When it opened in 1945, the Tonga Room was riding the wave of South Seas fever. Though tiki is now thought of as tacky and kitsch, this place was once the height of luxury.
During WWII America was exposed to the aesthetic beauty and culture of islands in the Pacific via military men stationed there. The desire to recreate the exoticism of the South Seas in the contiguous U.S. led to tiki bars. San Francisco jumped on the trend early, perhaps because of its relative proximity to Polynesian islands.
Like all tiki joints, the Tonga Room is covered in bamboo, seashells, tiki figurines, and other pseudo-Asian/Polynesian decor. But its real selling point was and is the pool at the center of the restaurant. The Tonga Room is part of the Fairmont San Francisco, and it took over the ground floor swimming pool when the restaurant’s lagoon was built. The house band floats on a thatch-roofed boat at the center, playing tropical exotica standards. Other unique features include the dance floor, whose wood came from the S.S. Forester (a schooner that regularly traveled between islands of the South Seas and San Francisco), and indoor sprinkler rainstorms, complete with piped-in thunder.
In an era when most tiki bars are no more than a novelty dive, the Tonga Room serves up a bit of the exotic glamour that tiki culture once symbolized. San Franciscans and tourists alike recognize and appreciate the Tonga Room’s singularity - it was slated for closure in 2010, but was saved thanks to protests.
Know Before You Go
The Tonga Room is part of the Fairmont San Francisco hotel.