In 2009, San Francisco's foremost Tiki bar looked about ready for a condo conversion. That was then, and this is now: Currently, the Tonga Room & Hurricane bar at the Fairmont Hotel expects its best year in decades, with Melissa Farrar, the hotel's director of marketing communications, telling the Chronicle that she projects the bar's 2016 revenue to be double what it was in 2011.
Opened in 1945, the Tonga Room surfed on the Polynesian pop wave. As kitsch connoisseurs know, the bar was conceived of by an MGM set designer in what was presumably a post World War II Pacific Theater fever dream. It hasn't changed much — except for an update to its drinks and a plug from Anthony Bourdain — since then. But like the intermittent indoor "rainstorms" over the bar's artificially blue lagoon, arriving like clockwork and then drying up, kitsch culture appears to have returned, right on schedule.
Examples abound: Outside of Tonga, but also in the Tiki category, there's the expansive and fanciful Pagan Idol, brought to us not by tiki geeks but instead by the Future Bars hipsters behind Bourbon & Branch. In a Union Square space that's reportedly struggled to draw crowds, its several rooms of island flotsam and jetsam are generally packed, while its own indoor storms heighten the atmosphere.
Smuggler's Cove, a contemporary Tiki temple that's been one of San Francisco's most decorated bars for some years, recently doubled down on dreamy kitsch creativity with a spin-off: the gin-soaked London-grunge Whitechapel. Inside, you'll find yourself in a would-be abandoned underground stop where, apparently, Jules Verne has been drinking G&Ts.
Most recently, in reviewing the new Leo's Oyster Bar, the Weekly's Peter Kane give us another example. While "slightly less over-the-top" than Whitechapel and Pagan Idol, which Kane namechecks, the space at Leo's, as designed by Ken Fulk, "looks like the lanai from a certain 1980s TV show about four older women cohabitating in Miami." Sounds pretty tacky and fun to me.
"With San Francisco flush with more cash than at any time in the last 15 years, we have an even more open embrace of opulence," Kane theorizes the trend. "This new aesthetic isn't afraid of kitsch or the repurposing of grandma taste (or mobster taste, or postwar suburban chic) as refinement." While this boom-and-bust town is still booming — for the expensive cocktail cool kids, anyway — bars are competing with increasingly large budgets for patrons. That's led to more themes and larger imaginative leaps (at least, when the money doesn't get squandered).
Meanwhile, as patrons spend more on cocktails, they're presumably working hard for that cocktail money in the first place. As they always have since the Don Draper days, kitschy bar experiences, in the form of elaborate decor and at the bottom of an umbrella drink, promise an escape from the workaday life behind the typewriter or laptop or, well, whatever comes next. Perhaps its no surprise when we hear that distant thunder from the loudspeakers. It looks like it's raining again in kitschy paradise.