Mai Tais and Navy Grog served up in one of the original tiki bars.
Though the original Trader Vic’s no longer exists, the Atlanta outpost offers just about everything you could want from one of the original tiki bars—bamboo, fake tribal masks, and lots of rum.
The story of Trader Vic’s is like that of any successful chain—Victor Bergeron, spotting the burgeoning popularity of all things tropical, opened a bar across the street from his parents’ grocery store in Oakland, 1934. Its popularity quickly grew too large for its surroundings, and spread into franchises across the West Coast.
Trader Vic’s served up “exotic delicacies,” most of which were actually just Americanized Chinese dishes with some pineapple thrown in. This conflation of cultures was the case in most tiki bars: African masks hung next to Japanese fishing buoys, and patrons listened to Hawaiian ukulele music while they drank Caribbean alcohol with Tahitian names. Tiki culture was native to nowhere, but evocative of an imaginary paradise.
Part of what attracted folks to the tiki craze was the feeling of escapism. If you couldn’t get to the Pacific, no matter — a temporary vacation was available to you at Trader Vic’s. Vic capitalized on this by placing many of his franchises in hotels, which ultimately was the downfall of tiki. Its connection with cheap leisure marked it as tacky.
Nevertheless, a few Trader Vic’s outposts hung on. The Atlanta Vic’s is located in a Hilton, and it has (thankfully) held on to the midcentury kitsch that makes it so unique. Today, tiki kitsch is yet again exportable—most of the Traders Vic’s in existence are not in the contiguous U.S., but in far flung destinations like Dubai and Amman.
Trader Vic’s was always in friendly competition with Donn the Beachcomber, the other claimant to the invention of such tiki staples as the Mai Tai and the Zombie. The true originator may never be known for sure, but both Don and Vic were essential to the vision of Pacific paradise that evolved over the course of the 20th century.
Know Before You Go
In the lower level of Hilton Atlanta.
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