Forbidden Island – Alameda, CA

So I’m finally wrapping up my weekend tiki tour of San Francisco, which included the Trader Vic’s warehouse, Pier 39, and the Tonga Room. (I’m kicking myself for missing Trader Vic’s Emeryville before they closed for remodeling, but anyway…) We’ll file this post under “Better Late than Never.”

Forbidden Island was opened in 2006 by brothers Michael & Emmanuel Thanos (Conga Lounge in Oakland) and Martin Cate (who left to open Smuggler’s Cove). It’s located in Alameda, a city just south of Oakland that I’ve mostly only heard of as a test site on “Mythbusters” (but thanks to Wikipedia, I now know that it’s also famous for Victorian houses and an awesome-sounding 1920s-era amusement park called Neptune Beach).

It was all done up by the amazing Bamboo Ben and other tiki design masters and features a long bar, a few booths and an outdoor patio. Sidenote: There’s just something mesmerizing to me about light-up fish floats, love ’em!

We experienced some wicked traffic on the way out of San Francisco, which left us with only enough time for me to do a quick lap around the vendor tables at their annual parking lot sale and pick up a few Doug Horne mini-prints.

Dollar bills and drink umbrellas dot the thatched hut’s ceiling inside, and according to their FAQ: “It started as a local tradition soon after we opened, and has been going strong ever since. In WWII, sailors shipping out to the Pacific would leave a dollar at their local bar to get a drink when they got back. Don’t forget to leave a message on them!”

In fact, it was such a short trip (and the bar quite packed with parched folks from the event) that I didn’t even get a chance to try any of their many libations. For shame, I know. Just gives me another reason to come back!

Forbidden Island Tiki Lounge
1304 Lincoln Ave.
Alameda, CA 94501

Tonga Room – San Francisco, CA

When we first started planning our trip to San Francisco, I knew that we had to hit up the Tonga Room (not to be confused with the Tonga Hut down in NoHo), since it’s considered to be high on the list of endangered tiki establishments.

Unfortunately, the Fairmont folks have gotten the idea in their heads that they can make more money by turning the land where the Tonga Room is into condos. (Even more unfortunate is the fact that this is a familiar story. I’m looking at you, Beverly Hilton!) There’s an effort to Save the Tonga Room, but it’s going to be difficult to stop the developers.

The Tonga Room feels more like an attraction at Disneyland than a restaurant: diners are seated in an enormous A-frame with outrigger canoes or beneath thatched huts with a simulated night sky above. Not to mention the “rain storm” that occurs every 20 minutes or so, with thunder sounds and lightning and water falling into the lagoon (yep, there is actually a pool inside the restaurant).

The space started out in the 1920s as the swimming pool underneath the lobby of the Fairmont San Francisco, and then in 1945 it was transformed into this nautical-themed restaurant by Mel Melvin, a set designer for MGM. He kept the water feature relevant by ingeniously turning it into an aquatic arena for live music.

And that’s still done to this day! A cover band performs on a boat-slash-stage that they float out to the middle of the lagoon. As expected, their set was kind of cheesy, but their Jackson 5 renditions were quite the crowd-pleasers.

However, the Tonga Room wasn’t truly tiki-fied until it was remodeled in the ’60s with décor from Oceanic Arts (you might know them from another little project they were a part of…The Enchanted Tiki Room).

Ever since the word got out about a year ago about the seemingly imminent closure, there seems to have been a resurgence of interest in the old gal. There was a $7 music cover charge on the Friday night we went, but the place was still packed, with most people crowded into the bar area.

Not only was the dance floor built to look like the deck of a ship—complete with sails and netting, nautical lanterns and a tiki masthead—it was actually built from a ship. According to their history page, it’s made with parts from the S.S. Forester, an old schooner that made trips from San Francisco to the South Sea Islands.

The setting and decor are unquestionably awesome, but the food is widely considered to be bad. Most folks advise to go during happy hour, but we weren’t able to be so choosy with our time of visit so we took our chances with dinner and I actually was pleasantly surprised.

I ordered a mai tai, of course, but I wasn’t all that hungry so I got the mussels with Portuguese sausage, Maui onions and shoestring potatoes. The broth was made with Kona Longboard lager and it was so savory that I had to sop it up with the bread.

I also nabbed the miso eggplant from Mr. Baseball’s plate of flatiron steak, which was doused in a sort of sweet sauce that we enjoyed but not might be to everyone’s tastes. It will be such a shame if the hotel’s plans come to fruition because the Tonga Room is just on another level, definitely one of the top tiki spots I’ve been to thus far.

The Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar
The Fairmont San Francisco
950 Mason St.
San Francisco, CA 94108

Tonga Room on Urbanspoon

Tiki & Sea Lions on Pier 39, San Francisco

In keeping with our tiki/baseball vacation theme, day two of our San Francisco trip included going to see the Cubs beat the Giants at AT&T Park. As you can see, the view was just gorgeous on that uncharacteristically sunny day. As an LA native, I’m supposed to despise the Giants, but I do have a soft spot for their former team mascot the Crazy Crab. (Rehab the Crab!)

Afterward we headed down to Pier 39 to check out those famous sea lions. It seems our timing was impeccable as just a few months later the animals made a mass exodus and only a few dozen have since returned, so says USA Today.

Along the pier there were the usual tourist trap restaurants like Hard Rock Cafe and Bubba Gump, plus this thatched hut outpost of Maui Wowi Hawaiian Smoothies. These coffee purveyors have been popping up at malls and farmers markets along the California coast (and in a few other states), but I’ve yet to try any of their wares.

Guarding the entrance was this garish tiki that kind of looks like a monkey. With all the expansion that Maui Wowi seems to be doing, I think they also need to invest in getting some better carvings—this dude is just not doing it for me.