My parents tasted their first kiwi at Trader Vic’s in San Francisco in the spring of 1962. My mother grew up in Minneapolis, and Vic’s was the most exotic place she’d ever seen. “Everything was sprinkled with coconut and served in a hollowed-out pineapple,” she recalls. “I can’t stand coconut or pineapple, but for whatever reason I loved Trader Vic’s.” It has that effect.
From inauspicious roots—a dive bar in Oakland called Hinky Dink’s—Vic Bergeron spread the tiki craze around the nation like so much sticky-sweet rib sauce. Along the way, he did something even more lasting: he gave Americans the travel bug. Where would our tropical fantasies be without Vic’s hurricane lamps, dugout canoes, and rum punches? This was how a whole generation first experienced the South Pacific, or wherever the hell we were presumed to be. (Vic’s has always been an amalgam of island cultures real and faux, the brick-and-mortar equivalent of Esperanto.) Of course, kvetching about geographical correctness misses the whole point, which is to get thoroughly and unapologetically blotto. Hence the drink menu’s hilarious emphasis on potency: “Persuasive ammunition for toppling giants!” or “No sissy drink, this!”
To be truthful, the cocktails are kind of gross when, God forbid, you taste them sober. It helps that they’re big and colorful, and usually on fire. And strange things happen on the other side of a Scorpion Bowl. People lose a certain sense of decorum. I’ve never seen a werewolf drinking a piña colada at Trader Vic’s, but I’ve seen just about everything else.
Bergeron died in 1984, but the brand that bears his name now includes 30 outposts worldwide, from Tokyo to Bahrain. Long may their Fog Cutters flow.