Is San Francisco’s tiki bar, the Tonga Room, really good?

In most cases, a $20 price tag on a cocktail is enough to make me miss an establishment.

Somehow, despite living in the Bay Area for eight years, I never made it to the famous tiki bar in the basement of the opulent Fairmont Hotel. But the rumors of sky-high drinks and a $1,000 fine for anyone drunk enough to jump into the bar’s signature pool let my imagination run wild.

A band performs on a boat on the Tonga Room pool at the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco, California on May 20, 2022.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE
A sign reminds visitors that they will be fined if they jump into the Tonga Room pool at the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco, California on May 20, 2022.
A sign reminds visitors that they will be fined if they jump into the Tonga Room pool at the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco, California on May 20, 2022.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE
The cocktail menu at the Tonga Room at the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco, California on May 20, 2022.
The cocktail menu at the Tonga Room at the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco, California on May 20, 2022.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE
Guests consume their drinks in the Tonga Room at the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco, California on May 20, 2022.
Guests consume their drinks in the Tonga Room at the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco, California on May 20, 2022.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE


Scenes from the Tonga Room, at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, including a warning not to jump in the pool, top right, and a preview of the cocktail menu, bottom left. (Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE)

Walking into the bar around 6pm on a Friday night, I expected the Tonga Room to be a zoo of tourists. But it wasn’t, at least not yet. My co-worker Doug and I immediately grabbed a table by the bar and then thunder rang out.

As if the blue lagoon centerpiece wasn’t enough, there are thunderstorms – rain patches and all – that erupt every half hour at the Tonga Room. Most nights, the resort’s official band, The Island Groove, serenades the crowd on a thatched stage that floats around the pool. A dance floor made from the planks of a wooden schooner is also available for those feeling loose after a few Mai Tais.

Taking it all in, I couldn’t help but smile – it’s so over the top. And I hadn’t even ordered a drink yet.

(L to R) The Hurry Kane and the 1944 Mai Tai are two of the signature cocktails in the Tonga Room at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, California on May 20, 2022.

(L to R) The Hurry Kane and the 1944 Mai Tai are two of the signature cocktails in the Tonga Room at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, California on May 20, 2022.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

I quickly corrected that by selecting what seemed like the most classic option: a “1944 Mai Tai” ($20), which the menu proudly states was invented in Oakland. Doug ordered a “Hurry Kane” ($28), an even more expensive homage to a classic tiki cocktail.

Much has been written about problematic tiki bars, built on colonial nostalgia and overuse of Polynesian iconography. While the Tonga Room comes from another era – 1945 – the tiki was already beginning to be seen as regressive in the late 1960s.

However, the tiki saw a revival in the 1990s, and yet another more recently, when the desire for escapism abounded in the wake of the pandemic. Tiki bars are more popular than ever in San Francisco, with modern establishments tending to champion the theme as an homage to a retro design aesthetic (and a highly influential cocktail movement) rather than a case of cultural appropriation.

Say what you will about the Tonga Room, but 77 years have crowned it a historic San Francisco institution. Many adore him and will defend him to the death; when it was threatened with closure in 2009, a Facebook group of 4,000 people banded together to save it.

People line up to enter the Tonga Room at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, California on May 20, 2022.

People line up to enter the Tonga Room at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, California on May 20, 2022.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Most visitors to Tonga Room don’t think critically of tiki bars when visiting anyway. From the moment my Mai Tai arrived in a ceramic mug shaped like a tiki statue, a small sprig of mint and a wedge of lime swirled out festively, I felt my head go blank.


Mmm… a sweet, tart and fruity drink. Nothing complicated here, but it was extremely drinkable. Five sips, I was drunk. By the time I was halfway through the drink, I can confidently say I was drunk. I guess a $20 cocktail isn’t so bad when you only have to buy one to feel the effects.

I had heard rumors that the cocktails at Tonga Room were incredibly sweet, but I don’t think that’s been the case for about 10 years. The menu got a facelift in 2013, replacing the prepackaged mixers with fresh citrus – and I can attest they’re better for it.

“Those are dangerous,” Doug said. His drink was even stronger.

I was so hammered by my singular cocktail, in fact, that I attempted to sign the check before I even gave the waiter my credit card. Yeah, I’m starting to see what makes people jump in the pool.

The Island Groove Band performs on a boat on the Tonga Room pool at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, California on May 20, 2022.

The Island Groove Band performs on a boat on the Tonga Room pool at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, California on May 20, 2022.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

As we left around 7:30 p.m., the band had just started playing, entertaining the crowd from their floating barge with a cheesy Norah Jones cover. Paper lanterns hung between faux palm trees cast a soft glow over the blue lagoon. An elderly couple were rocking on the dance floor. Finally, a buzzing line had formed outside the entrance.

The Tonga Room may be a bar that caters to tourists, and it may not be particularly hip with the times. And it’s expensive (if you stay to watch the band, it’ll be $15 more). But it’s definitely on the list of things to do in San Francisco for locals and tourists alike — if only for the possibility of seeing a bozo being fined $1,000 for daring to swim. .

I think I finally understand what made Anthony Bourdain, a mischievous glint in his eye, declare the Tonga Room “the greatest place in the history of the world”.

The entrance to the Tonga Room at the Fairmont hotel in San Francisco, California on May 20, 2022.

The entrance to the Tonga Room at the Fairmont hotel in San Francisco, California on May 20, 2022.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

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