Step into Trader Vic’s and you’re transported to another world. Of all the restaurants I’ve visited, of all the bars I’ve stumbled from, none can be described as having devoted themselves so passionately, so wholly, to their central concept. Trader Vic’s is a tiki bar. And you will never forget it.
From the moment you enter, it’s impossible not to notice the intense, obsessive attention to detail. Everything is bamboo. Canoes hang from the ceiling, daubed with war-like faces in colourful paint. Huge constellations of pink coral squat upon tabletops. Totem poles tower above the waiting staff. Some of it is undeniably kitschy. But when the manager tells me that everything is original and imported from Polynesia, I soak it all in with a renewed sense of amazement.
It’s even more absurd when you realise that Trader Vic’s isn’t in some party hub like Soho or Shoreditch. In those places it would seem almost normal. Instead, it’s located on the lower ground floor of Hilton Park Lane, the very last place you’d expect to find such a flamboyant and extravagant tiki lounge. It’s like walking into the hallowed chambers of Versailles and finding Ace Ventura on the throne.
We start, appropriately, with drinks. Cocktails seem more natural in tropical cultures, and Trader Vic’s original 1944 Mai Tai is rejuvenation on ice. Made with fresh lime juice, orange Curaçao, orgeat and of course a splash of Nephew’s 17-year old rum, it has all the hallmarks of an undeniable classic: fresh, sharp and tangy. There’s a dedicated bar area with an adjacent stage, which later on during our visit is engulfed by a Latin American band playing Spanish songs, furthering the sense of cultural odyssey which grows during our meal.
After the initial burst of the decor and the drinks, our starters are underwhelming. We order three different kinds of skewers – chicken satay, beef cho-cho and peri-peri prawns. Each serving arrives on ceramic dishes with candles underneath, which continue to heat the food as we eat. This is nice in the context of the meat, but with the seafood it’s a hindrance – prawns toughen up when heated for more than a few minutes. Beef cho-cho, cut into squares with ridges like a potato crisp, is delicate and delicious, aided by a sweet ginger sake sauce. It’s the pick of the bunch, and although the chicken also prospers, £8 for four skewers seems a little stingy. That’s £29 for the starters alone.
Our mains are cooked in a Chinese oven, which smokes the food as it cooks by hanging the meat or fish from a hook over a hardwood fire. It’s the only one in Britain – and by this showing, it’s in capable hands. My beef Malagasy is tender to the touch, redolent with gratinated Malagasy butter and served with the tartness of a roasted vine tomatoes and sautéed mushroom double-act. Maybe it’s the effect of the butter, or maybe it’s the Chinese oven, but my steak is a masterclass in meat. Reassuringly charred on the outside, and blushing a tropical pink within, the steak is a formidable demonstration of what can be achieved with a good cut of beef.
Dessert comfortably maintains the high standards set by our main course. The fussily-named Chocolate Praline Parfait is filled with a gooey raspberry centre and accessorised by a coconut sorbet, creating a broad range of sweetness that ranges from the milky flakiness of the coconut to the sugar volley of the berry. My partner’s chocolate pecan pie is almost unbearably decadent.
Remarkably, Trader Vic’s effortlessly rises above any notions of kitsch in its menu, which is robust, varied and ultimately very satisfying. Just as the decor and the food hit heights of authenticity and deliciousness respectively, the pricing of the menu meets and surpasses the ceiling imposed by my finances. My beef Malagasy is £33. Elsewhere you could eat three courses for that. But it is justifiable. You’re paying for the decor, the spot-on service, the sheer extravagance of the place. And after a few Mai Tai’s, things will begin to blur until you really do feel like you’re on some tropical atoll in the Pacific.
22 Park Lane
Tel: 020 7208 4113