The Fairmont San Francisco created an indoor 75-foot swimming pool on its Terrace Level in 1929. Known as the “Fairmont Terrace Plunge”, the elaborate tile pool attracted local crowds as well as celebrities such as actress Helen Hayes, actor Ronald Reagan and members of the Water Follies.
In 1945, Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s leading set director, Mel Melvin, was hired to transform the Terrace Plunge into the Tonga Room. The pool became a lagoon, a floating stage for the orchestra that entertained guests each evening. Not surprisingly, Tonga Room was an instant success.
The Tonga Room features a top-40 band performing from a thatch-covered barge on the lagoon; a dance floor built from the remains of the S.S. Forester, a lumber schooner that once traveled regularly between San Francisco and the South Sea Islands; and periodic light tropical rainstorms, complete with thunder and lightening.
It’s not often that I get to play tourist, and when I do I am most content walking through a city’s neighborhoods and dining where the locals do. From the sound of things I thought The Tonga Room would be tacky and gimmicky and altogether silly. As it turned out it was all of those things — in the very best possible sense. It has also been my experience that kitschy hotel restaurants tend to serve terrible food. But not tonight.
We were seated next to the lagoon, and perused the cocktail menu comprised of tropical drinks, all purportedly made with fresh fruit juices. My Amazing Lover™ ordered a rum punch and I opted for a “Hurricane,” a similar concoction of rum and juices over crushed ice. What arrived at the table was an enormous and colorful cocktail with a 2-foot long red straw: I had to put the glass next to my chair to sip from it. It was delicious, refreshing, and not too sweet. Also: hilarious.
We couldn’t decide on appetizers, so we settled on a sampler: vegetable egg rolls, coconut shrimp, chicken satay and BBQ ribs in a Kona coffee glaze. The platter was served with three sauces: I tasted one drop of the hot mustard and almost cried. But the soy dip was phenomenal, as were all of the apps.
Okay, then. Apparently, The Tonga Room is not playing around.
At irregular intervals the fake thunder would roar and the fake lightening would flash, and we would be treated to a tropical rainstorm waxing and waning over the surface of the lagoon. (There is no sound like gently splashing water. As a kid I loved the fountains at the local mall more for the sound than their visual theatrics: a paradoxical noisy hush.)
Our entrees arrived — Singapore noodles and Chow Chow chicken — along with another round of those ridiculous cocktails. We marveled at the large portions glistening in enormous white bowls. (Next time we’ll split an entree.) Both dishes were outstanding, full of fresh flavors and perfect textures.
We didn’t stay to see the band play on the floating barge. Frankly, it would be unlikely to improve the evening. The Tonga Room is uncommonly good, and a fun place to boot. Here are some pictures I took on my trusty iPhone while giggling with glee and just generally playing the part of obnoxious tourist. (Hey, it’s my turn.)