Published: Dec. 11, 1992

BEFORE I bought a house and started spending all my money at places like Big Leon's Linoleum Barn, I had a modest little lump of cash floating around the stock market. One of the most expensive lessons I learned was this: It's better to get to the party early -- and leave early -- than show up late and stick around 'til the bitter end.

That sound advice for picking stocks could also apply to this dubious business of nightclub trend-surfing. Get to the cool bar du jour before the crowd does. And then be gone just when the throng starts to get ugly at the door. But clubs, like investments, seldom perform exactly as planned . . .

I'd pegged the Lanai to be a suburban luau hut barely kept afloat by an aging clientele that favored aloha shirts, white Sansabelt slacks and matching white vinyl shoes. Like most of my best secret dives, it had an unbelievable location -- in the corner of a tired-looking strip mall that's almost under an elevated portion of Highway 92. (Look for a hot-pink neon sign, right there by Pet Club and Office Depot). Last Saturday night, the Fun Consultant and I rolled in around 10:30. As we sat in the car waiting for the rain to let up, a VW Cabriolet pulled in next to us and two over-moussed club types in identical skintight black mini-dresses got out. Then we noticed the mod couple across the way. And the two couples done up in black leather and tastefully shredded jeans. So much for secret dives.

The scowling Maori warrior carved into the rough wood of the front door should have tipped us off, but we were unprepared for the Kon-Tiki kitsch-o-rama we found inside: a bar with a thatched roof. Walls made of lava rocks, woven grass mats and bamboo poles. An indoor waterfall trickling down a vine-covered wall. The only thing missing was Don Ho and the Ho-ettes singing an easy-listening version of "Bloody Mary."

The Lanai, a suburban cousin of Trader Vic's and the Tonga Room, was a fixture on El Camino Real for decades, before it was razed a few years back. The new room, which opened two years ago, is still a straight shot of Faux Polynesia, circa 1974. We saw many people walking around with what appeared to be fishbowls with straws sticking out of them. Upon closer examination, we realized these were birdbath-size snifters of "tropical" drinks with names such as "Sidewinder Fang." You light a match anywhere near one of these babies and you run the risk of becoming a human tiki-torch. We saw one fellow who was almost finished with his second fishbowl. He looked like he'd just seen Jack Lord's head on a bamboo pole.

There's no way to pigeonhole the Lanai crowd. There were the Cabriolet bunnies and mods -- and right at the next table, a foursome of retired folks who had stopped in for a nightcap after catching a show at the nearby Hillbarn Theater. There was a 50-ish guy who had his hands all over his 20-something date. There was one gorgeous woman in a stunning pajama ensemble and suede boots. And more than a few arrested-development dudes who probably believe that Blue Oyster Cult represented the zenith of rock's evolutionary arc.

Music is not the drawing card at the Lanai. We thought we'd find some slack-key guitarist or maybe an Irish/Hawaiian lounge combo called the Lovely Houlihans. Instead, we got UB40's great "Labour of Love" album pulsing through the sound system. In the Mexican restaurant attached to the club, there's low-key jazz and salsa on Thursdays, karaoke on Fridays and local rock on Saturdays. The band we saw, the Freeze, was a louder-than- bombs '60s cover group, and nothing to write home about.

So we weren't the first people under 30 to rediscover the Lanai. Big deal. We got there in time to witness the tiki torch being passed to the next generation.

The Lanai
1860 S. Norfolk St.
San Mateo
Admission: No cover
Details: Live music 8 p.m.
Thursdays and 9:30 p.m. Saturdays
(415) 349-9748

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