When you think of summery drinks, one of the first libations that may come to mind is the refreshing Mai Tai. Created in 1944 by Victor J. Bergeron at his restaurant Trader Vic's in California, this drink of fresh lime, aged rum, rock candy syrup, orange curacao and crushed ice epitomises a carefree tropical island lifestyle. It was with much delight, then, when I received a chance to taste the original Mai Tai recipe at the London branch of Trader Vic's; a London institution which has been going strong since 1963. Will the iconic international restaurant live up to its reputation as the quintessential tiki bar, or has the time of Polynesian restaurants passed? I went down one Thursday evening to find out.
When it comes to London neighbourhoods, few postcodes are quite as envy-inducing as those around Mayfair and Park Lane which are synonymous with affluence and class. It is fitting then, that Trader Vic's occupies the basement bar of the prestigious Hilton on Park Lane that overlooks Hyde Park. Descend the stairs to find yourself transported to a world of carved tiki sculptures, intricate Polynesian carpets and even a full sized canoe. The moodily lit basement bar has a long semi-circular bar, ideal for casual drinkers, as well as plenty of tables dotted around where you can escape for a quiet meal.
The Food & Drink
The drink which founded the restaurant's fame, the Mai Tai, receives pride of place on the drinks menu; and after one sip I see why. The Original Mai Tai was carefully balanced, with both the sweetness of the syrup, zing of the lime and warmth of the aged rum coming though at intervals. The rest of the drinks menu is packed with potent punches, full flavoured grogs and excellent after dinner tipples. My favourites of these had to be the Navy Grog – a strong, spicy blend of rums – and the creamy Prohibition Brandy Alexander that rounded off my meal.
The food menu, much like the original restaurant run by Vic in California, is inspired by exotic cuisine. This fusion of dishes, from Asia to the Middle East, perfectly befits their location in multicultural London. One of the most impressive features of the restaurant has to be the Chinese Wood Fired Ovens which, the manager told me proudly, have burned steadily every night the restaurant has been open for over 50-years.
My top recommendations are to try the indulgent molten Cheese Balls to start, paired with the incredibly fresh Tuna Poke – easily the finest and freshest tuna dish I have ever tasted in London. For mains, get anything cooked on their iconic Chinese oven. Being a carnivore to the upmost degree, I opted for the Wood-fired Rib Eye; a smoky, tender and blasphemously good piece of meat paired with sautéed spinach and béarnaise sauce.
Having arrived mid-week, my girlfriend and I were treated to a quiet, peaceful atmosphere and enjoyed the carefully selected playlist of ambient songs. Nearby us a number of couples were treating themselves to a fancy meal, and chatting away to other couples nearby. The bar area, as I've mentioned is perfect for those wishing to drop in on a date, which is exactly what happened when Channel-4 arrived to film a couple for a well-known dating show during our meal. Over the weekend, the bar gets considerably more lively, hosting live music events and even cocktail master craft sessions.
Victor Bergeron's dream when he created Trader Vic's was to somehow inject the spirit of island life into the everyday lives of those who visited. Over 80-years on, Trader Vic's is holding true to the ideals of its founding father by whipping up potent punches, fresh dishes with international flavours and bringing a tropical tiki charm to London. The drinks themselves are subtly described as 'Paradise in a Glass', and after a long and mostly wet English summer, I can't think of one person who could do with a little bit of that in our lives.