“The Tonga Room is frequented by visitors from all generations because it provides an experience beyond food and drink,” says Sven Kirsten, tiki scholar and author of numerous tiki tomes, including the seminal Book of Tiki. “It’s a prime example of a Polynesian Pop-theme restaurant that, despite never being recognized by art and architecture critics in its heyday, was loved by the people.”
Like much of American pop culture, the tiki bar concept was born in Hollywood. In the years following Prohibition, the burdens of the Great Depression and a scarcity of commercial air travel each contributed to the seduction of a Polynesian escape — real or imagined. Donn Beach (neé Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt) is credited with inventing the tiki aesthetic with the opening of his Don the Beachcomber bar in 1933, which immersed diners in tropical decor and rum-fueled creations such as the Zombie and Navy Grog. Four years later, Beach’s success led competing restaurateur Vic Bergeron — who would go on to create the tiki bar’s signature drink, the Mai Tai — to rechristen his Oakland bar and eatery as the South Seas-inspired Trader Vic’s. The tiki craze was on, and soon after, every major U.S. city would have a tropical-inspired refuge to sip exotic drinks and feast on gussied-up versions of American-Asian plates.
In 1945, the Fairmont tasked famed MGM set designer Mel Melvin with transforming the hotel’s indoor pool — a celebrity magnet dubbed the Terrace Plunge — into a restaurant and bar that mimicked a pool deck on a luxury cruise ship. With parts salvaged from the S.S. Forrester, a lumber schooner that sailed from San Francisco to the South Pacific, Melvin decked the new themed eatery with lifeboats, metal air vents, and life preservers. The pool remained the centerpiece, but a small boat was added to host musicians who serenaded diners. In the 1950s, the dining room’s nightly thunderstorms were installed, showering the pool with downpours, flashing lights, and thunderous booms every thirty minutes. By the late 1960s, the Tonga Room was reimagined once again into the tiki masterpiece you see today.