Once a pioneer in SF Tiki bar culture, Trad’r Sam is now just another bar

It was April 20 in San Francisco. Some folks were celebrating the resurrection of Christ, while others were rising in a cloud of marijuana smoke. I decided to make rum my religion for the night, and Trad'r Sam would be my altar.

A long bus ride on the 1-California and a brisk walk down to Geary Boulevard brought me through the doors of the Richmond district haunt. I pulled up a chair at the linoleumlike half-moon bar alongside a half-dozen or so lonely drinkers like myself.

Trad'r Sam is an institution in the Tiki bar world, and I was ready to take in all the tropical kitsch.

“So I understand this place has been around for a while?” I asked the bartender. The bartender, wearing a Sharks cap and Sharks T-shirt, had no clue about the bar's history.

“All I know is that it's owned by a bunch of Greeks,” he said.

Perhaps this should have been my first clue that the mellow island tunes and Hawaiian shirts were no longer regulars at the place.

Tiki bars have a special place in American booze lore. Following Prohibition's end in the early 1930s, rum became a popular drink in the U.S. In 1934, a former Prohibition bootlegger, future World War II veteran and Caribbean wanderer named Donn Beach single-handedly created a new category of cocktail — the Tiki.

From his Hollywood bar and restaurant, Beach entertained celebrities and guests with his secret formulas in an oasis of palms, bamboo and other saccharine reminders of the tropics.

In the Bay Area, Trader Vic's and Trad'r Sam opened their doors to the Tiki craze just a few years later, the former eventually opening chains all across the globe.

Old pictures will show you that when Trad'r Sam was opened in 1937 by a man named Sam Baylon, large stalks of bananas hung from the ceilings and bartenders took the Tiki-theme thing in full stride, donning beige outfits and Safari caps ready to take you away in a rum rhapsody. The most popular order was the Banana Cow (blended rum, brandy, Benedictine, banana and cream).

In the 1970s, the bar came under its third and current owners when the Munguia family purchased the spot.

Today, a skeleton of the place still remains. Bamboo arches spell out different islands of Polynesia where neighborhood regulars who prefer ordering “real” drinks sit in little nooks of rattan furniture. The occasional Scorpion Bowl (served in a salad bowl) is ordered by groups that sip from long red straws.

By no means does this place showcase the flair and precision of Smuggler's Cove, or draw crowds like the Tonga Room. But this is arguably San Francisco's first Tiki bar, though it seems to have lost its original identity and perhaps its soul.

Throughout the rest of Easter night, or 4/20, various groups of people walked through the door, ordering Jameson shots, beers and pretty much everything except what's on the menu.

The guy directly across the bar from me even ordered a chilled vodka shot.

“A soda back, please,” he said as his friends silently admired his order.

As I swirled the umbrella in my Sweet Leilani (rum, pineapple, orange juice, more rum and brandy float), I wondered what kind of person orders a flavorless spirit and a flavorless chaser.

For a moment I felt out of place, being the only guy at the bar with a tropical drink.

Warren G cuts blared from the touchscreen jukebox. The guy to my left who decided to sit next to me kept saying, “More elbow room, Deebo!” in some sort of reference to the character in “Friday.” The Irish fella to my right kept reminding himself and just about everyone else at the bar that he's Irish.

The place began to feel more like a rough neighborhood dive bar than a Tiki getaway from city life.

Things had to change. Quick.

I didn't come all the way from Nob Hill for this. I came to be reminded of Hawaii, my home, where coconut trees sway, waves break and guavas grow. And I wanted to be reminded even though it was in the most Tiki-tacky of ways.

So I headed to the jukebox to change the mood. I unfolded a dollar bill from my pocket and searched for anything Hawaiian. I found Elvis Presley's “Hawaiian Sunset.”

The ukulele, slack key and the King's rich voice serenaded the room as I turned around and headed back to my seat, the rest of the patrons rolling their eyes at my song selection. Some even yawned. But I didn't care, this was my time now. This was what a Tiki bar is supposed to feel like.

I took a long sip from my Sweet Leilani, eyes fixed on the myriad Christmas lights behind the bar.

And for a moment, I was taken away.

Ahhh … paradise at last.

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