LA Exotica: The Trader Vic's Experience

by Matthew J. Marchese

"I saw a werewolf drinking a Pina Colada at Trader Vic's and his hair was perfect." - Warren Zevon

There are among us pathetic individuals whose withered and unshriven souls contain not one iota of Tikiness. In their mind's ear no slack-key guitars and ukuleles duet on "My Yellow Ginger Lei." Nor do visions of fluorescent grog served in ceramic coconuts dance the pink elephant dance whilst brandishing tiny Chinese umbrellas in their psychoactive Polynesian dreams.

However, for those of us who follow the often obscure trail of Island Exotica, Paradise is only a long plane flight and a horrendous drive through hellish traffic away. Perched upon the event horizon of the multidimensional gateway that opens unto the parallel universe known to us only as zip code 90210, lies the Beverly Hilton Hotel and its fabulouso restaurant appendage, Trader Vic's.

"Trader Vic" Bergeron was a colorful man; world traveler, Epicurean, and inventor of the Mai Tai. He left a legacy of globe-encircling restaurants from Taipei to Abu Dhabi that offer a plethora of fine Polynesian food and tropical drinks. When I finalized my plans some months ago to visit LA, I knew that a pilgrimage to Trader Vic's would be the cultural epiphany of my journey.

I drove out from my beachfront hotel in the early afternoon and quickly found myself mired in the worst gridlock that I'd seen since Madrid rush hour. Santa Monica Boulevard (or S & M Blvd. as it's known locally) was a sea of locked bumpers all the way into Beverly Hills. Eventually, I managed to crawl the 5 or 6 miles past the sign proclaiming Cannes to be the sister city of BH and then on to Rodeo Drive. I stopped to consult a phone book to confirm the address and briefly soaked in the scene: unlike my previous visits, the usual hordes of Japanese secretaries in black miniskirts toting Sak's sacks were nowhere to be seen. In their place swarmed brigades of hygienically-challenged European tourists in shorts and Tevas sandals chattering in a Babel of tongues that defied identification.

I hopped into my car and headed back the way I had come. I swung around onto one of the back streets to better negotiate the traffic and was amazed to find myself face-to-face with the Witch House. This wigged-out architectural marvel was originally built on the lot of the now defunct Willet Movie Studios in the 1920s and moved to its current location where it now serves as a private residence. I breathed a silent thanks to the spirits of serendipity that led me here and forged on to the Beverly Hilton, rising white and splendiferous before me in the brown haze.

I had some time to kill before Vic's opened so I took a casual stroll through the hotel lobby and checked out the myriad stolen art treasures of the Barakat Gallery. Any number of fantastic objects d'art could be purchased for the right price: Egyptian faience, Roman perfume juglets, and Syrian goat sculptures. As I was obviously not one of the white-haired Middle-Eastern millionaires that were performing cocktail duty at the mirrored bronze bar, I was ignored by the proprietors and left to browse at my leisure.

After a time I headed back towards the restaurant. I turned down a corridor leading from the lobby and followed it for some distance. Much to my delight, I found myself in the famed Merv Griffin tribute gallery hung with photos of Merv hobnobbing with such 70s luminaries as Elvis, Charlton Heston, Joey Bishop, and Tom Jones. I felt humbled in the presence of such glorious entertainment iconography, but it could not prepare me for the wonders that awaited through the swinging bamboo doors ahead.

As I entered Trader Vic's I left the roar of traffic and eye-burning smog of LA far behind and found myself in a sleepy Tahitian bower of dark bamboo paneling, giant clam shells, and dugout canoes hanging from the mirrored ceiling. Gentle island music tinkled from hidden speakers and only the clinking of glasses at the lavish bar disturbed my new-found harmony. The place was empty but for myself. After passing by Vic's beautifully appointed lounge and a mysterious array of beehive-shaped clay ovens situated behind a large plate-glass window, the gracious hostess seated me at a tiny table that looked out over a miniature tropical garden. My waiter "Dave," an ancient and leathery Malaysian gentleman with a rather unattractive trail of snot running out of one nostril, greeted me in almost impenetrably accented English and presented me with the drink menu.

menehunes.gif (16900 bytes)I found myself hard-pressed to choose among the fabulous array of dangerous libations offered, but I soon decided upon a concoction of rum, vodka, and other tropical liqueurs known as a "Menehune" that the menu described as "A secret blend of light island rum and nectars." As delightful as that sounded, the choice was made largely upon the allure of receiving a tiny figurine with said cocktail that was mine to keep upon polishing off the mind-altering substances that lay within the giant tumbler. Dave soon returned brandishing a large glass of pale green liquid poured over crushed ice and garnished with, lime, mint, and a tiny brown doll with black hair, a white mustache, wearing a breechcloth, and riding on a chopstick -- Menehune, I presume?

I pulled the chopstick out of the Menehune's tiny square rectum and placed him aside -- the better to avoid poking my eye out while slurping my drink. I placed the rest of my order with Dave, who had thoughtfully wiped his nose in the interim. I decided upon the rare Ahi salad and Vic's special Yang Chow fried rice, both reasonably priced far below the special Chinese BBQ items on the menu.

As I settled back to enjoy my tropical libation and await the rest of my meal, I noticed an elderly gentleman and a lovely young woman enter the dining room. Such pairings are far from unusual in Beverly Hills, but I also noticed that they were accompanied by the maitre'd and an unctuous younger man. The older gentleman proceeded to put forth detailed and somewhat ludicrous demands regarding modifying the decor of the dining room in the loud voice of one not accustomed to having his wishes denied. It soon became apparent that he and his young trophy girlfriend were soon to be married and planned to hold the reception in this very spot!

I sat bemused, nibbling at my delicious salad, replete with chunks of raw Ahi tuna, sprouts, kiwi, and pickled carrots all the while listening to this Master of the Universe spout off about how fabulous he was going to look during the wedding as the sycophantic young man, his personal photographer, snapped pictures of him. He punctuated every declaration with a loud "Otay!" as if he were some sort of multimillionaire Buckwheat aficionado. When he started going off about his yacht being ready in time for his honeymoon I started frantically blowing laughter bubbles through my drink straw to avoid attracting his attention. Fortunately for me, I refrained, because the Maitre'd suddenly appeared at my table with another tall, cool, green Menehune!

"My apologies, Sir." he fawned. "The gentleman and his fiancÚ wish you to have this drink as a small token of their sorrow for having disturbed your dining experience!"

The prospect of more rum filled me with a momentary apprehension as I was already buzzing from drinking a mere half of my first Menehune, but I graciously accepted, hoisted the glass, and turned towards my noble benefactor with the proper look of thanks upon my mug. He nodded and walked off to issue more contradictory orders and self-congratulatory dialogue.

By this time my rice had arrived and I dug into the mixture of shrimp, lobster, and Japanese tsukemono pickles with mucho gusto. As I finished off the last scraps of my repast I was flying high and ready for dessert. I chose a candied ginger chocolate cake which proved to be the crowning glory of the evening; an ultra-dense circle of chocolate bliss, drowning in a bittersweet ginger-mango sauce, accompanied by a pair of chopsticks molded out of white chocolate.

As my bill arrived along with my fortune cookie, I was pleased to note that I'd managed to squeeze under the limbo pole of my daily per diem, but even more filled with awe and mystery by the message that the cookie conveyed:

"Putting up with small annoyances now will bring you great benefits in the future."

As I drained the dregs of my gratis Menehune, I could only breathe a silent "Amen" to the grinning tikis that stared out at me from their wall niches. Laughing at their joking beneficence, I climbed out of my chair and stumbled back outside into the bright toaster-oven sunshine of LA.

This story is COPYRIGHT 1998, Matthew J. Marchese. All rights reserved. Standard USENET distribution is acceptable; other forms of reproduction or reprinting may be considered in violation of international copyright law. Contact Matthew J. Marchese with all reproduction requests or questions at:

All images and text appearing on these pages are copyright 2003 by Kevin Crossman, all rights reserved, unless otherwise noted. Reproduction or retransmission of this material in any form is prohibited without expressed written permission.

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