I wouldn’t have made it to Chapter Thirty of my Discerning Drinking series – chronicling the worst (and the worster) of my homemade cock’tales’ stirred up in the confines of Carmines – if it wasn’t for the mighty Difford’s Guide. Simon Difford’s Cocktails No. 10 is out now, and I strongly recommend you get it. I would do, but I love my well-thumbed No. 9, the pages sticky with Chambord, pineapple juice and coffee.
A common theme of Cocktails 9 is the accreditation of a certain bar for a good few drinks, and that bar is Trader Vic’s. After a rather lively Tuesday night spent at their restaurant in the London Hilton on Park Lane, the bill arrived in a little pottered barrel, presented like a pirate’s treasure map. The barrel read;
That I did not know. But there we are – Vic’s was founded in Oakland, California in November that year. The places was originally called Hinky Dink’s, before adapting the nickname of its creator, Victor Jules Bergeron Jr. and became rapidly and popularly known a tropical-themed, liquor-led restaurant that soon expanded to other cities around the United States. It is considered one of the first restaurant chains in the history of ever, so how one ended up in one of the swankiest hotels in London is well beyond my own meagre grey matter.
One thing that I did know about Vic’s is that it’s theme is Tiki. Ah… yes. That instantly recognisable Polynesian-slash-Caribbean mash-up of wood, scary tribal faces, colourful shirts and beach…um…stuff. I like it, it’s kitsch. And anything, as long as it is executed well, with a generous scoop of passion, is just fine. London is not exactly saturated with these places; I mean we have Mahiki in Piccadilly which is almost impossible to get into, especially if Prince Harry (Styles, not Windsor) is there, and a place near Clapham Junction called Sugar Cane. Neither of these places is a bonafide restaurants; at least at Vic’s you can get a good meal.
Somehow, we were struggling to get any kind of meal that Tuesday evening, as the queue at MEATliquor was ridiculous and there was an hour wait at Hard Rock Café (queuing to get in here is like queuing to get kicked in the bollocks by the Klitschko brothers). Faced with a brief of “find a restaurant that serves cocktails”, impending cold, certain professional interests and it’s proximity to the queue of doom at Hard Rock, we headed to Trader Vic’s.
Vic’s would have always hit the brief on the head. Over the years, Vic’s has either created or had an important hand in crafting same damn fine and famous cocktails. A book released by the chain, and thus revised over the decades, Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide, provides many recipes, or recreations of existing recipes which are still recognised today as excellent examples of all kinds of drink – as long as they have some kind of tropical flair. Bergeron’s Gun Club Punch, from the 1972 edition of the book, is made with two kinds of rum and triple sec is lauded as one of the few balanced fruity cocktails, whereas Polly’s Special, a whiskey, Grand Marnier and grapefruit coupette, is a classic from the 1947 edition. Both are highly rated by Difford et al, but Vic’s is best know for being one of two possible creators of the Mai Tai, the other being the regal-sounding Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt of Don the Beachcomber’s Bar in Hollywood.
Bergeron’s recipe is the most famous of the two, despite being created in 1944, ten years later than, allegedly, Beaumont-Gantt’s. Trader Vic’s oversized, colourful and illustrative cocktail menu boasts ten variations – eleven if you include the Mai Tai Wave, a rack of three ‘tasters’ – and the signature and original is made with Bacardi, orange curaçao, lime juice, almond syrup and sugar syrup. As we looked over the menu, I came damn close to trying one, but the temptations of the Samoan Fog Cutter, described as a ‘vaseful of rum, gin, brandy and sherry wine’ was too much. Despite the server helpfully adding the Fog Cutter “will help you see through the fog”, it actually tasted damn nice – a good balance between bitterly strong and blissfully fruity – though nowhere nears as nice as an accompanying Peach Tree Punch, made with yes, you guessed it – peaches and yes, you guessed it, rum.
At Trader Vic’s the cocktails are certainly the star of the show. As you make your way into the Hilton’s tropical-looking basement, you can either hang right into the bar or left into the restaurant – the bar is busiest. But don’t think that all drinks are fruity and rummy, and if they’re not, they’re shit. An after-dinner drink called the White Cloud was mad with vodka and laced with creme de cacao and it was bloody superb. Look beyond the Tiki clutter to the warm, woody decor, well-spaced tables and feeling of being ensconced that only a basement bar can provide – it makes Trader Vic’s an ideal location for clandestine and intimate meet ups… over ultra-strong drinks.
If food is needed to soak up the hooch, then Vic’s offers a Polynesian-y menu which stretches beyond to many cuisines all over the world. Much is made of their Cosmo Tidbits, a sharing platter that has been with the chain for eons. It brings together crab Rangoon, char siu pork, crispy shrimp and spare ribs and makes perfect(ly messy) bar food or starters. The menu, even by Mayfair hotel standards, is ludicrously expensive but the food is literally heaped onto the plate and I must confess, I was beaten by my main course of scallops with scallop noodles, enriched to wonderful madness by plum sauce, but the bowl was never ending. Five-spice crispy duck pancakes was better – a kind of do-it-yourself escapade of wrap, cucumber and pyramid of shredded duck that yes, beat us again. At least they offer you doggie bags here, just one example of a very laid back and friendly service, by a team largely consisting of smiley and chatty Polynesian, American and Asian servers, garbed up in either bright-printed sheer dresses or yes, you guessed it… Hawaiian shirts.
We left Trader Vic’s and headed up Park Lane. A Tiki-style restaurant in the heart of one of the most expensive post codes in the country doesn’t quite sit right, an observation made particularly poignant as we passed a gold-painted Bugatti Veyron a short time later. Even after a refurbishment, Trader Vic’s appears a little bit dated, an unfortunate coincidence more than anything else, seeing as such style will always naturally resemble the set of a 1970’s British sitcom. The chain itself is beyond the heyday of Tiki-mania, but operates a handful of sites around the world which do very well, and deserve to do so. Vic’s is Tiki – and does it to perfection, through heritage and style, and a quality product. I am sure that Beaumont-Gantt would disagree, but he’s got a double-barreled surname so what would he know?
Cocktails from £six to £fifteen, sharing cocktails go all the way up to £sixty-ish. Starters £fifteen to twenty, mains £twenty to forty
www.TraderVicsLondon.com | @TraderVicsLND | 0207 208 4113 | London Hilton on Park Lane, 22 Park Lane, London, W1K 1BE