James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Ah, to Be Young and Drinking Mai Tais in the Basement of the Atlanta Hilton

Photo by: Sam Howzit<

Ah, to Be Young and Drinking Mai Tais in the Basement of the Atlanta Hilton

Tiki Drinks in Atlanta

The lobby of the Hilton Atlanta is vast and cold. The decor is circa 1972. Don Draper should be having a cigarette and a Scotch rocks on one of the mid-century couches. The only sounds you hear are the clank of the escalators and the steady hum of tourists asking the staff at reception for dinner recommendations. It is the most likely—and most unlikely—place to find Trader Vic’s, the hippest unhip Tiki bar in the city.

I had been planning to go to a new trendy Tiki lounge with some friends for my birthday. The waiters wear Hawaiian shirts and the drinks have names like Witch Doctor’s Orders and No Shrubs. I told a friend who had spent some time in Hawaii about it. He closed his eyes and shook his head. “You don’t want to go to a new ironic Tiki bar,” he said. “You want to go to an old un-ironic Tiki bar. You want to go to Trader Vic’s.”

To get to Trader Vic’s, you have to weave your way through the Hilton lobby to a very specific elevator to go down to the lounge. As we got into the glass elevator, we felt like Starfleet cadets stepping onto the holodeck. We got on in 2015 and we got off in 1965. The bar was dark and wood-paneled. There were a few people having drinks but it certainly wasn’t crowded. The bartender probably referred to himself as a bartender and not “head of the beverage program.”

The menus were well-worn and featured cheery 1960s typography and orange splotches from what I liked to think were happy, slightly tipsy guests spilling the first round as they ordered the second. We are mostly wine drinkers, so we found the cocktail menu intriguing. Our waitress suggested the Mai Tai, Trader Vic’s signature drink. We also ordered a pu-pu platter of Polynesian appetizers, out of nostalgia as much as anything else.

The Mai Tai at Trader Vic’s was one of the most memorable cocktails I’ve ever had. I still think about it and my birthday was in December. The Mai Tai is a dangerous mixture of rum, lime juice, triple sec and orgeat syrup (a sweet syrup made from almonds, sugar, and rose water or orange flower water). It’s garnished with maraschino cherries and pineapple. It’s hopelessly kitschy and amazingly potent. After a birthday toast, I put my Mai Tai off to one side, dismissing it as too strong. Three cocktails later, I suspected the bartender was watering them down. Either that, or I was building up immunity.

Victor Bergeron, the ‘Vic’ in Trader Vic’s, claimed to have invented the Mai Tai. The story is that he created it in Oakland, California in 1944 for some friends visiting from Tahiti. One of the friends took a sip and exclaimed, “Mai tai roa ae.” In Tahitian this means “out of this world.”

But since that happy accident in Oakland, the Mai Tai has fallen on hard times. It has been sweetened, it has been boxed; it’s been flooded with pineapple juice and poked with parasols. It’s hard to imagine being a serious person in a serious place ordering a Mai Tai. Until they’re back in the mainstream, mid-century time travel to Trader Vic’s may become a regular journey.

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