CONTRACOSTATIMES.COM: Dec 2, 2015
Three tiki huts, two litchi nuts and a lava bowl, the “nectar of the gods.” “The 12 Days of Christmas” never sounded so seductive. And while you may be thinking Hawaii, this destination is much closer to home — in San Francisco.
A friend and I spent the night sipping fragrant cocktails and nibbling pupus in the Tonga Room recently. It’s the 70th year for this Fairmont San Francisco Hotel institution at 950 Mason St. and it still holds its own in a city known for restaurants. Even celebrity chef, author and TV personality Anthony Bourdain agrees, having said the Hurricane Bar has the “best bloody mai tai” in the world.
The enduring attraction begins with the vibe — that perfect mix of travelers and locals, mingling at the bar and on the dance floor. Lightning and thunder punctuate the occasional tropical rain shower falling gently over the lagoon, where house band The Island Groove plays hits on a hatch-covered barge.
And talk about the consummate crooner — band frontman C.J. Simbre has a way of making every woman in the audience feel like he’s singing to her, and her alone. You get the feeling that something memorable could happen at any moment. And often, it does.
“Every weekend we get one or two pool jumpers,” says Fairmont San Francisco Hotel general manager Tom Klein. “There’s this little competition in town — who can park out front, run in the Tonga Room, jump in and run out?”
The lagoon was a plunge before World War II, and it seems some folks still think of swimming. But whether it’s the mischievous moat diver or the celebrity mai tai sipper — Klein says the Tonga Room guests are its best ambassadors.
“What will happen is you’ll get in there and you’ll say ‘Remember, my grandson was here’ or ‘I celebrated my anniversary,’ ” Klein says. “You want to keep those memories alive.”
A few years ago, management considered closing the Tonga Room permanently. San Franciscans wouldn’t hear of it and launched a campaign to save the iconic establishment. The Fairmont responded with a $1 million renovation of the restaurant and bar that has made it even more popular today.
As the general manager, Klein understands the importance of honoring history in a hotel so connected with the city that grew up around it.
“This is a hotel that has always been a social center for San Francisco,” Klein says. “We survived the earthquake of 1906 and are part of the fabric of the city. I don’t believe there’s any other hotel that can honestly say that.”