Happy Anniversary to famed Tiki restaurant brand Trader Vic’s, which turns 85 in November. The Polynesian-themed concept started out as a hunting-lodge-styled dive bar called Hinky Dink’s in Oakland, CA. Inspired by Don the Beachcomber bar in Los Angeles, founder Victor “The Trader” Bergeron revamped Hinky Dink’s into Trader Vic’s.
The concept became known for its South Pacific ambiance, with carved wooden masks and palms, exotic cocktails and food cooked in Chinese wood-fired ovens. It might not have been authentic Polynesian, but it was close enough for guests looking for a tropical escape fueled by high-octane rum libations such as the Suffering Bastard, Samoan Fog Cutter and Doctor Funk of Tahiti.
Bergeron expanded Trader Vic’s to cities such as Seattle, San Francisco, Beverly Hills, Chicago, New York and Hawaii during the next 20 years. The first international location opened in London in 1963; it’s now the oldest of the restaurants still operating.
The post-World War II Tiki phenomenon endured for decades until the trend started falling out of favor in the 1970s, and Polynesian-themed restaurants began closing.
Fun fact: The then-real-estate-developer and now president Donald Trump is responsible for permanently closing the “tacky” New York location in the early 1990s, after buying the Plaza Hotel that had housed Trader Vic’s.
The company had opened a number of Trader Vic’s restaurants in the U.S. in the early 2000s, but it now has just two. The Atlanta location, opened in 1976, is the only other Trader Vic’s location in the U.S besides the original, which had moved from Oakland to Emeryville, CA, in 1972.
Still, Trader Vic’s remains a global brand and currently operates 19 locations, in the U.S., Middle East and Asia. Spirits industry executive Rhett Rosen took over as CEO this past April and will oversee the continued growth of Trader Vic’s and its Mexican-inspired brand, Señor Pico, which is scheduled to open in Dubai later this year.
Oh Mai Tai
Trader Vic’s isn’t Bergeron’s only legacy, however. Bergeron, who died in 1984 at age 81, created the Mai Tai in 1944. What was his inspiration for the cocktail?
After Bergeron had success with several exotic rum drinks, he wanted to develop a new rum cocktail, according to the company. While at the service bar at his Oakland, CA, restaurant, Bergeron took a bottle of 17-year old Jamaican J. Wray Nephew rum, added fresh lime, orange Curaçao from Holland, a dash of rock candy and vigorously shook the mixture.
He presented the cocktail, garnished with fresh mint and lime, to friends visiting from Tahiti. After one sip, the legend goes, they responded, “mai tai-roa ae,” which variously translates to “out of this world—the best” in Tahitian.
Bergeron named the drink “Mai Tai,” and while there are many variations, the original can still be found at the remaining Trader Vic’s locations. Here’s his recipe:
Trader Vic’s Original Mai Tai
2 oz. 17-year-old J. Wray Nephew Jamaican rum
½ oz. Curaçao
½ oz. Orgeat syrup
¼ oz. Rock candy syrup
Juice of 1 fresh lime
Combine ingredients and shake well. Pour over shaved ice in a double Old Fashioned glass. Add a spent lime shell and fresh mint sprig garnish.