Tonga Room swimmingly back in business

Rain, rum drinks remain intact in historic tiki lounge

Mai Tais. Rain showers. Cheesy pop band on a boat. Pu pu platter snacks.

The Tonga Room, The City’s best and most beloved Tiki bar in The Fairmont hotel, celebrated its reopening with a VIP happy hour party Thursday featuring performances by gorgeous Polynesian dancers and special guests who reveled in the iconic lounge’s history.

“This place has my name on it,” said veteran Bay Area news and show biz personality Jan Wahl, who added that she once went on TV and helped save it when it was in danger of closing. She added, “Where else do you get a band in the middle of the water?”

Jan Wahl, wearing a hat specially bedazzled for the Tonga Room party, is a longtime fan of the iconic lounge. (Leslie Katz/The Examiner)

Jan Wahl, wearing a hat specially bedazzled for the Tonga Room party, is a longtime fan of the iconic lounge. (Leslie Katz/The Examiner)

The Island Groove, playing on the thatch-covered barge in the lagoon (once The Plunge, the hotel’s original pool in 1929) is the same top-40 outfit that’s graced the room for years, said Michelle Heston, Fairmont public relations director, who noted that guest vocalists often join the group.

Lauren Gallagher, a former San Francisco resident in town on a visit, recalled frequent 1990s visits to the spot when she was in college.

“We had our own rugby team; they would buy us drinks and twirl us on the dance floor,” she said, adding, “It was treated as a restaurant with a dance floor. There wasn’t a cover charge.” Moments later, she pulled out some moves on the floor to fun Bruno Mars and Rick Astley covers.

Former San Francisco resident Lauren Gallagher said she routinely came to dance at the Tonga Room when she was in college. (Leslie Katz/The Examiner)

Former San Francisco resident Lauren Gallagher said she routinely came to dance at the Tonga Room when she was in college. (Leslie Katz/The Examiner)

Longtime San Francisco resident Eric Eislund, smiling, said, “This was a place where my mom used to come to meet men.”

Officially called Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, the club dates back to the 1940s, when the 75-foot indoor swimming pool was converted into the lagoon. A restaurant called the S.S. Tonga had an Art Deco cruise-liner theme set conceived by Mel Melvin, a designer with MGM.

But not long after, it was renamed and renovated into its current popular tiki scene, complete with masts, rigging and relics from the S.S. Forester, a schooner that once traveled the South Seas.

The famous nightly thunderstorms were installed in the 1950s and, more recently, the room underwent a $1 million restoration in 2008 by Gensler San Francisco, though it thankfully retains its adorable retro feel.

The menu was updated in 2013, and at Thursday’s party, wait staff served tasty bites of ahi tuna poke tostadas, house made Spam with steamed rice, and oyster-sauce marinated Tonga grilled ribeye.

Still, for many, the food was secondary to the high-octane, free-flowing drinks. Warmed by rum-laden Mai Tais and vodka-infused Adult Swims, guests were feeling no pain as they watched beautiful island dancers in grass skirts and traditional costumes and listened as Fairmont San Francisco General Manager Markus Treppenhauer offered “cheers to the reopening” and a big thanks to his guests.

Lovely Polynesian dancers graced the festivities at the Tonga Room’s reopening bash. (Leslie Katz/The Examiner)

Lovely Polynesian dancers graced the festivities at the Tonga Room’s reopening bash. (Leslie Katz/The Examiner)

The Tonga Room, on the Terrace Level of the Faimont at 950 Mason St., is open from 5 to 11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, with dinner service until 10 p.m. There is a $15 cover charge. Call (415) 772-5278 or visit tongaroom.com.

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