WEEKNIGHTER The best tiki bar I’ve ever been to is Smith’s Union Bar in Honolulu’s Chinatown. It’s a shitty little tiki dive bar with even shittier karaoke. It’s also the oldest bar on the island. The night I was there it was full of Navy dudes, punk chicks, gay guys, and a big hulking, transgendered Pacific Islander. I had the crowd arm-in-arm singing “Tiny Dancer” and “Don’t Let Me Down” while cheering me on and buying me drinks after I sang. It was pretty much what I wish happened every night of my life.
While nothing can quite compare to Smith’s Union for obvious reasons, Trad’r Sam (6150 Geary Blvd, SF. 415-221-0773) is probably my second favorite tiki bar in the world. Sitting way out on Geary and 26th Avenue, Trad’r Sam got its start as a Trader Vic knockoff back in the 1930s. And it seems not much has changed since then. Cheap, powerful, colorful drinks come in punch bowls while wicker and cushion booths line the perimeter of the room. Cash is the only form of legal tender accepted and really drunk people abound. The bar itself is shaped in an irregular half circle with a lump, like a boob job gone wrong.
It was a foggy Tuesday night and Ashley and I had just come from Rockin Crawfish down the way. Neither of us make it out to the Richmond very often so it was an excuse to wander into places that she’s never been and I hadn’t been in years. As we walked in the door we were blown away by how busy it was. It seemed like the only business with any customers on that side of Park Presidio. “Damn, it’s busy,” I said to the door guy. “Is it always like this on Tuesdays?” I asked. He replied, “Pretty much.”
We were impressed. Most of the bars in that part of town, at that particular hour on a weeknight, had a client base consisting of old drunks pissing away what little money they had while staring into their beers. Somehow Trad’r Sam had every young and attractive person in the Richmond inside its walls that night. People of all ethnicities mingled together sipping flamboyant drinks while laughing, flirting, and grooving to music like MGMT.
“Can I touch your coat? Where’d you get it?” a girl asked as she approached us.
“Sure,” I said, “I got it at some thrift store.”
To which she responded by hugging me and saying, “I’m Jillian and you smell like garlic fries.” Jillian told us that Trad’r Sam was her favorite bar and since she lived nearby, she was there all the time. “Everyone here is so nice,” she told me, “Most of the time one of the bartenders walks me home. And if I black out I always make it home safely.” Blacking out is an easy thing to do at Trad’r Sam. Considering how many new SF bars have drinks that start at $12, the most expensive drink at Trad’r Sam is $16 and comes in a bowl meant for multiple people.
Walking out that night and towards the next bar on our adventure, I told Ashley about Smith’s Union and all the incredible things that happen there. “That’s all well and good,” she told me, “but I bet you never met the mayor there.”
“Huh?” I asked and she showed me her phone check in at Trad’r Sam. Apparently Jillian was the mayor on Foursquare. I never new smelling like garlic fries would lead me to meet such illustrious people. If you make it to Trad’r Sam, give the mayor a hug for me.