, especially to other countries, this Americanized ideal of a tropical vacation is what attracted both locals and tourists. The aesthetic didn’t have to reflect traditional Hawaiian or Polynesian cuisine and cocktails; it just had to be from somewhere close to Waikiki, Tahiti, or Easter Island.
“It’s an escape,” says current CEO Rhett Rosen. “In the middle of summer, it’s 125 degrees, and you walk into Trader Vic’s and feel like you’re in Hawai‘i or a Tahitian-style village. That translates to whatever country you’re in, any place around the world. We keep to our brand standards, what we want it to look and feel like, and it will always feel like a Trader Vic’s.”
That’s the tricky part. The overall concept of “tiki” is a purely American creation, an amalgam of ideas, an inauthentic representation of island life, if that island is even actually on the map. Bars like Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s played that up, for decades never having to address the glorification of stereotypes their kitsch and flair might be propagating.
More recently, some have argued for the abolishment of the tiki bar, claiming that, even if artificial, the patchwork of iconography and traditions plucked from South Pacific islands completely glosses over their cultural significance and the history of colonization. How kitschy images of paradise — shaded palm trees, beaches, grass skirts, and tiki gods — whitewash any thoughts of imperialism and erase history with each sip of rum.
But Bergeron didn’t stop with tiki. In 1964, he created a new concept after traveling around Mexico. Señor Pico served what it called “Early California and Mexican food,” and was all about alluring Americans, mostly Angelenos and San Franciscans, with a Cali-Mexican fusion menu and lots of tequila. Like Trader Vic’s, the colorful restaurant was a result of Bergeron’s own whimsy, a place that was more about the experience than adherence to any one particular place or culture.
The original Señor Pico menu featured fried chile cream cheese balls, Bergeron’s own creation, and tableside guacamole. He popularized margaritas: Legend has it that at one point, Señor Pico restaurants sold more tequila than any other restaurant in the world. Of course, there were more cocktails: The Potted Parrot was a sort of South of the Border version of a mai tai — “Watch this bird! When he starts talking, you stop walking, he’s yours to take home,” the menu says. People loved the restaurant back in the 1970s and early 1980s, in Los Angeles and San Francisco; even the estimable Jonathan Gold approved. With Señor Pico, Bergeron brought Cal-Mex cuisine abroad, with locations in Bangkok and the Middle East, but like his tiki paradise, it started to feel stuffy to a younger generation. Although the Oman location lasted until the early 2010s, the Los Angeles location shuttered sometime around 1980.
That’s when American tastes for entertainment and food started to shift. Boomers didn’t want what their parents loved, and Trader Vic’s locations started closing at a pretty fast tick in the ’80s. Today, all but one location that opened before 1970 are gone, and many that popped up during a brief resurgence in the early 2000s closed within a few years. (Rosen says the brand may have “overextended,” which resulted in franchisees moving away from Trader Vic’s original DNA.) But overseas, especially in the Middle East, the brand thrived, with locations in Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Jordan, and Qatar.
Now both Trader Vic’s and Señor Pico are on a rebound. The first Trader Vic’s to open in America in 10 years will debut at the San Jose International Airport by the end of 2019, with both a 135-seat full-service sit-down restaurant and a smaller grab-and-go cafe. This is the first of a larger rollout of new locations, with the goal to expand partnerships and the global company footprint, says Rosen.
For Trader Vic’s, Rosen says there’s “a lot of interest in bringing it back domestically, whether it’s Hawai‘i, New York, Chicago, Texas. People in New York who miss it, they want nothing more than to have Trader Vic’s back in their city. Although we are constantly evolving, people are still looking for that nostalgic and authentic feeling of years past. We have drinks and menu items that people have seen their whole lives, but we are constantly developing new items, healthier options and more innovative cocktails and experiences.”
Meanwhile, after launching Señor Pico in Dubai in 2020, plans are to reintroduce its mustachioed mascot in an oversized sombrero to the U.S. market. “We’re really just breathing new life into the concept that existed before,” Rosen says. “It was this suit-and-tie, white-tablecloth kind of place, maybe even a little bit too fancy, in my opinion. We took the DNA of the original brand along with a selection of original menu items. From there we modernized the overall look and have updated the menu with food and beverages options that are more aligned with our concept of an interactive casual restaurant.”
From the marketing materials, the corporate-ese claims the restaurant is a “feast for the eyes and senses,” an overall vibe of “street-market cool meets casual creative dining.” Vintage tchotchkes, Latin-inspired furniture, colorful baskets, and pinata lights will fill the space. Guacamole and cocktails will be mixed and served tableside from custom-built carts. There are cactus-shaped glasses and swizzle sticks adorned with mustaches.
With this revamp, however, the brand might find itself in a familiar position — adapting (or not) a concept, imagery, and mascot into a world more conscious of cultural appropriation. Señor Pico himself is everywhere: eyeing women on the glasses, smiling on the menu, his mustache on hats and hot sauce. That sort of caricature didn’t go so well for the “influencers” who walked around Los Angeles’s famed Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights dressed in a similar fashion. To Rosen, the brand is about building on Bergeron’s original vision, not cultural appropriation. “People feel offended when it’s not authentic,” he says. “Everything is about the experience. Still, we know we have to be aware of things that might upset different groups of people, and we have our finger on that.”
For the brand, the souvenirs are part of the experience: Rosen reports a 1,000 percent growth in revenue from its e-commerce site just in the past year, with customers stocking up on swag and tiki mugs. It now works with artists to custom-design special-edition tiki mugs and holds release parties; for Señor Pico, the swag strategy is strong, with ceramic mugs and barware, hats, and T-shirts with catchy mottos. The brand hopes to tap into a fan base that will take to these things like influencers to Instagram. Rosen likens these new ideas to the Bergeron’s innovative spirit.
“Trader Vic really was ahead of his time, in a lot of ways. [People in every city] think it started in their city. For the regular customer, maybe they’re not so interested in where it came from, but that it’s been there for 30, 40 or 50 years,” he says. “People don’t just want good food and good drinks. They want that experience. At the original San Francisco location, you had to wear a jacket and tie to be sat at the restaurant. We wanted to make it all more accessible for today, to make sure everyone can experience what Trader Vic’s and Señor Pico truly is.”