Though I’m not prone to writing about chains, Trader Vic’s was a pretty big deal when it opened in 1968. There are still those who recall dinner there before prom.
With locations in the Bay Area and New York’s Plaza Hotel, among other places, it didn’t feel much like the Bel-Air East Motor Hotel. Giant tiki gods flanked the pointy-roofed entrance, and there was a tropical ambiance inside, including wicker furniture and strange fruity cocktails in bright, goofy containers. (The restaurant claimed to have originated the Mai Tai.) Background music was from a genre called exotica, courtesy of such artists as Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman.
Trader Vic himself (Victor Jules Bergeron Jr.) was the first to point out that the food wasn’t authentic, but it tasted good and, more important, excited guests. Limestone lettuce with a soy-tarragon dressing might not be found in Tahiti, but it was tasty. The restaurant even had ceviche, described as poisson cru.
Chef DuBois Chen ran the St. Louis kitchen when it opened. Chen, who had cooked in the French Navy, said he created crab Rangoon. There’s no solid proof, but he was a gifted chef, and the dish certainly spread far beyond Trader Vic’s.
Today, the remaining outposts are mostly in the Middle East. Ours closed in 1985.