A peek into Trader Vic's at L.A. Live; set to open May 2 [Updated]
When Trader Vic's in downtown Los Angeles opens to the public May 2, it won’t have the same intimate, clubby feel as the Vic's at the Beverly Hills Hilton once had, but it will have the requisite moai, island-themed decor and the roster of fruity drinks. Big and bright with a wide-open bar that looks onto Olympic Boulevard, this new incarnation of Trader Vic's reflects the chain's storied past but aims to broaden its appeal to lure tourists and convention-goers. In that sense, Trader Vic's has stayed true to its tiki roots even as it celebrates its 75th birthday.
American tiki is to Polynesian culture what a Norman Rockwell painting is to a typical family dinner. Expect cultural authenticity, and you'll be disappointed. That doesn’t mean you shouldn't enjoy the hybrid exoticism of tiki, steeped as it is in mid-century America and romanticized visions of island life. Like French fries or pizza, tiki is a uniquely American invention.
Last Friday, a few dozen FOVs (Friends of Vic's) gathered as "ohana and family" to celebrate and bless the new location. "Tiki Modern" author Sven Kirsten, who consulted on the restaurant's decor, was on hand as the Rev. Neal "The Big Kahuna" McHenry led a ritual to consecrate the venue, sprinkling red salt from Hawaii dissolved into Pacific Ocean water on the doors and entryways.
Trader Vic's is divided into two sections. Hanging above the bar area is a large canoe, a decoration from the Trader Vic's in San Francisco. Past the bar the restaurant is ringed by horseshoe-shaped booths in pale green leather. They're separated from each other with bamboo, metal and ceramic latticework that offers a hint of seclusion. Tapa cloth and wood carvings made in Tonga decorate the walls and ceilings, but it's the red Chinese oven behind a glass wall that dominates the room.
There's also a private dining room that hosts one of the venue's four flat-screen TVs, which are senior partner John Valencia's concession to modernity. Another canoe, this one from Trader Vic's in Dallas, hangs above the private dining room. Valencia had hoped to incorporate something from the Beverly Hills location into the decor, but it wasn't possible.
Fortunately, the drinks at Trader Vic's haven't changed. There's still the Big Kahuna, the Mai Tai, the Scorpion Bowl, the Wahine, the Grog and dozens of others that are deceptively fruity. Why deceptive? Because in the true tradition of tiki, it's easy to forget how strong they are until you've slugged back a few.
Update: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Trader Vic's has one TV. It has four TVs.
-- Elina Shatkin
Photos: Rob Takata / For The Times