Trader Vic's - Atlanta
A quick trip to one of the last greats...
Despite growing up in Georgia and having family in Atlanta, making it into Trader Vic's Atlanta location had always eluded me. They are only open from 5pm-10:30pm and close most of the week of Thanksgiving when I'm most likely to be in Atlanta. Thankfully, a business trip gave me about 36 hours in town so I made the most of it!
I'd always wanted to go to Trader Vic's as it was (to my mind) peak Tiki bar when I was a kid. At the time I lived in Texas and despite being in grade school I remember my parents going to the Trader Vic's in Dallas (RIP) for a special occasion. There was a time when most of America considered Trader Vic's to be the epitome of fine/exotic dining. It may be difficult for the younger crowd to believe but Vic's was the introduction to Chinese and Asian cuisine for a generation of Americans on top of serving some of the strongest, most adventuresome drinks on the planet. In fact, they had a deal with Hilton to be places in the basement of Hilton's top tier locations worldwide. "Trader" Vic Bergeron lacked the capitol to expand on his own so Hilton paid him $2m for naming rights and hired him to design each location for a $65k salary in 1955. That's $22m with a $720k salary in 2023 dollars. Apparently it was worth it as Hilton estimated that the restaurants were pulling in more than $5m a year by 1960 ($50m in 2023 dollars!)
What makes the Atlanta Trader Vic's so special is that it is the last location personally designed and decorated by Vic himself that is open in the Western Hemisphere. In fact, with the closing of the London Hilton location on 12/31/22 the Munich and Tokyo locations are the only others left. While the flagship Emeryville, CA location is open it was moved to a new location after Bergeron died.
Fortunately, I had a couple of friends with me so we were able to sample a sizable chunk of the cocktail menu!
I had to start with a Mai Tai as this was Trader Vic's invention and arguably his most lasting gift to tropical cocktails. To be frank, I've had better. The decline of Tiki bars has been well documented so I won't go through it all here (again) but one of the main issues was the cost cutting that came into play when the main chains were bought out by larger corporations. The fresh fruit and homemade syrups went away and the sweet & sour mix, factory made syrups and cheap liquor took over. Trader Vic's still makes and markets factory made syrups , cordials, and mixes and they are what is used in the bar. So the fruit juices were bottled (Finest Call), no spent lime shell in the drink, a single puny stem of mint and some rather bland orgeat when compared to some of the best traditional (1944) Mai Tai's that can be found at modern Tiki bars. I'm not saying it was bad - cause it wasn't. It just wasn't one of the best I've ever had. However, several other drinks on the menu were more impressive.
The Honi Honi was a particular hit (and is also the favorite Trader Vic cocktail for Mrs. Bamboo Sam) due to the bourbon base. Essentially, it's a bourbon Mai Tai but the bourbon masks some of the aforementioned issues with the Mai Tai.
I was particularly fond of the Tiki Grog. It was very passion fruit forward and hit all the right "classic Tiki" flavors. Coming in a Suffering Bastard mug should have been noted as a harbinger of the coming morning but alas, we persevered.
The Tututupo Tiki was a bit spicier (as in peppery) in flavor. While this flavor profile is quite common among more modern Tiki bars (especially in conjunction with agave spirits) it did catch me a bit off guard at Trader Vic's! Lastly, I tried the Vic's Itch, Trader Vic's version of the Tropical Itch. If you had handed this to me with no explanation I would have said it was similar to a Tropical Itch but there really wasn't anything to make it stand out from the original but I guess any variation allows for some rebranding!
While the drinks alone were worth the trip, the décor and ambiance were incredible. The first thing you notice is just how big the place is. I've been in some world class Tiki bars and most are quite small. Trader Vic's seems enormous by comparison. While every square inch is covered in something exotic, it's more like a museum than the hoarder nest style that some go for. The blowfish lamps are the first thing I noticed. They are soooo much larger than what you see commercially available today. Same for the turtle shells, seashells, and such.
Trader Vic was well known for the artifacts and crafts he imported from Papua New Guinea. In fact, if you go to their website you can still buy items they are importing today. In Atlanta this included masks, weaponry, and lots of (non PNG) Tikis. The shear size of the bamboo poles used also remind one that we really don't have access to a lot of natural materials that we used to. The overall effect was an ambiance that spacious while still seeming warm and inviting.
One thing I didn't expect was the way that the aroma from the Chinese wood fired ovens permeated the room. the ovens allow for cooking the meats through indirect heat and are large enough to demand their own room. It's not a heavy barbeque smoker type of aroma as it is a lot more subtle. I'll definitely save room for dinner next time around as they smelled delicious!.
All in, I'd highly recommend a stop at the Atlanta Trader Vic's whenever you have the chance. It's a great reminder that no matter how good the Tiki renaissance has been for those of us that love Polynesian pop, The actual golden age locations were on a scale and level that we just don't see today. I think of it like seeing an older musician that you've always admired. They may not sound as good as they did on the records but as soon as you pass on a chance to see them you'll wake up to news that they are gone and you'll regret having missed that last opportunity.