The kitschy hot spot marks a milestone anniversary at Fairmont San Francisco.
Tables line a “lagoon” (formerly the Fairmont Plunge) in the middle of the lounge.
The 75-foot indoor swimming pool on the terrace level of the Fairmont San Francisco was known as the “Fairmont Plunge.” It was 1929, and the opulent setting attracted a glamorous crowd, including members of the Water Follies and then-big-screen star Ronald Reagan. But years later, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s leading set director, Mel Melvin, was hired to transform the Fairmont Plunge into something else—a space where people could sit, eat, drink and still enjoy their time around the pool, rather than in it.
That kitschy, Polynesian-inspired space was named Tonga Room. And 75 years later, it has become a timeless hot spot in San Francisco.
“Tonga Room is such an important part of our hotel history,” says Markus Treppenhauer, Fairmont San Francisco’s general manager. “It has been there for as long as anyone in the hotel can remember, and the culture of the restaurant brought us so much for the past 75 years.”
From top: Tonga Room circa 1945; the Fairmont Plunge; the floating stage.
More than a restaurant or a bar or a lounge, Tonga Room was an experience, long before the business of experiences was even a thing. “We believe that there has always been a need for experiential restaurants and bars,” says Raphael Marchand, Fairmont San Francisco’s senior marketing manager. “And on many layers Tonga Room has been very innovative. The cocktails and the food is what brings the people in, but the decor is so immersive that it really makes it a unique experience.”
After a $1 million restoration by Gensler San Francisco in 2008, Tonga Room features all of its original tiki glory, including a bar area with “good luck red” leather banquettes; Polynesian wall coverings; a dance floor built from the remains of the S.S. Forester, a schooner that once traveled between San Francisco and the South Sea Islands; and tropical thunderstorms, complete with thunder and lightning that periodically strike over a “lagoon” (formerly the Fairmont Plunge) in the middle of the lounge.
The Captain’s Honor cocktail
Guests can have dinner while enjoying music by the Island Groove Band, whose members perform on a thatch-covered barge in the middle of the lagoon. Among the most popular menu items is the Tonga pupu platter, featuring an assortment of Asian- and Polynesian-inspired bites, such as fried vegetable dumplings, ahi tuna poke tostadas, garlic chicken wings, coconut shrimp skewers and kalua pork tacos.
To mark the milestone anniversary, a new cocktail menu was launched in January. Tiki classics include colorful drinks, such as the 1934 Zombie, Jungle Bird, Fog Cutter and 1944 Mai Tai. A celebration party is planned for September, exactly 75 years after its opening.
“As we celebrate this anniversary, we are grateful to the generations of customers that came by our ‘lagoon’ for a drink or two. For San Franciscans, Tonga Room is more than a restaurant, it’s a monument, and we make sure to live up to that standard,” says Treppenhauer. 950 Mason St., tongaroom.com
Photography by: Courtesy of Fairmont San Francisco