Taste of the Town
Aloha, Trader Vic's! The venerable purveyor of tiki culture returns
Seattle Times restaurant critic
MAREN CARUSO / FROM THE BOOK "TRADER VIC'S TIKI PARTY"
MAREN CARUSO / FROM THE BOOK "TRADER VIC'S TIKI PARTY"
GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
COURTESY OF TOM AND BARB ROBINSON
Trader Vic's, Lincoln Square, 700 Bellevue Way, Suite 50, Bellevue, is set to open March 6. Hours: 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Sundays-Thursdays and 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays (425-455-4483 or www.tradervicsbellevue.com).
Your favorite drink is a Scorpion — with four straws. You can recite the recipe for Crab Rangoon — with your eyes closed. Your home décor is heavy with menehune, the scent of gardenias makes you crazy and the memory of a man named Harry Wong brings tears to your eyes.
Face it, friend. You are a Trader Vic's-ionado.
And when the doors open March 6 at the new Trader Vic's in Bellevue — 15 years after Seattle bid a teary farewell to that South Seas paradise in the Westin hotel — you'll no longer have to leave town for a Trader Vic's fix.
"I'm ecstatic! It's a dream come true," says Theresa Dowell, a Bellevue attorney whose law office is blocks away from the Trader's new Lincoln Square location. Her Leschi home is a tiki-lover's treasure chest of Trader Vic's memorabilia: mai tai glasses and menehune (carvings of Hawaii's legendary little people), tortoise shells and skull mugs, much of it purchased at auction when Trader Vic's Seattle closed in 1991.
Dowell says her husband, Greg Jones, is thrilled about Bellevue, too. "It'll be so much cheaper for us to drive across the bridge," she says, instead of traveling to Trader Vic's outposts in Beverly Hills, London, Taipei and Bangkok, as they frequently do.
The couple recently introduced their 5-year-old daughter, Jeannine, to her first Trader Vic's experience in Emeryville, Calif. What was the youngster's reaction to the legendary restaurant founded by the late Vic Bergeron and franchised on several continents in the years since? "She loved it!"
Whether a new generation of diners will learn to love Trader Vic's in Bellevue remains to be seen. But there's no shortage of locals greatly anticipating its opening.
Charity auctioneers Sharon and Dick Friel will be there next week, attending a private "preview" dinner that raised $25,000 during the Hutch 2005 Holiday Gala. "We purchased two sets of tickets at $250 per couple," says Sharon Friel, who considers that a small price to pay for reliving the time of her life.
Friel has Trader Vic's to thank for her signature adornment: a fresh gardenia she wears to each of the 60 auctions the couple works every year. On Valentine's Day, her husband of 42 years gifted her with a dozen red roses. Tucked into the bouquet were two gardenias, "and it all started at Trader Vic's," she says.
"When I turned 21," Friel explains, "my Kappa Alpha Theta sorority sisters and I would go to the bar there and drink Scorpions." That rum-based drink packed a punch — and a posy. "We'd put the gardenias in our hair and wear them back to the sorority house," says the UW class of '61 grad. "Back then, it was the fashion for sorority girls to wear flowers in their hair, but wearing gardenias was a status symbol. It meant, 'I had been to Trader Vic's!' "
A bygone era
Trader Vic's was synonymous with glamour, says Friel, but she and many other longtime fans also saw the restaurant as a virtual getaway. "You could leave a Seattle rainstorm, walk through the door and be in the tropics. All that wonderful décor! Today, some people might find it corny, but back then, all that bamboo, the hanging canoes, the pupu trays — it was so distinctive."
Chris Canlis, whose father, Peter, founded the 55-year-old restaurant that bears the family name, notes it wasn't just the drinks or the South Seas décor that drew a generation to Trader Vic's. "I think it was a way of being cared for that really grew out of the era of restaurateurs like Vic Bergeron, Peter Canlis and Victor Rosellini." And in Seattle, says Canlis, Harry Wong was the embodiment of Trader Vic's. The restaurant's front-man and manager, Wong "was a gracious, warm, welcoming presence in the downtown dining scene. He set the tone."
"Harry Wong would do anything for his customers," says Tom Robinson, whose wife, Barb, got him hooked on Trader Vic's in 1959. Together they've since traveled the world sipping Tiki Puka Pukas and eating Prawns San Francisco. "Harry was known for his hospitality and his sense of humor. He always recognized us and saved our favorite table."
Once, when the Robinsons were dining with Barb's dad — "a real meat and potatoes guy" — Harry sent out a basket of warm dinner rolls, not something you'd normally find at Trader Vic's. "Later, I asked him where he came up with the rolls," says Robinson. "He'd sent someone up to the Golden Lion in the Olympic Hotel to get them."
Today, their Edmonds home is a tribute to Trader Vic's — and to Harry. Press their doorbell and you'll be pressing the bellybutton of a menehune. Relax in their backyard and you'll see a tile room-divider that once hung in front of the waiter's station at the Westin. Stand in their kitchen and you'll find a plaque that reads "Harry's Room" — a gift from Wong's daughter, Christina Gee, who met the Robinsons when they attended her father's funeral service in 2002.
Gee describes her dad as "an amazing man" who worked his way up, moving from a Chinatown grocery and restaurant to take a job as cocktail waiter at the Outrigger (as Trader Vic's Seattle was originally known) in 1952. "He told me he was just a lucky guy who got good breaks." Gee recalls helping out at the restaurant in the '60s during a hotel strike.
"It was so much fun and enlightening to see him in a different light. How social, how comfortable he was greeting customers and talking to them — because that wasn't my dad," she says. "At home he was quiet and somewhat serious. He worked long hours, and we didn't see him very often." After he retired, Gee remembers how "every evening he would get antsy around the dinner hour. That's when he was 'on show,' and he missed that socialization."
Doug Guiberson remembers Wong as a best friend and mentor during his 10-year career with Trader Vic's and after, when Guiberson left to manage Canlis. Today, he's GM at Kirkland's Third Floor Fish Café, where he often encounters patrons from the old days.
"People still come in here and talk to me about how drunk they used to get, and how they'd fall into their Scorpion bowls. One guy claims I once pulled his head out of the bowl — and saved him from drowning," says Guiberson. He thinks some former patrons are "going to be comparing Harry's restaurant to this one, and that's going to be a tough match.
"Trader Vic's was decades ahead of any restaurant," he notes. "Back then, you never walked into a place that smelled of curry odors and exotic spices. The spareribs out of the barbecue oven, the lamb chops, the steaks, it was just a fantastic product."
Today, with pan-Asian menus in restaurants throughout Greater Seattle and fresh-fruit cocktails all the rage, can Trader Vic's still dazzle?
Thomas Price thinks so. He and his wife, Jessica, used to travel to Portland and San Francisco for a Trader Vic's fix before deciding to "rekindle the whole '50s Polynesian kitsch-thing" at Luau Polynesian Lounge in Wallingford in 1997. "Everybody thought we were crazy," Price recalls but says the proliferation of other island-inspired restaurants — Belltown's Ohana, downtown's The Islander and now the return of Trader Vic's — proves they weren't.
"Young people are into tiki culture 110 percent. They love the fun and the fact that you don't have to go into a restaurant and act cool, or know too much about food or wine. You just have to say, 'I'll take some pupus and that drink — the one with the coconut and the umbrella!' "
Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or email@example.com.
See more columns at Seattletimes.com/nancyleson
Information in this article was corrected February 22. The Seattle Trader Vic's longtime manager, Harry Wong, died in 2002, not in 1994 as stated in a previous version of this story.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company