Heads turned when San Francisco’s Trad’r Sam bar closed mysteriously in late summer. The legendary bamboo bar has been in operation in the Richmond district since 1937, the oldest continuously operating tiki bar in the world. The closure was due in part to a complicated and multifaceted ownership dispute among a brother and sister/niece, along with lease issues. The dust settled with John Munguia taking over operational duties for the first time in many years and the venue reopening in early November.
Aside from settling the lease and operational disputes, the downtime resulted in noticeable updates to the seating and decor inside the neighborhood hangout that in true dive bar fashion still only accepts cash. The bamboo booths named for tropical islands were long in disrepair and have been removed, replaced by new tables and chairs. The blenders and barstools are all new with the bar surface and floor refurbished as well. We noticed there was a greater emphasis on some cheap but well-placed tikis, which I think accented the many historic bamboo elements still in place inside. The previously graffiti-filled men’s restroom has been completely repainted, perhaps the first time in history where white walls were welcome in a tiki bar.
In the previous regime the hours were notoriously inconsistent, but after last week’s SF Standard article that said that bar opens early on Mondays I took advantage of a “wellness day” at work and decided to see how things are before noon in the Richmond. We saw Munguia tending bar with a few regulars who were drinking shots and beer and not the Polynesian Drinks referenced on the iconic sign outside. These regulars were already in party mode when we walked in and soon were treated to a whiskey shot bought by a customer for everyone in the bar. Another regular knew the inside of the venue better than Munguia, running behind the bar to find the remotes for the jukebox and TVs.
Which left it up to this writer to keep up the tradition of Polynesian Drinks at the Polynesian Drinks bar, ordering a Mai Tai. Trad’r Sam features a vast cocktail menu, though on a previous visit it wasn’t clear there was a substantial difference between a Mai Tai and Zombie aside from the garnish. But most the cocktails are just $9, indicating this is a place for inexpensive imbibing and not for refined reflection of craft cocktails. Indeed my island Mai Tai was prepared exactly like the one on my last trip in early 2022 and was so similar it evoked the “they’re the same picture” meme from NBC’s The Office.
But I come to praise Trad’r Sam, not to bury it. The Mai Tai wasn’t too bad, and I had even better luck when I ordered a Singapore Sling from bartender JJ who had recently arrived and really began the bar setup. The Sling contained a mix of rum, sloe gin, a couple cherry liqueurs, and a bit of juice and honestly was the best Singapore Sling I’ve had in a while. Meanwhile, a group of young men came in for some socializing and a couple rounds of tequila shots. I wandered over to the jukebox and immediately found some Gerry Rafferty and Gary Wright songs that tickled JJ and the group of young men. I kept looking and eventually found some Ventures and even a few Martin Denny tunes.
Sitting in the world’s oldest tiki bar listening to “Quiet Village” while sipping a tropical cocktail at 2:00 in the afternoon wasn’t a bad way to spend my “wellness day” after all.
Hardcore tikiphiles certainly have better options in The City, home to at least half a dozen top-tier destination tiki bars. But I think Trad’r Sam is worth visiting as well. True, one minute you might be relaxing with a drink and the next an inebriated regular will be hugging you while sliding over a whiskey shot. It’s that kind of place. It isn’t unsafe, though, and I’d have trusted those regulars to have my back in the event of any trouble. We can only hope that continued upgrades to the interior and maybe the cocktail program will follow with a resurgence of business and the ability to focus on hospitality rather than the judiciary.