When I moved to Emeryville years ago, I considered Trader Vic’s an overpriced restaurant chain for out-of-towners celebrating their anniversary. It just seamed dated and tacky and it wasn’t very visible, nestled away in a nook of the Marina neighborhood. I was also put-off by the imposed valet parking despite having an ample lot. I even dismissed Trader Vic’s as unqualified in a recent poll asking what the best Emeryville Bar was (Prizefighter won handily) because of it being an International chain.
When I was corrected by a reader that San Pablo Ave in neighboring Oakland was actually home to the very first Trader Vic’s, it set off a furious internet research session to discover more about the historic establishment. What I found was a fascinating look at a bygone era that still resonates today.
Victor Jules Bergeron, Jr. (Born December 10, 1902) famously opened the original Hinky Dinks at 6500 San Pablo (now a vacant lot) in 1934 with a $500 loan. Hinky Dinks was named after the World War I era song “Hinky Dinky Parlay Vous”.
As the story goes, after an adventure to Cuba to “refine his skills as a bartender and explore the subtleties of rums from around the world”, Bergeron continued to Hawaii where he completely immersed himself in island living and culture.
Upon his return and a visit to L.A.’s Don the Beachcomber in 1937, he transformed Hinky Dink’s from a saloon into a tropical retreat that he renamed “Trader Vic’s” after a nickname given by his wife because of his knack for bartering services.
He re-outfitted the space with knickknacks he had collected throughout his travels and retooled the menu with Island-style/Cantonese cuisine becoming “America’s first fusion restaurant concept”.
Adding to Vic’s island mystique was the fast that he had a left Wooden-leg that he apparently allowed customers to stab with an ice-pick. The missing appendage was untruly rumored (but perhaps self-perpetuated) to have been bitten off by a shark when in reality, Doctors amputated it when he was six to prevent his death from tuberculosis of the knee.
According to the Restaurant’s website, the Mai Tai was invented in 1944 with seventeen-year-old J. Wray & Nephew Jamaican rum, freshly squeezed lime, Dutch orange curaçao, a splash of rock candy syrup and a dash of French orgeat poured over cracked ice and shaken well.
Vic’s Tahitian friends whom were visiting exclaimed after trying it, “It’s mai tai! It’s mai tai roa ae!” Tahitian for “out of this world- the best!”. Vic then legendarily declared the drink “The Mai Tai.”
This story is apparently contested by rival Donn Beach whom claims to have invented the drink himself. Bergeron fired back in a 1970’s NY Times article by stating “There has been a lot of conversation over the beginning of the Mai Tai, and I want to get the record straight — I originated the Mai Tai. Anybody who says I didn’t create this drink is a real stinker.”
This signature drink, it’s unique decor and Bergeron’s charisma made Trader Vic’s an overnight destination. Famed San Francisco Chronicle writer Herb Caen even proclaimed that “the best restaurant in San Francisco is in Oakland” after visiting Trader Vic’s when the original Bay Bridge opened in 1936.
Over the next two decades, Bergeron expanded Trader Vic’s to Seattle, San Francisco, Beverly Hills, Chicago, and Hawaii and New York.
Tiki was probably first introduced to the mainland by GIs stationed in the South Pacific between World War I and II. Los Angeles’ Don the Beachcomber is credited with being the first establishment but it is Bergeron who is credited with bringing the signature bamboo walls, wood carvings and fruity, rum-based cocktails served in ceramic cups to the masses.
Imagine the Golden Gate neighborhood strip of San Pablo during the “Post-prohibition era” of the 1930’s-60’s lined with as many as fifty bars stretching all the way from 53rd into Berkeley.
Oakland Local recently created this interactive map to capture this history of Tiki influenced places like “Zombie Village”, “Silver Slipper” & “House of Joy”. Oakland even recently declared The Mai Tai its “Official” cocktail.
In addition to the famed drink, Bergeron has been credited with inventing the themed restaurant concept (Neighboring Bay Street “Elephant Bar” should definitely thank him).
Tiki fell out of vogue in the 1970’s but the recent Mid-Century renaissance and Artists like Shag and shows like Mad Men have contributed to its recent resurgence. There’s even a 2013 documentary titled “Plastic Paradise: A Swinging Trip Through America’s Polynesian” making its way around the Public Radio circuit.
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In 1972, Trader Vic’s moved to its current waterfront spot in the Emeryville Marina neighborhood and has been a destination for decades since.
Bergeron passed away in 1984 at the age of 81. He published eight books and operated 27 restaurants around the globe in his lifetime. The restaurant name now extends to remote areas of the planet including India, Qatar & Kurdistan after teaming up with the Hilton Hotel empire.
The Emeryville location is still considered the flagship and up until recently, its food warehouse was located at the old Westinghouse factory on Park Avenue (currently occupied by Editions Limited).
The revelation that we were “the original” brought new appreciation and led me to rediscover the classic appeal of Trader Vic’s. My dismissal of it had caused me to completely miss out on its 2010 renovation, shedding its white tablecloth formality and opting to return to its more casual “Tiki” roots.
They brought in a new executive chef to revamp their menu and created a more open, “loungy” setting including the return of the original “monkey pod” style tables.
Upon my most recent trip there, I discovered that Trader Vic’s was “cool” … again! If you haven’t been in a while, it might be time to rediscover Trader Vic’s. The Food, The scenic bay views and of course, the Mai Tais!
Additional Reading and Reference:
Remembering Trader Vic’s, New York’s Favorite Tiki Bar | Eater NY
Trader Vics Brings The Mai Tai Home Again | Eater SF.
Drinking Tiki: A Brief History | The Savory
After the fire, Oakland’s love of tiki burns on | Oakland North