Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Hinky Dink's and the Wooden Leg

Victor Bergeron, or Trader Vic, was more of a talented trend spotter than a true originator—he introduced Mexican cuisine to the American public and considered sushi to be a delicacy well before the 1990s. After a visit to the original Don the Beachcomber's in 1937 he was inspired to head back to Oakland and change the food and decor at his own establishment, Hinky Dink’s. It wasn’t much longer before he put his nickname to good use and the pub's name was changed to Trader Vic's.

Within a few years, Trader Vic opened a second Trader Vic’s location in Seattle and a third in Hawaii. The chain grew quickly and is now credited as one of the first successful themed restaurant chains. (You’re welcome, Joe’s Crab Shack!) Depending upon your perspective, one might consider Trader Vic to be "more successful" than tiki’s originator, Don the Beachcomber. He certainly made tiki an option to the general public, particularly after teaming up with the Hilton empire, and, at one point, operating over 25 restaurants in the US. But “What is success, really?” is a conversation that will have to wait for another day.

Trader Vic knew the power of a compelling narrative and contributed to his own mythology. After losing his leg to tuberculosis, Vic often told people his wooden leg was a result of an encounter with a shark. In reality, Trader Vic was no seafarer; on his only trip to the South Pacific he became so violently seasick that, between barfs, he vowed never to return. 

Fictions aside, Trader Vic’s contributions to the first wave of tiki are incomparable. He invented the Mai Tai (arguably the most popular—and bastardized (What’s up, Wrigley Field!)—tiki cocktail ever to exist) and authored Trader Vic's Bartenders Guide in 1947, which is currently going for $125 on eBay (which is $1,308.88 in 1947-dollars!)

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