Trader Vic’s, the Polynesian restaurant that’s occupied the basement of the Park Lane Hotel since 1963, is being evicted at the end of the year. Our restaurant critic Steve Dinneen, who ate there in 2013, certainly won’t be pouring out a pina colada into a coconut to bid it farewell. Here’s what he had to say about it, from tartare that was the “physical embodiment of disappointment” to volcano shrimp that tasted of his parets getting divorced.
I wonder who was smoking how much of what when they stumbled upon the idea of Trader Vic’s. It’s a Polynesian themed restaurant, though the food itself comes from everywhere and nowhere, a sort of vague, globetrotting mulch.
Apparently in the 60s it was a destination restaurant: Charlie Chaplin used to eat there and it gets a mention in a Warren Zevon song. Now it’s undergone its a major refurbishment, which I imagine cost an eye-watering sum of money. It was about as well spent as an investment in Bernard Madoff’s latest venture.
It looks like Mahiki with a migraine. Every surface is carved and zig-zagged and etched and swirled. The walls are cluttered with the kind of tat you might find in a low-rent wholesaler. Breaking up the carved heads and bamboo pillars are paintings of the European ships that would sail in and ravage the indigenous population with disease and sell them into slavery. Nice one, yeah, I’ll have a cocktail while I mull that over, cheers.
Our first table was nestled under some kind of canoe; I didn’t stay there long. I never ask to be moved in a restaurant – it stems from my childhood, when my father would ask to move several times during a meal, for no reason at all; a feeling in his bones or something in the air. But the lads at the next table were so impressively obnoxious I had no choice. I ended up next to a leery stag-do in full fancy dress; I resisted the urge to move back.
To start, I ordered three dishes from the “tidbits” menu. Deep fried prawns came with “Chinese mustard” and “spicy tomato” dips, which tasted exactly like Colman’s mustard and brown sauce. The beef cho cho was appalling; inedible, stringy grey strips of meat that concertinaed off the skewer onto my lap. It outshone the spicy tuna tartare, though – this culinary abomination is served on nori chips, which were so greasy they had assumed the texture of Kevlar. The tartare was loaded with so much chilli it could have been anything; goldfish or ferret or moon rock or the physical embodiment of disappointment.
Virtually nothing left its plate, and the plates didn’t leave the table for a good 20 minutes. In fact, clearing tables is not high on the priority list at Trader Vic’s: crockery and leftovers lay strewn across the restaurant like elephant graveyards of meals long deceased.
The main courses were no respite. The “volcano shrimp” was every bit as bad as it sounds: supermarket-grade prawns that have been water-boarded in sweet chilli sauce – the kind of thing you might make yourself if you were drunk. It tasted empty and sad, like a closed fairground, or your parents getting divorced.
The miso-glazed cod was the pick of the bunch, in the way Faye Tozer might be your favourite member of Steps. The fish arrived floating in a shallow, murky swamp of soy broth that brought to mind the polluted forest in The Animals of Farthing Wood. It costs £28. Every dish was lazy and poorly conceived, as if the end result of someone actually eating the stuff wasn’t a part of the planning process.
I ordered dessert but half an hour later it still hadn’t arrived. I gave up. Enough is enough. Trader Vic’s is a a lacklustre tourist attraction for people who hate food, and themselves; somewhere you might think was fun, if you’ve never actually been out for a meal before.
To round it off, as if trained to deliver the pièce de résistance, a mouse emerged from under a table to complete a victory lap of the restaurant. I pointed this out to the waitress, who looked forlorn.
“Yes, we’re in the basement,” she sighed. “It’s not too bad though.”
I felt sorry for her. I felt sorry for myself. I feel sorry for you for having read this.