The Tonga Room is like the Rainforest Cafe, only with a live band and deceptively strong tiki drinks - and way more happy moms than at your fifth birthday party. The bar, in the basement of the very ritzy Fairmont Hotel, is the grown-up version of your favorite childhood theme restaurant, complete with fake rain storms, palm trees, and mediocre food. Oh, and a pool in the middle of the restaurant (note: not swimmable). As tacky as it sounds, Tonga Room is a San Francisco classic, perfect for a really fun drink with out-of-towners, a big group, or whenever a mai tai feels right.
The kitsch and the cocktails are what you come to Tonga Room for. The mai tais, daiquiris, pina coladas, and even the less on-theme margarita are all exceptional - strong and delicious and served with all the bells and whistles that should accompany such tropical drinks. They might not be cheap, but you really only need two before you’re trying to get your new friends Bob and Maureen from Cincinnati to dance with you to ‘Uptown Girl.’
As for the food, it’s definitely an afterthought. The Asian-inspired menu ranges from fried calamari and fried rice, to spring rolls and stir fries. It’s all totally acceptable, especially after a few cocktails, but is definitely overpriced for the quality and portion size - this might be a basement bar, but it’s the basement of one of the nicest hotels in town. We generally don’t come to Tonga to eat, and the crowd that does varies between those that have over-indulged in cocktails, have kids in tow, or are touristing hard.
There’s something hilarious and amazing about the Tonga Room that brings us back, despite the weak food. Maybe it’s the people-watching, or the strong drinks, or the fact that the band that plays on the little flotilla in the middle of the pool is actually one of the better cover bands we’ve encountered. Maybe it’s because it makes you feel like a little kid again - a kid who can drink. Maybe it’s because the whole place doesn’t take itself too seriously. Maybe it’s all those things. Either way, Tonga Room is a place you need to go at least once to experience. And after you’ve been once, you’ll probably be back.
Royal Pupu Platter
Your basic plate of fried goodness. If you’re with a group, definitely get this for the table. The ribs and wings are better than you’d expect, and the mushroom spring rolls hold their own too.
It’s fried and standard and goes great with a massive cocktail. Ponzu sauce makes the aioli a little funky, and we’re onboard.
Curried Crab Tacos
Served in an oversized wonton shell, these are confusing at best. They fall apart and the curried crab is not a flavor we particularly like. The wontons are good, but it’s pretty hard to mess up a wonton.
This is a tiny portion of poke with huge taro chips. It’s fine, but like the rest of the food, too expensive for how much you get.
If you are really invested in getting a full dinner at Tonga, the Mongolian beef is your best bet. It’s a saucy, sort of sweet stir fry that’s legitimately tasty.
Sichuan Long Beans
Have you ever been to P.F. Chang’s? Then you’ve had these. Crowd-pleasers and a good way to get some vegetables in the mix.
Pineapple and mint on top, alcohol at the bottom. This is a very good and surprisingly strong mai tai. It’s also served in a cup that looks like a coconut, so bonus points for helping us inch towards our dream of living on a tropical island.