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At 40, Trader Vic’s still offers quick getaway to ‘Hawaii’

Before the elevator at the Hilton in downtown Atlanta touches the ground of its basement level, the cozy, smoky scent of Chinese wood-fired ovens drifts into the nostrils.

Call it a sensory welcome mat to Trader Vic’s, the 40-year-old local mainstay of the iconic restaurant chain, a place where Tiki culture born out of the 1930s continues celebrating its perpetual luau. Asian-inspired cuisine pairs with a lifeblood of fruity libations amid an interior design and decor that encapsulates guests in Polynesian pop. And the Atlanta Vic’s will shake its hula hips even harder with a birthday bash April 21.

“When you step foot in Trader Vic’s, you feel like you’re in a different world,” said general manager Malik Diop, “and you can’t feel that way in any other restaurant here in Atlanta.”

Perhaps it’s the vibe of a virtual Hawaiian vacation that helps give Trader Vic’s its staying power. According to Diop, when the Atlanta location opened in April 1976, it was one of more than 20 Vic’s locations in the country. Today only three Vic’s locations still stand in the States (the other two are in California). Diop says the Atlanta locale is reportedly the last that founder Victor Bergeron put his decorative stamp on. The Tiki statues, globe lanterns, velvet paintings and other decor remain frozen in time since they were first installed in ’76.

In 1937, after soaking up the scenery in Cuba and Hawaii, Bergeron transformed his Oakland, Calif., watering hole into Trader Vic’s, decking its halls with Pacific Island artifacts and kitsch. This spawned an international restaurant chain, with locations eventually popping up all over the globe from Germany to Jordan to Japan.

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Although interest in Polynesia continues to ebb and flow in American pop culture, the Atlanta Trader Vic’s shows no signs of hanging up its grass skirt anytime soon. Conventiongoers regular belly up to its tropical bar, and locals often ring in special occasions beneath its palm-thatched ceilings.

Beginning approximately 12 years ago, Thursday nights at Vic’s have become a hipster haven. Local entertainer Mike Geier, who’s gone on to international acclaim as Puddles the Clown, began a weekly residency with his band Tongo Hiti, playing everything from Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles” to putting a Polynesian twist on ABBA’s “Dancing Queen.”

Today live music brings the party from 8:30 p.m. until midnight on Thursdays. Bands including the country-tinged Caroline and the Ramblers, the blues-infused Jon Harris Band and the soulful Bogey & the Viceroy 5 take the stage. Fueled by the bar’s steady flow of discounted mai tais, a drink reportedly first created by Bergeron, Thursday night crowds often pack the lounge like a Samoan family reunion.

Tackling high volume, not to mention more than 80 signature drinks, means Vic’s bartenders require plenty of training. Newbies spend as much as a month learning the cocktail ropes before making a splash behind the bar. Being a Polynesian mixologist calls for a head full of knowledge, especially when a crowd of costumed Dragon Con guests have ’tenders slinging drinks nonstop for 12 hours.

Navigating its kitchen has its own challenges. Chef Cheing Phour says it takes special skill to wrestle the mammoth Chinese wood-fired ovens, which can be seen through glass windows. Most restaurants whip up protein in conventional gas ovens, easily setting the temperature at the preferred spot. A Chinese oven, however, is a different story. After hanging meat — think chicken, pork, lamb and more — inside the ovens, the cook must control the heat by burning the wood just right. Sometimes as many as 40 orders of different types of meat, each requiring their own specific temperatures, are hanging in the oven at one time.

“So it’s not easy to control that,” Phour said. “Once in a while, we get someone new. Most cooks come in and they can’t last two weeks. It’s hard.”

While popular dishes including the Indonesian rack of lamb, wok stir-fried seafood and the Vic’s appetizer sampler, Cosmo Tidbits, continue rolling out of Phour’s kitchen, the chef will revisit some old-school favorites with a throwback menu for the anniversary celebration. Remember slurping on a bowl of Bongo Bongo soup next to your prom date all those years ago? Or maybe you’re having coconut prawn withdrawal? Those and other Vic’s culinary classics come out of retirement for the occasion.

The festivities also include live retro garage rock from the Disapyramids, Polynesian hula dancers and a 40th anniversary take-home mai tai glass free with the purchase of the classic cocktail. Giving guests something special may be another key ingredient to Vic’s success.

“Our main goal at Trader Vic’s is to make guests happy,” Diop said. “We want to make sure people come here and feel like we treat them special. We want them to feel like they’re in Hawaii.”

Click here to find out how well you know the Trader Vic's cocktail list.

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