There was much sorrow among history buffs and tiki aficionados alike when the iconic Beverly Hills bar Trader Vic's shut its doors in spring 2007. The old-school watering hole, which opened in 1955, had fostered a sense of L.A. history despite the perpetual renovations and changes happening all around its location at the intersection of Santa Monica and Wilshire boulevards.
After months of rumors and speculation, Trader Vic's returns Saturday to Southern California with an expanded and updated version in downtown's sprawling L.A. Live entertainment complex on the corner of Olympic Boulevard and Figueroa Street. With picture windows looking out onto Olympic, this super-sized version of the classic Polynesian experience is essentially two places in one.
The front half is a party-ready bar area, complete with a wrought-iron enclosed patio outside. But deeper inside is the plush, wood-paneled dining room, where booths line the custom tapa cloth-covered walls, with everything focused around the giant Chinese wood-fired oven located at the back of the room. There is a posh private event room adjacent to the dining area, with an impressive outrigger imported from the Dallas Trader Vic's hanging above the room's huge communal table. And, of course, there are tikis, large and small, everywhere.
While this new Trader Vic's has been painstakingly detailed to maintain a warm, "Tiki Nation"-approved atmosphere, owner John Valencia admits a few concessions had to be made in order to fit the outsized surroundings of L.A. Live.
"Yes, there are TVs in the bar area and one in the private dining room," Valencia said while touring the freshly completed space recently. "We're literally next door to the Staples Center, so we have to be ready to accommodate a sports crowd -- and look forward to the Lakers having a long playoff run this year. But we did it as discreetly as possible."
Valencia flew in the Rev. Neal Harper McHenry (a.k.a. "The Big Kahuna") from Hawaii to preside over a traditional blessing ceremony for the new space, anointing both rooms with water from the Pacific Ocean, salt and a tea plant stalk. Waiters passed trays of steak and chicken seared in the Chinese oven alongside other Trader Vic's favorites, such as the Crab Rangoon.
But this being Trader Vic's, arguably the home of the first mai tai and notorious for huge, rum-soaked drinks, the emphasis is squarely on the cocktails. Waitresses in Polynesian dresses served up a selection of drinks, starting with the latest Trader Vic's concoction: the Big Kahuna. This signature cocktail for the L.A. location comes in a special edition tiki mug, which is for sale (serious tiki collectors have been placing advance orders for weeks). Topped with a wedge of lime, it's a flavorful alternative to the mai tai. The coconut-flavored Chi Chi (which eschews rum for vodka and triple sec) is appropriately served in a coconut-shaped ceramic mug. The Trader Vic's Grog is laden with enough pineapple and passion fruit juice to cleverly mask the dark rum lurking within. But it was the almond-tinged mai tai that packed the most potent punch of the bunch.
With hula dancers swaying to the live Hawaiian music on the bar-area stage, Valencia seemed genuinely optimistic about bringing this blockbuster tiki experience to the neon explosion that is L.A. Live
"This is the 75-year anniversary of Trader Vic's, and the excitement I've felt from people about this place has been tremendous," he said. "Hospitality is a large part of the Polynesian culture, and we look forward to welcoming guests into this new era."
Where: 800 W. Olympic Blvd., Suite A120, L.A.
When: 5 p.m. to midnight Sundays to Thursdays, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Price: Possible cover charge depending on the night or live performance
Contact: (213) 785-3330; www.tradervicsla.com