Tonga Room, San Francisco's magnificent tiki bar: doomed?

The Tonga Room, one of the greatest tiki bars in the world, is under threat now, because the San Francisco Fairmont hotel in which it is housed is slated to be turned into luxury condos (seriously? Is anyone buying luxury condos for anything except scrap copper these days?). Laughing Squid has a great piece on what makes the Tonga so special (here's one thing: it has an actual indoor monsoon several times an hour!):

The last decade has seen nearly $100 million invested in updates to the Fairmont hotel itself which included a $1 Million restoration of the Tonga Room completed in the last few years. So it’s strange that all that history and fairly recent money could soon be bulldozed.

There’s been no explicit statement that the Tonga Room is being destroyed, and no press account that mentions it (except a quizzical commenter on Curbed SF). But clearly the plans for the new condo-ized version of the Fairmont do not include the landmark bar.

Will The Tonga Room Be a Casualty of The Fairmont’s Condo Plans? (via JWZ)

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  1. ruh-oh!

    upon hearing this i am organizing a bunch of friends to hit this place up for an evening, and asking the powers that be to spare it from their homogenizing smite.

  2. I don’t get it. Why does San Francisco keep allowing the city to let its uniqueness disappear for luxury condos that no one is buying. There are already plenty of luxury condos in the city that just sit there vacant.

  3. When I first saw this on Laughing Squid, I said to myself, how can i live here for so many years and never go??? It sounds so tackle but so AWESOME.

    Tonga Room Party!!!

  4. I have very mixed feelings about the closing of vintage tiki bars, and I’m a big fan of them. I appreciate the places on an historical level, but the truth is that many of these vintage palaces suffer from a waitstaff that can’t be bothered with customers, bartenders who have all but given up on mixing the classic cocktails using the correct ingredients in the correct amounts, and management that doesn’t know or care about the places’ histories and their potential appeal to “modern” customers. The Trader Vic’s in Seattle recently went down in flames for all these reasons and more.

    I have visited the Tonga Room a few times and it was always an expensive chore to go there. We were never treated well by the staff, and the drinks were very sub-par. If you want a real, vintage-y tiki bar experience, build your own at home and get Beachbum Barry’s Grog Log series for actual vintage recipes. Then you’ll never be disappointed.

  5. My 3 favorite bars in Orlando got shuttered 3 years ago to turn the building into condos. 3 years the building is still a boarded up store front.

  6. Too bad they can’t preserve it as the Condo’s bookable party room.
    Hate to see style sacrificed to commerce.

  7. The place doesn’t seem much different to me than minstrel shows and the Native American cartoons used by MLB teams like the Indians. They’re just trading on stereotypes of others that implicitly place the host culture (SF smugsters) at an elevated level above the residents of the South Pacific.

  8. #8 – pretty good assessment. However, a couple years ago, I went to the Trader Vic’s in Beverly Hills Hilton (which I hear is closed now), which was quite good and the mai tai was spot on. The trader vic’s in Palo Alto, though merely a nod to the glorious, glorious style of the BH Hilton, has also shown capable of doing the mai tai right.
    #9 – yes, tears for the Owl Tree. I loved that bar, with it’s low rolling chairs and Owl decor.

  9. Ugh, did you guys hear that? Sound of my heart breaking. Adulthood has been filled with disappointment as I’ve realized the supper clubs and cabarets I watched as a child in 1940s and 50s movies don’t really exist. This bar blew my little mind and from the parasol in my drink to the floating stage, I was bowled over. PLEASE LET IT STAY!!

  10. “(seriously? Is anyone buying luxury condos for anything except scrap copper these days?).”

    Actually, scrap copper is at a 26 year low after last spring’s all time high so to answer your question, no. – RecycleBill

  11. Just because it’s being condo-zed why does that mean the bar is closing? Is there a law against a bar being a the same place?

    Who the heck wants a ballroom? A bar would get better business especially a historic one.

  12. Nooooooooooooooooooo!!!

    I lived in SF for a few years before the dotcom boom+bust and LOVED the Tonga Room and go every time I get back. I know cities change but some of the changes to San Francisco in these intervening years really kill me. (What ever became of the Church of St. John Will I Am Coltrane?)

    Speaking of which: The Clift Hotel, a few blocks away, sold four Gustav Klimt prints from the Redwood Room bar

    Noooooooooooooooo!!!

    I need a drink.

  13. One childhood memory is a strange vague memory of a magical place, Tiki Gardens in Florida. I so wish that place was still there, I would love to take my wife and boys. I would also order something more than a Shirley Temple or Roy Rogers o_O

    One web page indicates the property is now a landscaped parking lot for the beach. Should I be happy it’s not a condo?

  14. @14 – so true! What is the deal with all of this awful corporate architectural bastardization? It seems that every city in America suffers the scourge of ‘luxury condos’.

  15. Every city in America looks the same. When I was working on the road, every city seemed to have more than a few similar areas. The same stores, restaurants, and hotels have displaced almost all local businesses. There were small enclaves remaining in some places, but the amount of homogenization is mind numbing.

  16. This reminds me of The Kahiki, and former landmark in Columbus, Ohio. We had our wedding rehearsal dinner there, and in fact my father-in-law parked cars there as a teen back in the early 60s. The location is now a chain drugstore, although The Kahiki does still have a line of frozen meals, as if that makes up for it.

  17. This is awful!!! This is a valuable kitsch oasis on snob hill. I would go here all the time with my friends, until they were 86ed for running off with the lava bowl. They had a great happy hour buffet.

  18. Slightly OT, but I feel badly for never making my way back to the South Seas-themed bar/dance floor section of Galveston’s historic Balinese Room, which saw famous singers once grace its stage…it was utterly destroyed by Hurricane Ike and I doubt very much it will be rebuilt, and even if it is, it will never be the same. I only ever visited the tourist-shop part of it, that was just off the Seawall Blvd sidewalk, right up front.

  19. This is pure, unvarnished ignorance. The Fairmont building which is being turned into condos is the tower across the street from the Fairmont Hotel, on Sacramento St. The Tonga Room is in the hotel proper, off California St.

  20. Whoops, looks like I’m the ignoramus here. My colleague points me to the drawings where this Tonga destruction has been proposed. Eek.

  21. So many classics have gone. As mentioned above, the Redwood Room in its quiet elegance, and the Owl Tree. To that list I’ll add the Iron Horse on Maiden Lane, a popular spot with SF’s drinking establishment, and the celebrities of the Rat Pack era.

    But some come back. The Washington Square Bar and Grill will re-open next week, with new management, a new kitchen, and the same name and decor.

  22. In the spirit of all joyful drinkers, I call upon you, Dorothy Parker, reach from beyond the grave and save the Tonga Room!

    “I like to have a martini,
    Two at the very most.
    After three I’m under the table,
    after four I’m under my host.”
    -Dorothy Parker

    The Tonga Room is a fun place to take out-of-towner guests. It is also a great place to go for drinks if you have kids in tow. They can get virgin drinks in Tiki glasses and enjoy the frequent rain storms.

  23. My suggestion is that they do an extream bar makeover to transform this old tired interior with Steampunk! I see some brass and seemingly unrequired mechanical details so the trasformation is almost there. Gages, pipes and more gages!

  24. Boo! I’ve been to this place several times. It’s totally swank and a well kept secret.

    I sure hope it sticks around.

  25. Please say it isn’t so!!!! This so weird, my cousin, the mother of my niece who made the duplo stereo for her cassette player, Lora Lea Binaley, used to sing here!!!! I guess because she knew hawaiin dance and could sing the huki low like no one’s business.

  26. I second the notion for a BB drinky-drinkies evening.

    If not, I doubt I’ll get much cause to head up to the city to see this place. I’m a hermit like that.

  27. For the uninitiated, take a look at the picture. the little bandstand you see there at the left is actually on a floating platform in the water, and when the band plays it gets pulled out into the center. At the other end of the room, just out of fram to the right, is a large ship’s deck where the dance floor is. That’s also where they serve cocktail weenies and fried treats during happy hour.

    Also, the thunder sounds/lightning flashes about every twenty minutes and it proceeds to rain in the middle of the room.

    This all gets even more delightful as the rum takes hold.

  28. Damn, the NOPs we send out in the City of L.A. are a lot less detailed than that. I am an L.A. counterpart of the Planning Department guy in San Francisco who signed off on this NOP.

    Anyway, this is at the NOP stage right now, which means the city is soliciting input from the community on what to study in the EIR. The letter from DangerGirl299, as seen in the above link, looks plenty sufficient to include the loss of the Tonga Room in the EIR under the Cultural Resources section.

    Indeed, the NOP already says, on page 24, “The EIR will evaluate potential historic architectural impacts of the proposed project… including any previously undocumented resources located within the 1961 hotel tower and podium structure.” That would include the Tonga Room, but it’s good someone pointed it out specifically.

    So it looks like at this point everything proper has been done.

    That being said, the project involves completely demolishing the building that contains the Tonga Room, so it’s difficult to see how an alternative could be proposed that would preserve the Tonga Room without dramatically altering the project.

    And of course, it’s not like the City can force a business to remain open. The project in question may be several years off, but the bar could certainly close tomorrow if the owners felt like it.

  29. I had my office party there for 60 people in December. It was the best party (office or not) I have thrown or been to in a long time. It will be a crime against SF icon’s if they lay a finger on this treasure. I am in real estate and hate the fact that they might build luxury condos instead of keeping the hotel theme. The luxury condo market is oversaturated with high end junk anyway. We need a good bar during our (hopefully short) depression years.

  30. if everyone with fond memories of the Tonga actually still frequented it, it wouldn’t be going anywhere. sadly, this is not the case. I love it and hate to see it go.

    oh and your story is a little misleading… the historic hotel is not becoming condos. it is staying put. the crappy 1960’s tower and the levels below it on the east end will become condos and in my opinion replace some really awful architecture.t

  31. The Tonga Room is one of those old joints nobody goes to and which everyone is so quick to bemoan its passing. The million dollars spent was to try to bring taste to the bar area, as if the then only recently failed Trader Vics SF II hadn’t proved to anybody watching that Taste and Tiki Bars are two different, incompatible categories. If you want Good Taste, go to the St Francis and revel in the Beigery that is Restaurant Michael Mina, that’s what represents the height of good taste and design in Modern San francisco.

    The million misspent at the Tonga stripped out most of the Tiki from the bar, opened up room for a couple extra tables and did nothing for the space. The food is expensive and mediocre, which would be okay if we were in my hometown, Los Angeles, where atmosphere ranks. In San Francisco, why would you pay that much for such mediocrity, when you can eat so well, all over town for so little?

    I have fond memories of the Tonga, and I live just down the hill, an easy hike to and from cocktails, and yet, with a tiki hut in my bedroom, I really can’t be bothered. And I can’t say I’ll miss it nearly as much as I miss the old Don The Beachcombers, Hollywood, and Malibu. Those were great old tiki dives! In any case, Martin Cate, late of Alameda’s Forbidden Island, is soon to open his new rum bar in Hayes Valley, and I’m sure it will be far more exciting.

    As to the “Klimpts” sold from the Clift, the quotes best describe them. If they’d been Klimpts, they would have stayed. A lot of old bars have closed in recent years, not the least of which was the original and best Trader Vics, at the close of the last century. Lots of new bars have opened in their place. We still don’t have really good Tiki in San Francisco, but hopefully Smuggler’s Cove will fill something of that void. As far as places to drink go, this town is humming on premium juice, and I see no reason to look back. It’d be nice to see the Tonga Room saved, but it’d be even nicer to see the Tonga Room made compelling.

  32. The Tonga Room is one of those old joints nobody goes to and which everyone is so quick to bemoan its passing. The million dollars spent was to try to bring taste to the bar area, as if the then only recently failed Trader Vics SF II hadn’t proved to anybody watching that Taste and Tiki Bars are two different, incompatible categories. If you want Good Taste, go to the St Francis and revel in the Beigery that is Restaurant Michael Mina, that’s what represents the height of good taste and design in Modern San francisco.

    The million misspent at the Tonga stripped out most of the Tiki from the bar, opened up room for a couple extra tables and did nothing for the space. The food is expensive and mediocre, which would be okay if we were in my hometown, Los Angeles, where atmosphere ranks. In San Francisco, why would you pay that much for such mediocrity, when you can eat so well, all over town for so little?

    I have fond memories of the Tonga, and I live just down the hill, an easy hike to and from cocktails, and yet, with a tiki hut in my bedroom, I really can’t be bothered. And I can’t say I’ll miss it nearly as much as I miss the old Don The Beachcombers, Hollywood, and Malibu. Those were great old tiki dives! In any case, Martin Cate, late of Alameda’s Forbidden Island, is soon to open his new rum bar in Hayes Valley, and I’m sure it will be far more exciting.

    As to the “Klimpts” sold from the Clift, the quotes best describe them. If they’d been Klimpts, they would have stayed. A lot of old bars have closed in recent years, not the least of which was the original and best Trader Vics, at the close of the last century. Lots of new bars have opened in their place. We still don’t have really good Tiki in San Francisco, but hopefully Smuggler’s Cove will fill something of that void. As far as places to drink go, this town is humming on premium juice, and I see no reason to look back. It’d be nice to see the Tonga Room saved, but it’d be even nicer to see the Tonga Room made compelling.

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