This summer, Trader Vic’s returned to Scottsdale — Scottsdale’s original Vic’s operated from 1962 to 1990, and it was a legendary fixture on the local restaurant scene. However, the Phoenix New Times’ review of the new Scottsdale Trader Vic’s is a very interesting read (emphasis is mine):
I was hoping for a more straightforward experience — either a pan or a rave — but Trader Vic’s left me on a bamboo fence, both in terms of the food and the mood. The place felt slick and shiny and spacious. That’s a mistake. Flickering torches are only sexy in the dark, so I wasn’t keen on the high industrial ceiling and too-bright halogen lights.
The starkly missing sense of mystery at the newer Trader Vic’s locations is a common lamentation among tikiphiles, but it is interesting to now see that sentiment spelled out so plainly in a restaurant review. Trader Vic’s has an immense advantage in their strong brand recognition — time and again when explaining Polynesian Pop to someone, they will perk up and say “oh, you mean like Trader Vic’s!” and go on to relate a story of how much fun they had there years and years ago. That’s a powerful thing for a restaurant to have on its side. The Phoenix New Times reviewer, Michele Laudig, clearly had an expectation, and it wasn’t delivered on — and she can’t be alone. Why on earth would Trader Vic’s want to dilute the meaning of its brand?
Take the new Bellevue Trader Vic’s, pictured above. Does that look like a place that is going to transport you to an exotic land? Does that look like a place where a drink can be a vacation in a glass? I’ve seen dry cleaners with more character.
This comes at a time when the appreciation of Polynesian Pop is reaching new heights. With articles like the one in American Heritage Magazine last month, the awareness of Tiki is growing much wider, and not just as an ironic goof on the past — it’s a growing understanding that it doesn’t have to be tacky, that it can be tasteful, elegant, and fun in a way that is more about intrigue than camp. People are looking for an immersive experience again — they’re looking for a place that lets them cast away their cares, in favor of some time spent in another world, one that is full of dark corners and details to be discovered. These are things that Trader Vic’s once mastered, and no organization is better poised to take advantage of that. That’s what makes it so painful to see them drop the ball.
Restaurants are a risky business, to be sure, and expensive. But if you’re going to bother to play the game, you’ve got to be willing to take risks that allow you stand out from the pack. I know it can be done, because Forbidden Island did it — in a much smaller space, yes, but also with an infinitesimally smaller budget than Trader Vic’s has at its disposal. Today’s modern Trader Vic’s aren’t delivering the kind of dining experiences that you reminisce about decades later. That’s a terrible shame.