Review – Trader Vic’s
There are two chaps who lay claim to the original Mai Tai; Victor Jules Bergeron reckoned he created it in 1944 in his bar-restaurant originally called Hinky Dink’s but later changed to Trader Vic’s. The other was a chap known as ‘Don the Beachcomber’ who claimed the drink is his, and first made several years before Trader Vic’s. The two recipes are somewhat different and whichever story is historically accurate, it was Trader Vic that won the popularity battle and the recipe of rum, orange curaçao, lime juice, orgeat and sugar syrup is the one widely associated with the drink today. It is also of course the signature drink at the internationally franchised chain of bars, a particularly cavernous example of which sits discreetly beneath the towering London Hilton on Park Lane.
This enclave of Polynesia in the poshest of areas in London certainly goes all out in its styling. Wooden carvings, bamboo structures and tiki kitsch are abundant in their setting the scene, although no-one seems to have told the music director for the tinny low-rent speakers blurt out a peculiar mix of tunes more at home on late night local radio than tropical paradise. Hospitality too is delivered by affable staff wearing the right garb, but I bet there ain’t many Polynesian bartenders back home that hold one hand behind their back whilst wearing a garish Hawaiian shirt and serving an expensive Bordeaux. That’s the trouble with putting a place that should be fun and light-hearted in the basement of a 5-star hotel; too many of your clientele would prefer the sedate sophistication of the Dorchester’s bar just up the road but after a day sat on their backside in meetings can’t be bothered to stretch their legs to get there.
Alas, their failure to do so renders them trick-missing. Tiki isn’t dead, but the recent makeover here hasn’t done anything to stop it dying. The ‘original’ Mai Tai of course sits pride of place on the menu, and it’s fine. It’s not that rummy, and the orgeat needs upping a bit, but it’s an otherwise satisfyingly sweet concoction. The lack of rummy-ness is in fact a peculiarly strong theme throughout. Whilst the bar does stock a decent selection of rums, most are hidden away on side shelves, with pride of place on the centre bar given to all manner of non-tiki spirits. It feels as though the prominence of spirits is decided more by the typical preferences of the hotel guests than the theme of the place. The drinks too are too often unbalanced in favour of the mixer rather than the spirit. Fruit of course plays a big role, as it should in a tiki bar, but that needn’t mean the spirit is entirely hidden.
The Zombie (light and dark rums, grenadine and curacao) is infamously potent, but not here where limpness is the defining characteristic. This is not to say the bartenders lack skill; going off menu resulted a respectable Blood and Sand, perhaps evidence of a standardised spec sheet designed to maximise margins than deliver a taste sensation. Heading back onto the menu for a Navy Grog (blend of rums with grapefruit and spiced syrup) was not a journey worth taking to arrive at a muddy-tasting drink reminiscent of “student punch”.
Back in the day this bar held a reputation for sumptuous eating, and perhaps the main menu holds true to this day. The bar snack menu meanwhile is just about able to keep up with the drinks for return-ability. Tough spare-ribs, bizarrely creamy ‘crab rangoon’, leathery char siu pork, rubbery ‘crispy’ prawns, dry beef skewers, and sauces Maccie D’s would refuse to serve; the list goes on.
In a city which leads the march in innovative, mouth-watering drinks and vibe-ridden venues, Trader Vic’s is a relic from the good ‘ol days of Tiki in the 50’s and 60’s. Ironically, I’m certain that an opportunity exists for a high-end tiki mash-up, but not when it’s done like this. Trader Vic’s is the Frankie and Bennie’s of Park Lane, proof that convenience does not make for a good night out.