Now revered as one of the nation’s first Tiki bars and home of the Mai Tai, Trader Vic’s restaurant and company headquarters are located in Emeryville. But when founder Victor Bergeron first gained attention for his little watering hole in the 1930s, the rustic building bore no resemblance to the tropical-themed establishment we know it as today.
There’s no better way to learn the history of Trader Vic’s than to read it in the words of Bergeron himself. In his 1973 memoir, Frankly Speaking, he vividly tells how he created a bastion of Tiki in the East Bay. It’s the story of a resourceful, innovative, creative, larger-than-life character who parlayed a successful small business in Oakland into a series of restaurants bearing his name worldwide. It’s his story, in his voice, and even includes recipes for everything from Bongo Bongo Soup to Chicken Enchiladas and of course, the Mai Tai.
The introduction to Bergeron’s book was written by longtime San Francisco Chronicle columnist and City-by-the-Bay enthusiast Herb Caen. According to Caen, one day in 1936, a “prominent lawyer” beckoned him into a doorway and whispered, “’Sixty-fifth and San Pablo in Oakland. Name’s Hinky Dinks. Fantastic. Try banana cow, barbecued steaks. Ask for Vic. Tell him I sent you.’” Acting on this tip, Caen made his first trip to Oakland by taking the auto ferry to Berkeley and then driving south along San Pablo Avenue toward 65th Street. On that night he met “Victor Jules Bergeron, then a man in his mid-thirties, with a craggy face, a friendly-gruff manner, a juicy vocabulary of French and English expletives, one artificial leg, and a rare talent for concocting original drinks and food— ‘booze and chow,’ in his words.”
Caen speculates that the name Hinky Dinks came from the World War I song “about that Mademoiselle from Amentiérs (‘Hinky-Dinky Parlay-Voo’).” As the word spread about Vic’s place (renamed Trader Vic’s in 1937), and after the Bay Bridge was built, Caen wrote: “The best restaurant in San Francisco is in Oakland.” Even San Francisco restaurateurs were seen enjoying the “booze and chow” at Trader Vic’s on their nights off. The 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco brought people from all over the world to the Bay Area. As Caen recounts, “Many of them discovered Trader Vic’s and spread the word. The one-room beer parlor of only a few years earlier was on its way to becoming an institution.”
Victor Bergeron was born in 1902 in San Francisco. Around 1911, his family moved to Oakland. They lived over the grocery store his father ran at 65th Street and San Pablo. Despite losing a leg to tuberculosis when he was six-years-old, Bergeron describes a nearly idyllic childhood: playing sports, joining Boy Scouts, fishing and catching crabs at the Berkeley wharf, getting poison oak and coming up with various ways to make money.
As a young man, he held a series of odd jobs, including working at his brother’s second gas station, also at 65th Street and San Pablo. During this time, Bergeron suffered from complications related to tuberculosis. After he regained his health, his aunt asked him to help out in his uncle’s saloon, which was right across the street from what would later become the original Trader Vic’s.
As Bergeron tells it, in 1934 he quit working for his uncle, took $800 his aunt had given him, and contacted the owner of the vacant lot at 6500 San Pablo Ave. He asked the property owner, an out-of-work carpenter, “’How much of a building can you build for $500?”’ After doing some calculations, the man came back with a bid for a 22’ x 26’ building. So, Bergeron says, “for $500 we built Hinky Dinks,” and the remaining $300 went toward restaurant supplies. With whiskey at 15 cents, beer for a dime and 20 cents for lunch, “the place was filled morning, noon and night.” He started holding what he called “amateur night,” which meant an open mic and an opportunity for patrons to get up and sing or tell jokes. “Crowds of a hundred, sometimes two hundred people, would crowd into Hinky Dinks for amateur hour,” packed so close “you couldn’t breathe.”
After a couple of years, Bergeron added another small room (the Bamboo Room), then a little kitchen and garden. His prices went up accordingly: “thirty cents for a highball and twenty-five cents for a beer and thirty-five cents for lunch.” You get the feeling from reading about the place that Hinky Dinks filled a need for people who didn’t have a lot of money to spend, but still wanted to go out and have a good time. Bergeron kept people coming back by pulling some tricks to amuse and entertain his customers: he says, “once in a while I’d stick an ice pick in my wooden leg for laughs.”
From hunting lodge to tropical oasis
But how and when did Hinky Dinks — which resembled a hunting lodge, not a tropical oasis — morph into the Trader Vic’s of today? Several sources pinpoint the shift, from the beer and open mic joint to the tropical bar as occurring after Bergeron’s 1937 junket to study new drinks with “different ingredients and a new twist.”
In Bay Area Cocktails: A History of Culture, Community and Craft, author Shanna Farrell writes: “Tiki was originally inspired by Polynesian culture and artistry and the flavors of the Caribbean. It is a type of escapism that allows patrons to enter a world defined by its exotic drinks, whimsical design and tropical music.” She recounts Bergeron’s visits to the Bon Ton Bar in New Orleans, Floridita in Havana and Don the Beachcomber’s in Hollywood which “inspired him to revamp Hinky Dinks.”
Always a storyteller, Bergeron and his wife agreed that they should change their bar’s décor and give the place a name “we could tell a story about.” Bergeron had always been a trader at heart, so the name fits his personality; a legend was created. And then they turned the place into a Chinese restaurant, having done some careful research in Oakland’s Chinatown. In his memoir, he writes: “We tore down the horseshoes and snowshoes and deer horns and deer heads and other paraphernalia of a hunting lodge and put up the tropical stuff…. There was no fanfare about the opening. Just closed one day as Hinky Dinks selling sandwiches and opened the next day as Trader Vic’s selling tropical drinks and Chinese food.”
Oh my, Mai Tai
Thus the original booze and chow place Bergeron built for $500 grew and gifted the world with the Mai Tai. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the cocktail’s invention. Some refute Bergeron as the originator of the drink, including Donn Beach, owner of Don the Beachcomber, who claimed he created the drink. Eve Bergeron, Vic’s granddaughter who is with Marketing and Public Relations for Trader Vic’s Worldwide, says her grandfather was undoubtedly inspired by Beach, but the Mai Tai was something new. “After he visited Don the Beachcomber’s and tried some of his tropical drinks, my grandfather thought he could ‘build a better mousetrap’,” she said.
When I spoke with Farrell recently, she also agreed. She is confident that Oakland can rightly take pride and “stake a claim” in the drink that’s now “a staple in Tiki bars around the world.”
When the Oakland site closed, a Trader Vic’s opened in San Francisco. The popular dining spot in Cosmo Alley had a good run: from 1951 until 1994. The Emeryville restaurant opened in 1973.
Eve Bergeron gave me a tour of the Emeryville restaurant, where the Chinese wood-fired ovens are on display and still in use. The walls are covered with original Polynesian artwork and textiles that create the proper atmosphere for the cuisine. The cocktail menu features the Samoan Fog Cutter, the Zombie, and the Scorpion — among many, many others. The list of available rums runs to two columns on a tall menu.
There is a small gallery featuring the history of the restaurant in photographs, a wooden model of the Hinky Dinks “hunting lodge,” as well as several historic illustrated menus and pictures of Vic. Though not the original, the spirit of the rooms pays homage to the place that Bergeron built so long ago on San Pablo Avenue.
When you enter the restaurant, you are immediately transported to a place “out of this world,” where, if you wish, you can imagine you’re sipping that Mai Tai in a hammock under a palm tree on a tropical island somewhere far, far away.
Trader Vic’s original Mai Tai recipe, created in 1944:
2 ounces 17-year-old J. Wray Nephew Jamaican rum
1/2 ounce curaçao
1/2 ounce orgeat syrup
1/4 ounce Rock Candy syrup
Juice of 1 fresh lime
Bergeron describes the preparation of the Mai Tai in his memoir Frankly Speaking: “We poured the ingredients over shaved ice in a double old-fashioned glass, shook it well, added one spent lime shell and garnished it with a sprig of fresh mint.”
His first tasters, friends who happened to stop by, sipped theirs and remarked, “It’s mai tai. It’s mai tai roa áe.” When Bergeron asked his friend what this meant, his friend said, “In Tahitian it means ‘out of this world,’ ‘the best.’” And so the drink became known as the Mai Tai.