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    A Quest to Find the Best Mai Tai in San Francisco

    By David Landis–

    There is something about a Mai Tai that instantly transports you to a tropical island. Perhaps that is why it is one of my favorite drinks. The problem? Most people don’t know how to make a proper Mai Tai.

    So, dear readers, I’ve saved you the trouble and compiled a handy list of San Francisco’s best Mai Tais. But first, a little history:

    According to Wikipedia, “Restaurateur Victor J. Bergeron claimed to have invented the Mai Tai in 1944 at his restaurant, Trader Vic’s in Oakland, California, (formerly Hinky Dink’s). Trader Vic’s forerunner, Donn Beach, also took credit for creating the drink in 1933, although a longtime colleague said that Beach was just alleging that the Mai Tai was based on his Q.B. Cooler cocktail. The name ostensibly was taken from maita’i, the Tahitian word for ‘good’ or ‘excellence,’ although the drink is usually spelled as two words. A slightly different interpretation is explained by Trader Vic’s, namely that ‘a guest exclaimed, ‘Mai Tai Roa Ae!’ or, ‘Out of this world!,’ when originally served this drink.” 

    Wikipedia continues, “Most current recipes for Mai Tais are based on Trader Vic’s 1944 recipe and include rum, lime juice, orgeat syrup and orange liqueur (typically orange curaçao). Trader Vic’s contends that an early version also had rock candy. Various books from Victor Bergeron described using rum from Jamaica as well as from Martinique, which in modern usage is a Rhum Agricole. But Martin and Rebecca Cate from San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove attest that the Martinique rums used by Bergeron in the 1950s were most certainly not agricole rums.” 

    Now synonymous with tiki culture, Mai Tais gained their popularity in the 1950s and have become fashionable again, especially in the Bay Area. So, where to go to enjoy them?

    Any mention of the Mai Tai drink has to begin where it all began: Trader Vic’s, now located on the marina in Emeryville (moved from its original Oakland location). Entering this homage to tiki culture is like stepping into a Polynesian portal from the past, with the added bonus of some of the Bay Area’s best views of San Francisco and the Bay.

    Trader Vic’s has an entire menu dedicated to the classic cocktail: everything from the original 1944 version to a Passion Tai to a Maui Tai. But truth be told, my personal favorite is the San Francisco Mai Tai, so called because it has a float of Bacardi 151 rum and was made famous by the bartenders at the now-closed San Francisco outpost. For those who may not remember, Trader Vic’s in San Francisco was formerly on Cosmo Place, the site of the current Le Colonial.

    It opened in the City in 1951, became the darling of San Francisco society (all vying to sit in the famed “Captain’s Cabin”) and was the “see and be seen” restaurant of its heyday. Trader Vic’s continued until 1996, when it closed its Tenderloin location. In 2004, a reincarnation of Trader Vic’s took over the old Stars restaurant on Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco’s Civic Center. But it never quite found its footing and closed permanently in late 2007. Luckily, the original is still with us.

    Here are some more great places to try a real Mai Tai in San Francisco:

    Palm House

    Half the fun at this lively Cow Hollow restaurant is sitting outside on a sunny day. The Palm House has one of the best sidewalk patios in the City. But venture inside, sit at the bar and talk with Beverage Director Fatima or Bartender JP and you’re in for a surprise: a variation on the Mai Tai that’s all their own. The Palm House uses Two Hands orgeat, Kraken spiced rum, a light rum and lime juice—and serves it up in a coconut shell. Order it with a side shot of dark rum just to gild the lily. The drink is topped with a tiny umbrella and their signature orchid. After a few sips, you’re halfway to Hawaii.

    Smuggler’s Cove

    This Hayes Valley mainstay reinvented tiki in a modern way. For their signature Mai Tais, they make their own orgeat, but follow the guidelines for Trader Vic’s famous 1944 recipe. The 3-story bar has a small waterfall and pond, bars on two levels and a private upstairs lounge. The establishment is a proud James Beard award winner and the knowledgeable owners have written one of the best books on tiki culture and drinks.

    Pagan Idol

    For pure fun, it’s hard to beat this Financial District watering hole. Complete with an erupting volcano, Pagan Idol is located at the corner of Bush and Kearny (entrance on Bush Street), once home to the “infamous” Tiki Bob’s Mainland Rendezvous. One thing I like about the Pagan Idol Mai Tai is that it has a hint of passion fruit, but it’s not overpowering. If you’re looking for a tropical getaway after work, this is the place to be. (Insider’s tip: Try and nab the private booths in the back, but you’ll have to arrive early.)

    Del Mar

    Only in San Francisco would you combine drinks with swings, but Del Mar does it with aplomb. Go early before the crowds and grab a seat at one of the tables surrounded by swings that, thankfully, are also secured to the floor. The bar’s back area is made for games of all stripes. While you sip your classic Mai Tai, you’ll understand why San Francisco Magazine deservedly named Del Mar “San Francisco’s best Tiki Bar (2018).”


    One of the city’s most inviting places to drink al fresco, Anina is smack-dab in the middle of hopping Hayes Valley. The outdoor area is perfect for your playful pooch, but I prefer sitting at the bar and chewing the fat with bartenders Sam or Carlos, who make you feel like you’re at a contemporary Cheers. The secret to their Mai Tai? A splash of Angostura bitters that adds just the right amount of herbaceous zing.

    Bar Agricole

    Arguably one of the city’s chic-est bars, Bar Agricole is a destination that defines artisan mixology. The bar and restaurant are named for a French Caribbean style of rum made from freshly squeezed sugar cane juice rather than molasses. Famous for their namesake Agricole Rhum drinks, Bar Agricole has a Mai Tai that is strong, refined and elegant. This spot is the perfect place to have a pre-show cocktail before venturing across the street to see a fabulous drag show at the Oasis SF.

    The Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar, Fairmont San Francisco

    One of San Francisco’s oldest and most entertaining tiki lounges, The Tonga Room belongs on everyone’s bucket list. The site of the hotel’s former indoor swimming pool, The Tonga Room offers up bite-size pupus (as well as full dinners) to accompany its own delicious spin on Trader Vic’s original Mai Tai recipe. All this while the evening’s entertainment floats out to the middle of the pool to serenade imbibers. Coupled with periodic “tropical rainstorms,” simulated thunder and lightning, it makes for a singular evening out on the town.

    Truth be told, I’m a purist when it comes to Mai Tais. Ever since the original cocktail debuted here in the Bay Area, concoctions of the drink have regrettably included adding in a multitude of fruit juices or the dreaded grenadine. Take my word for it: if the bartender mixes in a pinkish liquid—or worse yet, starts with a pre-made mix)—pull out Trader Vic’s original 1944 recipe and show them the ropes.











    Shake to mix and place in a rock glass. Garnish with lime and a sprig of mint.

    David Landis, aka “The Gay Gourmet,” is a foodie, a freelance writer and a PR executive. Follow him: @david_landis, email him at: or visit online at: