Occupying the basement of the Hilton Hotel’s Park Lane branch, you’d be forgiven for never spotting Trader Vic’s, but drinkers in the know will be well aware of this establishment’s fabulous reputation.
Running for over 50-years, this tropical themed tiki bar and restaurant has been serving thirsty Londoners the original Mai Tai and whipping up indulgent Polynesian cuisine since 1963. Keen to be transported to a tropical island, and away from the misery of the English weather, Kasha and I stepped down the spiral staircase to discover if this London institution was deserving of its reputation.
An interior décor of bamboo shoots, carved wooden tiki totems and tropical murals might sound passé, but stepping foot in Trader Vic’s is anything but. The use of woods, moody lighting and even a full sized canoe make this the archetypal tiki bar that all others dream of emulating.
Midweek, the restaurant is quiet, with a number of couples chatting away, and a number of bar flies propping up the bar and knocking back a few cocktails, but the weekends are considerably busier.
The Food & Drink
Trader Vic’s is renowned for serving up the original Mai Tai, after the drink was created in their Californian branch in 1944. The enormous cocktail menu is stuffed full of tropical fruity drinks and, thankfully, plenty of stronger ones too. Ordering a Mai Tai is pretty much compulsory, but if you’re looking for something especially fruity Gun Club Punch is a satisfying blend of dark and light rums and fruit juice. If, like me, you need a stronger hit of alcohol, then the classic tiki cocktail the Navy Grog (with a sugar stick for stirring) will sort you right out.
The starters came in the form of three incredible dishes, the first was the Beef Cho Cho, tender, skewered strips of rare beef coated in a sake sauce and served with the live flame of a burning Hibachi for added flair. The second, the molten Cheese balls, were so good I nearly cried. These super cheesy, crunchy balls were a blend of cheddar and emmental topped off with a satisfying hit of jalapeno spice. Lastly, a dish I have been daydreaming of ever since, the Tuna Poke. This salad dish is made with Ahí Tuna fresher than any fish I have tasted in London, lightly dressed in chili soy sauce and sesame, combined in a tartare style shape with soft, ripe avocados and serves with freshly warmed, crunchy Taro chips (which tasted a little like poppadoms fyi).
A standout feature of the restaurant is the enormous red Chinese Wood-fired ovens which the manager proudly let me know had been lit every night the bar has been opened since 1963. This cooking method of hanging meats and fish over a hardwood fire can be traced back to the Han Dynasty 206BC to AD220, and gives the meat an incredibly rich flavour. Kasha opted for the smoky Scottish salmon, while I went full carnivore with the Wood fired Rib-Eye with creamy béarnaise sauce. Each dish was cooked to perfection, with the steak given a distinctive smoky BBQ taste unlike anything I’ve ever tasted.
By the time dessert rolled around, we were stuffed. Unfortunately my sweet tooth got the better of me, and I coerced Kasha into joining me for a Chocolate lava cake and Trader Vick’s Polynesian Snowball – both of which were incredible.
I can’t fault the dining experience I enjoyed at Trader Vic’s, the service was impeccable and the manager went out of the way to attend to our every need. The food was of a high standard, and the immaculate dishes were well thought out and balanced. The drinks, thankfully, lived up to the their famous name, and the entire menu deserves much more thorough exploration.
The cost of the individual dishes can admittedly be a little eye-watering (unless you happen to have a large wallet), but as a very special treat it’s perfect. Casual drinkers can even swing by and enjoy a couple of cocktails for under a tenner each, or join one of the popular cocktail masterclasses to learn their mixology secrets. I understand why this bar is a London institution, because even if it can be accused of being a little kitsch, everyone needs a little tropical paradise now and again, even if it is make believe.
Want to see some more romantic drinking dens? Check out my best first date bars in London.