Nostalgia can give you whiplash, especially when it comes to Restaurants We Miss, a new feature we're launching on Voracious. Looking back can lead to a swift punch of bittersweet regret while wishing: Dang, I should have gone there more often, or maybe I could have helped keep that place going. Not likely, but still.
In this inaugural blast-from-the-past , let's go way back to one of Seattle's first exotic dining destinations, Trader Vic's, a spot designed to transport guests to a Polynesian paradise where every drink wore an umbrella and every waitress donned a sarong.
I hadn't thought of Trader Vic's in ages, but when poring over Greg Atkinson's entertaining collection of essays, At the Kitchen Table, I was sucked into a retro time warp when he writes about being hit by a sudden and inexplicable craving for Trader Vic's Rumaki: bacon wrapped around chicken livers and water chestnuts. Mmmm.
His quest to make a better version of that cocktail-hour nibble got me thinking about one of the most important meals of my life, a dinner at Trader Vic's that got me so jazzed I became obsessed with food, which eventually turned into a career writing about it.
About a million years ago, restaurants were utilitarian establishments with all the charm of a Denny's. Bright lights. Meat and potatoes. Boring. Trader Vic's was one of the places that helped change all that. By today's standards, it would be super cheesy, but in the 1960s and '70s, it was the ultimate splurge. So, when my mom and stepfather made a reservation, the kids were told to dress up. This special outing was going to be Fancy with a capital "F" and we had damn well better behave with a capital you know what!
At the time, Trader Vic's was in the basement of the Westin Hotel, but we might as well have been descending into the hold of a ship that was going to transport us across the Seven Seas. It was so damn dark! On the way in, my mother tripped and swore, but a Mai Tai smoothed over any embarrassment.
Even the kids were handed big gaudy menus with strange-sounding items. I'm pretty sure my little brother started fidgeting and whining because there were no hot dogs. My mother ordered him the sweet and sour chicken and then wiped the sauce off. My sister and I still tease him about being such a spoiled brat that night.
I'm not sure what possessed me, a 12-year-old living in rural Eastern Washington, to order the most adventurous dish on the menu. I just knew I had to taste Boingo Boingo soup, and that deep green creation was indeed life-changing, a crazy-delicious blend of oysters, spinach and cream. The cooking took place behind a glassed-in room -- the first exhibition kitchen? -- and while the grownups and my sibs were busy eating, I sat transfixed by all the action. How wonderful.
Many years later, around the time Warren Zevon had a werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic's -- his hair was perfect -- I went back. But it was not the same. The mai tais still packed a wallop, but the theatrical quality of the place had faded like a black-and-white movie. Restaurants had evolved, and sweet and sour was no longer something anyone ordered without bringing expectations way down.
When the Trader Vic's redux had a brief flash in the pan in Bellevue, I didn't bother to go. Sometimes, there's a very good reason why restaurants aren't around anymore. We've moved on, and they're cemented in another time.