Review: Trader Vic’s W1 – a retro tiki delight

Trader Vic’s is somewhat unassuming from the outside considering its location. Barely signposted compared to the grand entrance of the Park Lane Hilton beneath which it’s snugly tucked, you’d perhaps need to have heard of Trader Vic’s to know what’s in store, and would have no idea of the scale of the restaurant below.

Descending the stairs into the basement restaurant, it’s easy to lose yourself somewhere between the Polynesian tiki culture the restaurant is based on, and the 1930s when it was founded.

Launched in 1934 by writer and restaurateur Victor Bergeron, the chain was popular with the Hollywood elite who relished the quirky and exotic surroundings.

Nearly 100 years later it still lives up to that reputation. You’ll only find one Trader Vic’s in the UK which opened in 1963 and was a hit with the likes of Marlon Brando, George Harrison and Sophia Loren, but there are restaurants all over the world, including Munich, Tokyo and Singapore. Despite the restaurant’s long history, it’s still expanding, with a new location in Dubai established as recently as 2007.

The maître d’ assures me the place can hold 600 people and initially it’s difficult to imagine how that could be possible. But in simply looking for the toilet it becomes apparent that there’s more space than the mock bamboo hut interior would have you believe.

The décor is tantalisingly excessive – it’s so bedecked with carved wood and tropical patterns that it feels like a film set – but that’s a big part of the restaurant’s charm.

Trader Vics

At first glance, the fusion menu seems muddled. With Chinese and Polynesian favourites, such as Szechuan butterfly prawns, among more typical European and American favourites like lobster thermidor, it’s hard to know whether to stick with the same food genre or choose an eclectic mix when ordering starters and main courses.

According to Trader Vic’s, its style evolved as Bergeron, who they refer to simply as The Trader, travelled around the world picking up ideas from Cuba, Hawaii and others along the Spice Route.

I’ve become accustomed to thinking if a restaurant offers too many different styles, it’s not good at any of them, which is perhaps unfair, as it was formed mostly while at university by eating in places named things like “Best Kebab and Pizza”.

But to me this menu feels as though it really does represent some of the best dishes of a myriad of cultures and therefore you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who wouldn’t find something to their tastes.

Trader Vics

The service is attentive but not overwhelming, and the waiter suggests we try the Mai Tai to start with – an easy yes, as Trader Vic’s credits itself for inventing the world-famous cocktail.

It’s not remotely disappointing either, and could be the best Mai Tai I’ve had. Tarted up with a glace cherry, chunk of pineapple, lime wedge and a sprig of mint, it’s served over crushed ice in one of the restaurant’s trademark glasses.

Even after tasting the cocktail, I half-expect the food to be standard themed-restaurant fare, but the minute our starters arrive, it’s clear that’s not the case at all. Thankfully, the food matches up to its price tag, which is impressive considering the lobster will set you back £85 and even a side of fries is £5.

Vegetarians needn’t be disappointed, even though all but one of the starters contain some meat or fish, as the crispy vegetable spring rolls are delightful. My companion has the Peri Peri prawns and is impressed by the size – not all prawns are created equal, she tells me.

Trader Vics

Before the main courses arrive, we’re recommended the Mango Tai from the selection of Mai Tai variations as our next cocktail and, despite secretly wishing I’d ordered the gloriously-named Suffering Bastard, it does not disappoint.

The mains, the grilled courgette and goat cheese salad and the Indonesian rack of lamb, are further proof that I had no reason to be concerned about the diverse menu.

The salad is beautifully presented, well balanced and perfectly satisfying on its own – great news for someone like me who usually fears ordering salad in case it’s disappointing.

The lamb, cooked on hooks in Trader Vic’s wood-fired oven was, quite unusually, well complemented by Singapore noodles and peach and mango chutney.

A particular highlight was the warm toddy we were offered to accompany our chocolate and pecan dessert, which was perfect for sharing. Arriving in large theatrical mugs shaped like a head and a skull, the hearty Coffee Grog and Black Stripe were both worth the detour from the cocktail menu.

Trader Vics

We stay in the bar and enjoy the live salsa band – I should mention by the way, until 9pm our meal is accompanied by 70s and 80s pop music including the Jackson 5 and Madonna. The maître d’ tells us the bar gets quite lively later on in the night.

Reassuringly, there isn’t a daiquiri or cosmopolitan in sight on the extensive cocktail menu, and it easily matches some of the better cocktail bars I’ve been to in London.

And, with cocktails ranging from just £6 up to £18, there is no doubt I will be going there again.

Tweet me your thoughts @robynvinter

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