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