Who Cares About San Francisco’s Tonga Room? I do.

The Tonga Room as it is Today
The Tonga Room as it is Today

The historic Tonga Room at the  Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, one of America’s last surviving Tiki Bars from the golden age is slated for demolition to make way for – you guessed it, that dirty word – Condos. The Tiki community and a group of SF preservationists have been trying desperately to keep the owners from closing it down, but the owners (and unfortunately for people like us who would like to preserve the past) have every right to do with they want with the property, and I agree they should have that right. The owners are adamant to remove the Tonga Room from their property in order to build new hotel rooms and condos, but are willing to carefully dismantle the Tonga Room, store the artifacts and help move it to a new location. Personally, although I believe it should be preserved as-is and could be a major profitable attraction, this is probably the best compromise that can be made. It’s just a shame that developers like these owners don’t realize that places like The Tonga Room are what make an area desirable to begin with – and once it’s all gone, who cares about living in their condos?

Last month, the San Francisco Chronicle (online) published an article about the looming demise of the world-famous Tonga Room Tiki restaurant & lounge. The article, written by a staffer whose name I shall not dignify with posting here, caused an uproar of anger among the Tiki-loving community, as well as many San Franers. Why? Well to begin with, the name of the article is

“Tonga Room Execution Stayed. Does Anyone Care?”

The Tonga Room's history goes way back to the pre-war era when it was the SS Tonga
The Tonga Room's history goes way back to the pre-war era when it was the SS Tonga

Yes, the SFWeekly Blog staffer (not even sure if he’s on the payroll) who usually writes about sports or community events wrote a number of articles slanted heavily with his opinions about the Tonga Room and its impending doom. His slant was basically that it is nothing but an out-dated dump, a tacky catastrophe that should be plowed under and forgotten as soon as possible. A blemish on the nuevo-hipster world where clubs with numbers for names and cookie-cutter upscale condos rule. A ridiculous piece of grandpa’s past, an overpriced monument to crappy kitsch that interferes with progress.

His last article, the one that asks if anyone cares, is a sarcastic, juvenile attempt to slander not just the Tonga Room but Tiki culture as a whole. Phrases like “historic preservation label slapped on postwar kitsch” and “tiki bars are relics of a bygone era” were cutting enough to enrage an entire population of preservationists and Tikiphiles…enough to foster 111 comments in just a few days, 99% of which were from people opposing his opinions.

Now, let’s take a minute to be fair. The guy has a right to his opinion. The post was on a blog, not the front page of the SF Chronicle. He has the freedom to say what he wants, just like I do here. That said, let’s also be fair by saying that even though the article is published on the SF Chronicle’s blog, it’s STILL the SF Chronicle, a reputable newspaper that is committed to publishing real news along with editorial opinion – but traditionally, those opinions are based on well-researched facts, not the ramblings of some kid who just doesn’t care – or doesn’t get it. And that is the tragedy of this article; the writer doesn’t care because he doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.

He assumes that because he doesn’t like original Tiki bars, that no one does. He assumes that because (possibly) his circle of influence is content to drink Vodka made in France (France???) and chain-store lattes, eat overpriced food at “trendy” restaurants and brag about it, and go into debt paying for cookie-cutter foreign cars just to show off, that the rest of us do.

Over the years the SS TONGA began taking on more and more Tiki decor
Over the years the SS TONGA began taking on more and more Tiki decor

He should have done his homework. He should have done a few minutes of research on the net, and he would have realized that yes, there’s a big revival of Tiki Culture, and it shows no signs of slowing down. A few keyword searches would have shown him The Mai Kai in Fort Lauderdale, still thriving even in this recession, packed to the gills with people who come just for the experience along with people who are avid regulars. He would have found Trader Vic’s and Don the Beachcomber, and their world-wide success. He would have found Otto’s Shrunken Head in Manhattan, or Taboo Cove and Frankie’s Tiki Room in Vegas, newly-constructed Tiki Bars built in the traditional way. (Taboo Cove had a great run at the Venetian. It doesn’t get ‘hipper’ than that).

This individual, like so many people today, is using his platform to push his misinformed opinions and beliefs on the rest of the world. Well, 100+ comments on his blog show that the world is pushing back. If he wanted to make the point that the owners of the Fairmont Hotel are entitled to do with they want with the property, then he could have done so in a much more responsible manner. Instead, he blurted out his opinion as if the entire city of San Fran (and basically the rest of the world) agrees with him. That’s what we professional writers call ‘bad journalism’.

By the 1960s The Tonga Room was transformed into a full-fledge Tiki Bar complete with mid-pool bandstand, hurricane bar and a real tropical storm
By the 1960s The Tonga Room was transformed into a full-fledge Tiki Bar complete with mid-pool bandstand, hurricane bar and a real tropical storm

Now, some of you may be saying to yourselves, “Hey Tiki Chris, ain’t you just blurtin’ out your opinions here? Ain’t that, like, the same gig?” Well, it’s a little different here, kids. First of all, this is a site for people who love Tiki, not a newspaper’s blog. Second, I’m not saying anything here that’s not based on fact. Millions of people enjoy Tiki bars around the world. Many of them would be sad to see our history pushed away to make room for condos. The owners of the Fairmont do have the right to plow it down, if they want. And the guy who wrote the article doesn’t seem to think anyone in the world likes Tiki Bars anymore, and that they should all be forgotten and turned into TGI Friday’s. Well, ok, I made up the TGI Friday’s, but it gets the point across.

Can the Tonga Room be saved? Of course. Should it? Absolutely. Should the owners of the Fairmont Hotel included the Tonga Room in their renovation plans, and market it as a world-class attraction? Damn straight. But they haven’t, and they won’t. Hopefully the investors who’ve taken an interest in moving the room will be successful. Hopefully this piece of history and architectural wonder will be spared the wrecking ball and preserved for generations to rediscover and enjoy. Perhaps the kid who wrote that goofy article will learn a lesson from the comments.

Comments welcome.

(This article assumes the reader has already read up on the impeding closing of the Tonga Room in San Fransisco. If not, just Google it (Tonga Room news) and you’ll see all there is to know about the topic)

-Tiki Chris P, a little steamed, reporting from the newsroom at Tiki Lounge Talk, the Tiki Blog for people who believe in preserving our past and enjoying it to the fullest.

A Final Note: Last year, the Sheraton corporation decided to renovate one of Fort Lauderdale’s most famous landmarks, The Yankee Clipper Hotel. This seaside hotel, built in the 1950s, looks like a cruise ship moored at the beach. But it’s not only famous for its unique outer look, but for its lobby bar – called The Wreck Bar, this kitschy-fun lounge looks like the inside of a sunken ship. But what makes it truly unique is the portals that look out into the hotel’s pool, where people sitting at the bar can watch swimmers go by. For years this has been the site of the world-famous Mermaid show, where beautiful women with Mermaid tails swim by doing water acrobatics. When the plans to renovate were announced, everyone assumed this mega corporation would remove the Wreck Bar and replace it with a modern, more trendy and dull lobby bar. Well to everyone’s surprise and to the Sheraton’s credit, they restored the bar to its original glory, not changing a thing except the rugs and the upholstery. The Wreck Bar fits into the hotel’s new decor perfectly, and Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid and her pod of beauties swim their show to a packed house every Friday Night, year round. A true success story about blending the old with the new. Maybe the owners of the Fairmont need to take a trip to South Florida, huh?

10 Replies to “Who Cares About San Francisco’s Tonga Room? I do.

  1. Hello from Columbus, Ohio.

    I just wanted to let you know that there is currently an auction going on, selling 100+ lots of décor and such from our famous and now-defunct Kahiki restaurant. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to own some tiki culture history, if you are in the position to bid on anything.

    I’m glad the Tonga Room is still around. There is a Walgreens standing where the Kahiki used to be. Sigh.

  2. Rats, Chris… this is a great article, but my comment (first time around) got snarfed by the net.

    Unfortunately, California is a bad environment for historical preservation, as the Hollywood Heritage organization can attest. Only Texas seems to be worse in that respect.

    This is a really short-sighted move by the hotel, but from the reviews I’ve read of the location, it’s not really that surprising. Apparently they don’t even provide parking validation for Tonga Room. The funny thing is that another San Francisco institution, Sam Wo, which has nowhere near the charm factor, has continued to attract fans, and it’s a hole in the wall. For years, it even managed to turn a liability – a rude waiter – into a major attraction.

    Your “Wreck Bar” suggestion would be a fantastic solution.

    Otherwise, I wish the people planning to demolish the place would take a closer look at what happened to Houston’s Astroworld. Six Flags got greedy and assumed they’d make big bucks selling the land for multi-use developments. In reality, their profit was less than half of what they expected. Meanwhile, nothing’s been built in five years. And Houston is a lot more healthy than San Francisco (not to mention the state of California) these days, so maybe they should reconsider the wisdom of building more condos.

    1. Thanks Dame 😉

      It’s unfortunate, we’re seeing this all over the country. In the 1970s and ’80s they tore down most of Atlantic City’s 100-year-old, world famous, unique five star hotels to make way for glass and steel casinos. The boardwalk has lost most of its historic buildings, and the city is still struggling because even though they have gambling, nearly everything that made AC worth going to is gone. (A great line, paraphrased, from the movie Atlantic City: “See that ocean? Ah, look at it. You should have seen it 30 years ago.)

      Wildwood, NJ is another town full of mid-century history that’s being plowed down for condos. It has (had) the world’s largest collection of mid-century modern and “doo-wop” architecture in the world. Something like 70% (don’t quote me on that number) of those unique, incredible buildings have been knocked down to build condos. CONDOS! Don’t they realize, that people wanted to move there BECAUSE of the things they’ve destroyed? Lots of empty condos in Wildwood these days.

      Here in Florida, things have changed so fast that even people who’ve lived here all their lives don’t recognize it anymore. But somehow, maybe because of Miami’s success with maintaining the art deco district, most new construction blends in perfectly with 50 to 80 year-old architecture. We’ve embraced our past, kept what we can (a lot of buildings here weren’t made strong enough to remain standing) and build with our SoFla culture intact. It’s a very groovy situation. And that’s partly what keeps places like the Wreck Bar and the Mai Kai going strong.

  3. Great post Chris. I’m glad to see such a nice response to The SFWeekly Blog post. I find it a real shame that in a time when Tiki is regaining popularity that the owner’s of the Tonga Room don’t realize what a real gem they have.

  4. Thanks for your thoughts Jen. I’d like to clear this up though, I am in FAVOR of the property owners having the right to use the building the way they want…what is unfortunate is that they don’t see the value in preserving what they have. The way I see it, if they wanted to build something new, they shouldn’t have invested in something historic.

    You raise a great point about our culture, too. For the last five decades, mainstream has been about abandoning and outdoing the past. What is hip today is trash tomorrow. But I think (primarily in the past 15 or so years) there has been a growing notion among trendsetters of building on the past, not ignoring it. You see it in retro styling everywhere from Target to cars like the new Camaro and Challenger. You see it on TV with shows like Mad Men and commercials with P-Diddy hawking Vodka while playing Sinatra music and wearing a tux. These are good signs that past we love isn’t being forgotten. If only we could impress this upon investors and developers, many of whom are from other countries and don’t understand Americans’ love of our past, then perhaps we could save more of our beloved icons.
    (Did I use ‘whom’ correctly??)

  5. Chris, thanks for posting this. I’ve heard bits & pieces about the Tonga Room but not enough ( til now).

    Though I disagree with you on the “unfortunately the property owner can do what they want” bit (if we can’t do to our property as we wish within the bounds of reasonable law, are we a free people?), I think you’re spot-on in the rest of the post. Just because some see Tiki as “kitsch” and perhaps even symbolic of a post-war optimism, good cheer, and clever fun that they personally don’t think people deserve to remember or enjoy doesn’t mean others agree. Regardless, Tiki was and is again becoming a part of our culture, though one could argue it’s still a bit “fringe” (those wild-eyed, Hawaiian-shirt wearing, cocktail-umbrella wielding fringe Tiki people! Watch out!), and I do think it says a lot about who we were and are. Frank Sinatra & Sammy Davis aren’t really representative of our culture any longer (unfortunately), and not everyone likes them, either: should we chuck ’em? Really?

    I hope that the Tonga Room can be somehow saved, even if the developers are too silly to keep it themselves. Best of luck to those trying to save it…I really hope they can do so.

    Good post, Chris.

    1. ….the Hawaian THEME, be it Tiki or Tonga…is very much alive….I entertain wherever and the reception is ‘alive’….the Lewers Lounge Waikiki…yo)u’re missing it….people love it…I used to broadcast in Hawaii and they’re still into Don Ho’s(he always said he couldn’t sing) the mystery still lives and Sinatra and Sammy have a legacy..a young fellow fm CT plays SFrank to work every day and I DO TOO !!

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