Noe Valley Voice March 2003

Polynesian Paradise on Nob Hill
Taking the Kids to the Tonga Room

By Janis Cooke Newman

My 8-year-old son stands in awe before a wooden tiki god with a mouth full of pointed teeth.

"That is so cool," Alex says, with absolutely no trace of irony.

He also thinks the mushroom-shaped thatched roof above our table and the glass balls in nets strung along the walls are the epitome of fine interior design.

"Can we get some of those?" he asks, pointing to a collection of pastel-colored plastic starfish.

This is the first great thing about taking kids to the Tonga Room at the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill--their unabashed affection for all things tiki. Alex is in love with the three-faced goddess at the entrance, the "volcanic" rock grotto with big-screen TV behind the bar, the Polynesian longboats hanging from the ceiling, and of course, the rectangular lagoon that fills the center of the restaurant.

"Can I go in there?" he asks, eyeing one of the giant clamshells scattered along the bottom.

This is an impulse that isn't entirely inappropriate. Back in the 1930s, the Tonga Room lagoon was known as The Plunge and served as the hotel pool.

Before Alex can pursue his idea of reviving The Plunge, a waiter in a Hawaiian shirt arrives at our table with three cocktails the color of an equatorial sunset.

This is the second great thing about taking kids to the Tonga Room--the drinks. Tropically-minded tipplers under 21 can suck down juice-filled cocktails festooned with little paper umbrellas and maraschino cherries, while grown-up drinkers get to order from an assortment of creatively named cocktails like the Scorpion ("Beware: One too many may sting!"), Blue Hawaii, and Bora Bora Horror--not to mention the Lava Bowl, which according to the menu, actually comes filled with the "nectar of the gods."

My husband and I order mai tais, which taste pretty nectary-of-the-gods to me. Alex collects our umbrellas and eats our maraschino cherries.

"I'm hungry," he says, red dye no. 3 staining his newly grown-in front teeth.

Which brings us to the third great thing about taking kids to the Tonga Room--the Happy Hour buffet. For only six bucks a person, you can feast on spareribs and potstickers, egg rolls and chow mein, chicken wings and fried shrimp, as well as a platter of fruit and cheese, which looks a little weird in the middle of all those Chinese appetizers.

Alex cannot believe he is allowed to have as many pork buns as he wants. My husband cannot believe how good the spareribs are. I cannot believe that every time I go up to the buffet, there are only two potstickers left.

As we walk back to our table after our fifth or sixth trip to the buffet--the plates are very small--we hear a crack of thunder so loud a little girl with a unicorn on her T-shirt levitates right out of her rattan chair. And here's the fourth great thing about taking kids to the Tonga Room--the thunderstorm.

Every half hour, the recorded birdcalls and slack guitar tunes are replaced by the rumble of thunder and the frenzied beating of jungle drums. Strobe lights blink on and off, simulating lightning or the flash of a busload of tourist cameras. Then, with all the suddenness of a real tropical storm, rain beats down into the lagoon.

Sure it's kitschy, but your kids aren't going to notice that. They're going to think it's as cool as the real thing--cooler, because this thunderstorm is inside.

To celebrate the change in the weather, my husband and I order another round of mai tais, then ask for the check. And here's the best thing about taking kids to the Tonga Room during Happy Hour--the bill.

You get exotic drinks named after poisonous insects and Elvis songs for $5.95 (a steal in a hotel bar), and your kids get dinner and a thunderstorm for six bucks. That's a whole lot cheaper than Disneyland. And you can drink. In fact, the one-drink minimum pretty much makes it a requirement.

The only downside is that you might wind up with a longboat hanging from your living-room ceiling.

Tiki Tips

The Tonga Room is on the terrace level of the Fairmont Hotel, 950 Mason Street. Parking near the hotel is expensive. Better to take Muni downtown and ride the cable car up to the top of Nob Hill--more fun, too. Happy Hour is Monday through Friday, from 5 until 7 p.m.

And while we're on the subject of taking kids to hotel bars: Equinox, the revolving restaurant/bar at the top of the Hyatt Regency near the Embarcadero is another popular kid spot. Try to get a table by the window, so your kids can see just how fast you're moving--the windowsill stays still while you circle around, getting a 360-degree view of downtown San Francisco and the bay. One word of caution, don't forget to remind your kids that when they come out of the bathroom, your table will have moved.

Are We There Yet? is a Noe Valley Voice feature about places to go and things to do with your kids. If there's an activity or outing you'd like to see explored, please e-mail Janis Cooke Newman at