The Sad Story of Trader Vic's in Chicago
By Rob Christopher in Food on Jul 1, 2011 4:30PM
When Trader Vic's began highlighting Monday Night Football with Steve Dahl, we shook our heads in disbelief.
Then we learned of their "Movie Night Wednesdays," complete with popcorn and beer specials, and we groaned.
But the moment we really knew the days of Trader Vic's in Chicago were numbered? When they started promoting discounted Dragon Bleu vodka specials. It's the equivalent of the Violet Hour pimping $5 Irish Carbombs on St. Patty's Day: a sign of the end times.
The large outdoor sign has been taken down, their phone is "temporarily disconnected," and all mention of the Chicago location has been scrubbed from the Trader Vic's website. Although repeated inquiries to Trader Vic's corporate HQ haven't yielded a response, it seems pretty clear that it's curtains for the tiki lounge and restaurant. So the question now is, why did the return of a veteran restaurant, which had previously been open from 1957-2005, fail so badly?
There's no doubt in our minds that had Thor Equities not closed the original Palmer House location (so that it could open a self-operated parking garage!) Trader Vic's in Chicago would still be thriving today. For many of us, tiki culture has never gone out of style--and when tiki is done right, it's very popular (more on that later.) Unfortunately the Trader Vic's remount in Chicago is a case study in doing it wrong. Let us count the ways.
With the notable exception of their flagship restaurant in Emeryville, most Trader Vic's are located in hotels. The constant circulation of weary travelers looking for an escape, and a nice place to have a bite to eat and relax with a drink, mixes well with locals in the know who just like to go there (case in point: Sable at the Hotel Palomar). It's a recipe for success. Instead, however, the remounted Trader Vic's opened in Newberry Plaza. A condo building that's kinda sorta part of the Viagra Triangle, it's also just far enough away from the main action that anyone who wasn't actively looking for it wouldn't be likely to just wander in.
Nevertheless, when it opened its doors in December 2008 the new location looked spectacular. Several dozen decoration and design elements, carefully salvaged from the Palmer House location, were incorporated into the buildout. A spacious lounge area, cushy dining room, and separate banquet area made the space feel airier than the old location. Best of all, the full five-page drink menu was in place; the lounge menu, including casual bites like burgers, cho cho beef, and sushi, was the perfect accompaniment for the scores of rum libations, while the classy dining room menu featured wasabi-encrusted steak, seafood, and several dishes prepared in the giant Chinese wood-burning oven.
Manager Pallava Goenka kept things lively in the lounge, regularly featuring live Hawaiian music and hula dancers, while also maintaining excellent service in the dining room. It was the kind of establishment where you could relax with friends after work, or go out for a leisurely paced dinner.
But the tide quickly began to turn. Less than a year after opening, Goenka transferred to L.A. to guide their new Trader Vic's. The new management kept things in place for awhile but then began to tinker around the edges. The lounge food menu was changed. Then it was changed again. And again. The delicious sushi options suddenly vanished. It got so that whenever we went, we couldn't be sure what would be on the menu. The live music disappeared, replaced by reggae and jock rock (!) on the sound system. Drink specials (including $5 Mai Tais on certain nights of the week) came and went. Even the dining room menu was altered. The last time we came for dinner, we were shocked to discover that the Chinese oven wasn't even in operation; gone were the flavorful curries, replaced by (we kid you not) French Dip sandwiches and the like.
The recession has hit many restaurants hard, of course. But Trader Vic's irresistible blend of escapism, built on the combination of delightful tropical drinks served with elaborate garnishes, and exotic comfort food, should all but ensure its success during rough times. The Trader Vic's formula, honed over its 75 years in business, just works; the Portland Trader Vic's, closed since 1996, is reopening in July, and there are other newish locations across the Middle East and even Kiev (!)
It's our conclusion that the Chicago Trader Vic's ultimately failed not due to the recession but because of bad management decisions, including a bewildering identity crisis and very poor marketing. The new management never seemed to reach out to the active community of hardcore tiki enthusiasts in the area, unlike the very successful Tiki Terrace. Instead they seemed hellbent on courting the Viagra Triangle crowd, wooing Hans Aeschbacher away from Smith & Wollensky to serve as Executive Chef. And you'd be hard pressed to find a more indifferent group of diners and drinkers.
Tiki Road Trip 2 author James Teitelbaum puts it more tactfully: "As beautifully designed as Trader Vic's Chicago 2.0 was, it is impossible to recreate the patina or the sense of history that the original had. The thing that made it special is impossible to recreate, the key ingredient is time. Decades. In many ways - to compare this to my work in the music biz - the new location felt more like a Trader Vic's tribute act. As compared to the original artist, the tribute may be great, but nothing compares to the original. People can sense that."
So what's a tikiphile to do? Cities as diverse as San Francisco, New York, and Portland all have several tiki bars now. Epicurious even dubbed "tiki" one of the Top 10 Food Trend Predictions for 2011. Everything out of style comes around again. Dale Degroff, cocktail maven extraordinaire, put it this way: "The tiki movement today is coming from the craft bartending community, using fresh ingredients and attempting to find the original recipes." And the base spirit of most of those recipes (rum, of course) has already made a spectacular comeback--the Reader's article on Ed Hamilton should hearten every lover of tiki potions.
Chicago has been slow to join the tiki-nova trend, but that could be changing soon. Anyone who's been to The Whistler's bi-monthly tiki nights, which are invariably crowded with enthusiastic drinkers, knows that there's a pent up demand waiting to be met. And bartender Greg Buterra, whose passion for tropical drinks includes precision and a fine appreciation for the classics of the genre, is turning Curio into an unofficial tiki speakeasy Tuesday-Thursday nights. Until Martin Cate, or someone like him, decides to take the plunge and open a full-time tiki establishment in town, we'll get our tiki fix however we can--and pine for the original Chicago Trader Vic's.