The great thing about returning home to the San Francisco Bay area after a summer vacation, is not just that you’re returning to a great place, but it’s possible to stretch out the spirit of the trip through food. When I returned from Italy one summer, I assuaged my hunger at the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market with fresh figs and a porchetta sandwich. After coming back from India last summer, the pangs I felt for masala dosa were easily mollified at Dosa. And this summer, I went to Hawaii for the first time, to the island of Maui for a week’s worth of warm tropical waters, star filled skies, Mai-Tais at sunset, and fresh seafood and kalua pork. So what to do upon returning to San Francisco to cure these post island blues? I headed to the luau at the Fairmont Hotel's Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar.
Admittedly, I did not go to a luau in Hawaii, as these looked like resort affairs that sat 700 people, which never bodes well for the food quality. However, there is a subtle yet important difference between touristy and kitsch. The Fairmont's Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar is a sort of surreal, Hollywood re-imagines Polynesia, and then tucks it into the basement of a luxury hotel in San Francisco. Which, in fact, it is. This room had once been The Terrace Room, site of a 75-foot indoor swimming pool built in 1929, where Olympic swimmers trained and Hollywood stars like Ronald Reagan and Helen Hayes swam laps.
Following World War II, when American soldiers returned from the South Pacific sporting tattoos and carrying carved totems and crafts, Polynesia became romantic, exotic, and the scowling totems of far off gods a little menacing, yet somehow sexy. And so tiki bars entered their golden era. In 1945, The Fairmont San Francisco hired Mel Melvin, a set director from Metro Goldwyn Mayer to lead the transformation of the Terrace Plunge into the Tonga Room.