BEST TIKI BARS, Original
Dinner House San Francisco Bay
LUCKY TO RESIDE IN THE SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA, where we have a little or a lot of everything it seems, including most enjoyable Restaurants, Cocktail Lounges and , more specifically, Tiki Bars or better, Tiki Palaces – both original Polynesian edifaces and newer configurations paying tribute tothe calmer, idyllic, post-war era of the late 40s-50s.
I thought I’d been to the best , particularly Forbidden Island in Alameda, CA but , I have to say, I think I’ve found a new Top Two, one original, Trader Sam’s one updated , Smuggler’s Cove, both in San Francisco.
I honored my recent birthday by visiting both on successive nights, April 6 and April 7, 2011, both equally great experiences. Hard to choose one over the other.
Trader Sam’s , in all its 1937 original glory, at 6150 Geary, features a great, round, bamboo bar and bamboo chairs/ love seats. One may say the place is ‘worn’ looking, but for me this is the charm. I would not want to see it any other way. I know of no other tiki bar that comes close to being this original. Looking at the old pictures on the wall it would appear that NOTHING has changed in its almost 80 years!
Drinks : The guys at Smuggler’s Cove downplayed the drinks but, they’ve got a great selection of rum drinks, large bowl drinks, specialty drinks and ice cream drinks. I had the ‘Yellow Bird,’ which is difficult to find elsewhere – a Caribbean drink with rum, Galliano, pineapple juice. The featured drink is the Banana Split, though they have about as many original and newer ones as Smuggler’s – not just beer as I was told (a little tiki bar competition)
Trader Sam’s circa 1940s The place gets crowded, too. Though its out in the Avenues , the bar tender told me they’re packed by 10 pm and stay open to 1:45 am, just like in the old days., The crowd is a mix of locals, mostly younger Asians and other ethnic groups. I doubt that many of them appreciate the historic aspect of this place but I’m sure ome do, as they do get people from all over the world. One problem for me – which could be easily changed – is the music; a heavy dose of rap music does not fit with the ambience. The bar is currently owned by an older military man, who we thank for keeping it as he has, sans music.
Smuggler’s Cove, to be detailed below, is unlike any tiki bar I’ve seen. I will have to give it a slight edge over Trader Sam’s , though its very close. Smuggler’s makes a science out of their drinks – and they charge for it too, nearly twice the price of Trader’s and they’re smaller. But I base my ranking on ‘feel’ and wanting to be in a place and , based on these single visits, I found I enjoyed being in Smuggler’s Cover slightly more than Trader Sam’s. The feel was calmer, though with better music Trader’s could probably reach a tie with Smugglers. Also met some interesting folks , perhaps a little more erudite, than I found at Traders, not that that matters all that much…
Best Tiki Bars , Original dinner house, original restaurant
WESTLAKE JOE’S , Daly city, CA – I made a first stop at the legendary restaurant and lounge. It’s one of the few big remaining dinner houses and part of the old ‘Joe’s’ chain (but not really sure if this was really a chain, but restaurants are similar from city to city , with only Marin Joe’s , Westlake and perhaps Original Joe’s in SF still around…
Last time I came here I couldn’t get into the place it was so crowded, despite having over 300 seats and two large dining rooms. There’s a huge lounge featuring live music – and that is one of the main reasons I went. The music this night was a three piece band with a flutist sitting in. Playing mostly similar-sounding 60s/70s pop-jazz I wasn’t overly impressed, though I must give it another chance another night or two. But the setting was wonderful, with it’s big angled ceilings, fireplace and wood walls giving a very warm feeling
One of the dining rooms is appropriately names the ‘Cascade Room,’ certainly a holdover from the early days, as is most everything. Looks pretty orginal , including a circular drive-up and parking where I’m sure a lot of folks drove up in in their old caddies and lincolns.
Didn’t try the food as I’d already eaten at the dissappointing(?) Bucca DeBeppos’s chain – I think other locations are better than San Franciscoc. Will have to try the food next time. Judging by the crowd on this Thursday night-including a long waiting list- I’ll bet the foods very good and probably similar to what it was 50 years ago (not sure as to the exact vintage of the place but will report back next time… But the place is definitely worth coming to just to see a huge old time dinner house you might remember having gone to as a kid.
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