By New Times
By Robrt L. Pela
By Lauren Saria and Heather Hoch
By Deborah Sussman
By Robrt L. Pela and Amy Silverman
By Kathleen Vanesian
By Eric Schaefer
By Heather Hoch
It could be any Saturday night.
The maitre d' at Trader Vic's leads us to a small table near the restaurant's fire doors. It is a miserable location, one I would like to change. "Is this the nonsmoking section?" I query.
Wordlessly, our host swoops our menus off the rejected table and leads us into a secluded alcove off the main dining room. Now we are truly in Polynesian pariahland.
"At least we don't have to worry about boats falling on us," my dining accomplice jokes. No, we don't. Nor do we have to worry about being singled out for special treatment. We're just two unknown customers here at Trader Vic's--a place where being known apparently signals the difference between exile and attention.
"Do you need to make special reservations to sit in that room?" I ask our female bus person. "I'm sorry," she says. "I don't speak English." She deposits some lahvosh and butter, and leaves our bamboo-thatched hut.
We peruse the well-handled drink menu, milking what chuckles we can from the corny names and high prices. My favorite is the "Doctor Funk of Tahiti" for $5.25. My dining accomplice prefers the $5.75 "Suffering Bastard." We both agree it is hard to top the "Shingle Stain." At $5.75, it sounds like a medical condition one should make efforts to prevent. Neither my dining accomplice nor I has ever set foot into Trader Vic's, here or anywhere else. We were both kids when the restaurant opened in the early Sixties, when things Hawaiian and South Pacific were all the rage. By the late Seventies, I was too busy eating Chinese and Japanese to fiddle with Polynesian, though I admit Warren Zevon made it tempting when he sang, "I saw a werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic's./His hair was perfect." Despite this hip endorsement, fear of drinks with paper umbrellas threatened to keep me away from Trader Vic's indefinitely. Then one day I heard our local branch of this veteran institution might be closing. Nostalgia and curiosity joined forces and motivated me to check it out. Before it checks out, so to speak.
For two people with exotic expectations, the dinner menu is a letdown. No longer the amazing multipage volume I'm told it was a few years back, Trader Vic's orientation is not Polynesian at all, but expensive continental. You have a better chance of ordering veal or lamb chops than anything from the South Seas. Oh, sure, there's Indonesian curry, and the last page of the menu features Chinese selections--but where are the stuffed pineapples? We ask our waiter if he has any flaming appetizers. How about the Cho Cho With Hibachi, we ask. He shakes his head and recommends the Cosmo Tidbits. Though it's $10, we go for it.
Butterfly-shaped condiment dishes filled with hot mustard and barbecue sauce are placed on plates in front of us. The Cosmo Tidbits arrive elevated on a silver serving dish. There are two fried prawns, two spareribs, two slices of pork and what look like two fried won tons. We divide up the goodies and begin tasting.
The sesame-topped pork slices are tender and especially nice when dipped into the barbecue sauce. The fried won tons are crispy and stuffed with a creamy mixture; only later do I realize these must be the crab rangoon. I don't taste any crab. The spareribs are typical, though to their credit, on the meaty side. Finally, the fried prawns are breaded and tasty.
When we have picked through the tidbits, our bus person brings us hot towels. This is perhaps the high point of our evening. A hot towel is exactly what we need at this moment. We are most grateful. I feel refreshed and pampered.
The maitre d' is setting up a large table directly in front of us. There goes what little view we had. Service is leisurely, so we have plenty of undisturbed time to watch this new table fill up with sixtyish couples. They fight over who will sit in the large "banana" chairs and order a round of drinks.
On the other side of our alcove, we see our waiter tossing two salads on a cart. Could they be ours? When he carries them toward us, we know. So much for tableside preparation at Trader Vic's--at least in Exile Alcove.
It would be tough to top the fantastic caesar salad I recently enjoyed at Remington's. Trader Vic's version certainly doesn't do it: It tastes too much of egg and anchovies and the lettuce isn't chilled enough.
On the other hand, I quite like the Cosmo salad. A tossed mixture of fresh mushrooms, celery and artichoke hearts with a milky mustard dressing, it is light and unusual--though hardly Polynesian.
The people at the big table in front of us order another round of drinks and discuss golf scores. In fact, everyone seems to drink a lot at Trader Vic's. Hard drinks. At the other table we can see, a jacketed man in a yellow tie reads his fortune to his table of female companions. "You will experience change for the better." He laughs and looks at the woman to his left. "Louise says, `How can things get better?'"