Jun 22, 2023

Why Trader Vic’s may be on its last sea legs

"I saw a werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic’s.  His hair was perfect.” – Warren Zevon, “Werewolves of London” (1978)

When you think of iconic restaurant or bar brands, few have had the longevity or the name recognition of the original “tiki bar”Trader Vic’s.  By offering its patrons enormous tropical cocktails and a fun, South Pacific vibe, Trader Vic’s grew from its origins in California in the 1930s to a worldwide name during the height of tiki bars’ popularity in the 1960s.  Through careful placement in upscale hotels (primarily Hiltons), Trader Vic’s put its Polynesian mark on most major cities in the United States and overseas, with more than 25 worldwide locations at its peak.

Fast forward to Dec. 31, 2022:  After nearly 60 years in business, the Trader Vic’s located in the London Hilton on Park Lane, the one presumably and famously referenced in the Warren Zevon song, closes for good.  Meanwhile, in the United States, only three Trader Vic’s locations remain, and one of those is merely an airport kiosk in San Jose, Calif

It can easily be argued that the Trader Vic’s brand is struggling to say the least.  And if my experience at the Trader Vic’s I visited in Atlanta a couple years back is any indication, I think I know why.

Our purpose for staying in Atlanta on this trip was merely to serve as a layover on what amounted to a two-day drive to Orlando, Fla.  Frankly, neither Punky or I had much interest in staying in the heart of Atlanta, but something in particular made us decide to book a night at the Hilton downtown.  To our surprise, it had a Trader Vic’s.  Another classic chain to cross off our bucket list, we thought. 

You can only imagine how quickly the disappointment took over once we actually got there.  For starters, the location of the restaurant did it no favors.  For some reason, this Trader Vic’s was put on the bottom level of the hotel, and access from the main lobby was limited to only or two of about six to eight elevators.  It was a time-consuming endeavor just to reach the place.  Granted, this is more of a design flaw of the hotel, but it doesn’t start the Trader Vic’s experience in Atlanta off on a very positive note. 

Once we reached the bottom floor, the first impression of the restaurant didn’t exactly improve matters.  The word lifeless sprang to mind … exacerbated perhaps by the seemingly uninterested vibe we received from our host.  Nonetheless, after admitting we had not made a reservation (why he thought we needed one I have no idea), we were escorted through a labyrinth of rooms to our dining area.

The maze of hallways we walked through were much less reminiscent of a tropical-themed bar/restaurant and more like a cross between a hotel conference space and a Hawaii-decorated dungeon.

We were seated smack in the middle of a spacious dining room.  I suppose the glass windows surrounding the room were intended to give a bit of greenhouse effect, but the view of the miniscule garden surrounding the restaurant was tiny in comparison to the more prominent concrete jungle of downtown Atlanta. 

At the same time, the lack of motivation from the staff became more apparent.  After what seemed like an excruciatingly long wait to be noticed, the server assigned to our table acted more annoyed than anything else to wait on us.  By this time, Punky and I were more than ready for an adult beverage, so we got our order in as quickly as possible.  We also made sure to order our food and drink simultaneously in order to put our server out as little as possible.  And while waiting … and waiting … for our drinks, I discovered by eavesdropping on other tables there were dinner specials we weren’t even informed of by our less than eager server. 

So, yeah, the service did nothing to bolster Trader Vic’s brand image with us.  But would the drinks and dinner make up for it?  

It would have been senseless for us to go to Trader Vic’s and not order a Mai Tai.  After all, they supposedly originated this famous tiki cocktail.  And their version was not bad, but it wasn’t mind-blowing either.  Still, overall positive points for the drinks themselves but nothing I couldn’t get from any good experienced bartender.  The “signature” Peachtree Punch for the Atlanta location was cheaper and better, in my opinion. 

I was less impressed with the food.  First, the number of entrees on the menu barely outpaced the number of appetizers.  Again, maybe this was due in part to the Covid restrictions at the time, but our choices were pretty limited.  In fact, Kiddo couldn’t find any main course on the menu that appealed to her, we decided to order two apps for her – smoked wings and crab Rangoon – and let her have at them.  

She might have made the smartest decision of us all.  Punky ordered the kung pao chicken, which would seem like a decent choice at a primarily Asian fusion restaurant.  Unfortunately, the dish could best be described as boring.  Not a lot of “pow” in this kung pao, which also came to the table lukewarm at best. 

I fared moderately better with the corvina fish filet, which was served over a bed of lentils (which I thought was an odd pairing) and a mildly sweet sauce.  The lentils were surprisingly good, so that was a bonus.  But was the dish worth $30?  That’s questionable.

A more recent menu at the Atlanta location shows several more inventive options than we had when we visited.  Still, online reviews seem mixed, and given the overall trend of the franchise, it may be only a matter of time before the last Trader Vic’s locations in the United States disappear. 

If you feel like you must give the franchise a try, the Atlanta outpost remains your best bet. Just don’t expect superior service, and be pleasantly surprised if you are treated like you’re welcome there.  Or, you can go to the part of the world where Trader Vic’s appear to be thriving – the Middle East.  Bahrain, Dubai, Jordan, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates all have Trader Vic’s, which seems ironic to me given the cocktail culture on which it was founded.  But they must be doing something right.

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