The city of San Francisco has changed enormously over the years, but one thing that remains the same is the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar. Located beneath the prestigious Fairmont San Francisco, this Tiki-inspired hideaway has been an institution since 1945 when it first began serving up Polynesian food and curiously strong cocktails. We recently sat down with Tom Klein, the hotel’s regional vice president and general manager, to learn more about this legendary venue.
Q. It seems unusual to find a Tiki bar in such a stately hotel. Was the Tonga Room part of the building’s original design?
A. No, it actually used to be the health club with a 75-foot pool known as the Terrace Plunge. It was a place to see swimming competitions when it first opened. And then in 1945 it was converted into the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar that we know today. It has undergone a few changes to its design since then but the concept around the Asian cuisine and the band hasn’t changed a great deal. We’ve really been sensitive to making sure we preserve the time-honored Tiki décor that everybody comes to expect when they come here.
Q. There’s been a huge revival of Tiki culture lately. Why do you think that is?
A. People love the Tiki atmosphere. It’s the dancing, the music and the food. Those elements haven’t changed in nearly 70 years at the Tonga Room. We also do killer Mai Tai cocktails. They have three-foot straws and are a huge party drink. People just love that.
Q. Do diners ever take a dip in the pool after one too many Mai Tais?
A. Well, I tell you, it’s become kind of a tradition in San Francisco to see who can jump in the pool and run out. We know it’s going to happen, we just don’t know when.
Q. Aside from the occasional jumper, what kind of entertainment can diners expect to find at the Tonga Room?
A. We have a band that performs every evening. It’s a Top 40 band called Island Groove and they play the hits that the guests know and love. And then we have thunder and lightning. It all adds to the atmosphere.
Q. The Tonga Room came close to being demolished in 2010 amidst plans to turn a portion of the Fairmont Hotel into a condo development. Were you surprised by how the public rallied around the venue?
A. Yes, I was pleasantly surprised by the loyalty people feel towards the Tonga Room. I fielded quite a few of the calls from our customers and it wasn’t just the people who come here once a week or once a month, it was the guests who had their wedding or anniversary at the Tonga Room. It was part of their history and they really wanted to preserve it. I was happily surprised by the support and we’re grateful the Tonga Room is still here.
Q. What is it about the Tonga Room that provokes such strong feelings?
A. It’s the ambience and the weirdness of it. I walk into the Tonga Room and I say to myself, “Wow, this is very unique. I’ve got lightning going and I’ve got rain showers going and I’ve got people dancing and singing and they’re all drinking these galvanized Mai Tais with three-foot straws.” It’s pretty weird, but it works.
Visit the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar online at www.tongaroom.com.