Published: June 05, 1992

WAY back in the days when nightclub kingpin James Flood and the rest of his robber-baron pals ruled Nob Hill, it was known as "The Hill of Golden Promise." Last Saturday night, my fun consultant and I were standing across the street from Flood's dog-ugly brownstone fort, watching the tour buses deposit yet another load of shiny-suited Taiwanese businessmen in front of the San Francisco Fairmont Hotel, when I struck upon an idea laden with golden promise: We've crossed the unmarked border into another city.

The Fairmont on a Saturday night is Other San Francisco -- where the cable cars go halfway to the stars and the locals go only with out-of-town relatives. We decided to get to the heart of this Other San Francisco -- the Tonga Room. We went past the ossified New Orleans Room bar, past the long-closed Venetian Room supper club, past the Bella Voce with its singing waiters and past at least three weddings. Deep in the bowels of the 85-year-old grand hotel, we met a maitre d' who looked a lot like the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. He smiled broadly and purred "Yesss, follow de charming lady . . ." We followed one of the phalanx of women turned out in red silk Suzie Wong gowns, and suddenly we were there: 1974.

The Tonga Room is to kitsch Polynesia what the Louvre is to art: tiki torches as big as telephone poles, "native" carvings, bamboo huts, a ship's-deck dance floor complete with rigging and, as its centerpiece, an Olympic-pool-size "lagoon" with a thatch-roofed barge for the band. (History factoid: Ironically, the shipwreck theme is not far from the truth. The area down the California Street hill is a graveyard for many Gold Rush schooners that were scuttled in the mud and turned into saloons.)

This place is so hip, so all-freaking weird, that even the most stuffed-shirted visitors shed their inhibitions. How can one keep a straight face when confronted with what looks like an intergenerational sock-hop on the Pirates of the Caribbean? You haven't really lived until you've frugged to bossa nova versions of Madonna's "Express Yourself" and Patsy Cline's "Crazy."

For a lot of the traveling business people, the Tonga Room is a long way from the home office. One dapper middle-aged man looked up from an 18-inch-tall fluorescent-red drink to find the photo girl offering to snap his picture. He glanced at his four much younger companions and said quietly, "No, thank you. My wife would never understand."

This is a good place to take your rich, doting grandmother. Drinks average $7.50 apiece. With a few orders of pork bom-bom and pot stickers, tips and the cover charge, you're looking at about $50 for two. My fun consultant ordered a rum drink called a Tonga Tart, which came accented with a purple parasol and skewered pineapple wedge the size of a baby's foot. For a one- way ticket to the island of regret, try the four-person Scorpion for $17.

The barge-dwelling Joe Alvarez Trio was simply too cheesy for words. Their version of the Champs' "Tequila" brought to mind the frightening possibility of Carlos Santana meeting Herb Alpert on Gilligan's Island. If you've seen the film "The Freshman," with a smarmy Bert Parks hissing "tekeeeelah!" you were as good as there.

At 11:15, as the band rumbled through the "Hawaii Five-O" theme, the tape-loop thunder rolled, the strobe-light lightning flashed, the barge began to float away and the "storm" (I've had more dramatic downpours from my drip irrigation system) came over the lagoon. I knew then in my heart that, like the storm and the barge, we, too, would be back. Aloha.

The Tonga Room
In the Fairmont Hotel
California and Mason streets
San Francisco
Cover charge: $3
Details: Live music at 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 9 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
(415) 772-5278

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