9 Anchor Dr, Emeryville
At least once a week, I get a text or an email saying that Trader Vic’s, the Polynesian-themed bar in the East Bay that many credit with starting the mid-century “tiki” trend, is about to shut its doors for good.
When I get those tips, I always contact Faith Nebergall, the 87-year-old restaurant’s general manager, to see if this time, the rumors are true. Without fail, Faith responds, and the news is always the same: Trader Vic’s isn’t going anywhere this year, but maybe some day soon after that. We shall see.
Nosh’s Risa Nye took a deep dive into the Trader Vic’s story in 2019, and I suggest you read it. But here’s the executive summary: Victor Jules Bergeron, Jr. opened a bar called Hinky Dink’s at 6500 San Pablo Ave. in 1934, changing its name to Trader Vic’s just a few years later. In 1944, well after the restaurant and bar had gained a following for its tropical themed-decor, Bergeron reportedly invented and/or adapted (depends on who you ask) tiki bar standby the Mai Tai.
A couple years after that, Trader Vic’s transformed into a chain, with locations in hotels and tourist areas across the U.S. that catered to tiki-seeking drinkers of the ’50s and ’60s. In 1972, the original bar moved to 9 Anchor Dr., in the Emeryville Marina, a spot the business rents, not owns. (This will be important in a minute.)
In 1984, Bergeron died, the tiki craze was officially over, and the rest of the chain started to contract. Meanwhile, more and more folks started to question the entire tiki genre, with prominent thinkers reexamining the tiki theme’s roots in colonialism and role in perpetuating stereotypes, while others called it straight up racist. “Can the format be repaired?” asked the New York Times in 2020. (For more thinking on the role of tiki bars, the Pasifika Project is a great place to start.)
As of publication time, there are only three Trader Vic’s locations in the U.S.: Emeryville, Atlanta and the San Jose airport. The chain’s corporate office remains in the East Bay, but most of its bars are in the Middle East. The Bay Area Trader Vic’s has remained an institution, with a loyal and diverse following that appreciates its splashy cocktails and pan-Asian menu. (Even the SF Chronicle’s notoriously picky food critic, Michael Bauer, has sang its praises.)
Folks started asking about the future of the flagship Trader Vic’s in late 2021, when Emeryville officials noted in a monthly progress report (first reported by The E’ville Eye) “on November 30, staff met via Zoom with the design team for a proposed residential project on the Trader Vic’s site to discuss various development options.”
But though Emeryville referred to the area in question as “the Trader Vic’s site,” and though the restaurant has stood there for 50 years, the spot isn’t owned by Trader Vic’s.
Figuring out who does own it is a trickier proposition. According to the Alameda County Assessor’s office, there are four LLCs or companies on the title, and the group’s mailing address is a fifth property company based in Marin. But even those records might be out of date, Nebergall told me, as “some of those people sold their shares.”
According to Nebergall, Trader Vic’s Worldwide (the company that owns all the restaurant’s locations) signed a 50-year lease for the restaurant when it moved in in 1972. (“It was a different time,” Nebergall said with a laugh when I marveled at the lease duration.)
That lease is up in 2023, which means that Trader Vic’s will remain there until then, Nebergall confirmed, serving cocktails and three-course dinners until then. And after that?
“The building has yet to be sold,” Nebergall said, based on what she’s been told by the restaurant’s landlord, and it appears plans to raze it and redevelop the land have stalled. “It doesn’t look like they’ve been able to make anything happen yet … we’d love to stay, so we’re hoping they’ll extend our lease for another year.”
But if a buyer does appear, or the redevelopment idea gets fast-tracked,Trader Vic’s already has a plan B: “We’ve already been scouting locations to move,” Nebergall said, in places “as close to where we currently are as possible.”
According to Nebergall, I’m not the only person who is regularly asked if Trader Vic’s is gone for good. “We get calls all the time from people who say they heard we’re closing immediately,” she said. “We have such a large, longstanding and loyal clientele that people likely talk,” she said. But since she doesn’t know where Trader Vic’s will be in 2023, “we’re not booking any events for next year, so that probably gets people talking,” she said.
Other folks, she said, might not realize that the restaurant has adjusted its hours in the wake of the pandemic. “Business has bounced back,” she said, “we’re doing really, really great,” but for the first time in recent memory, Trader Vic’s is closed every Tuesday. “People might come by on a Tuesday, see we’re not open, and just assume,” she said.
But other than on Tuesdays, it’s still game on at Trader Vic’s, for seven-plus more months, at least. It just kills me that people have that impression we’re closed and might not come down on a Saturday night for dinner,” she said. “I hope this story puts that to rest.”