Oasis on the Eastside

Trader Vic's returns—to Bellevue, but Bellevue needs it more than we do.

"Where is it?" asked my friend as we turned off 405 onto Northeast Eighth westbound. "I don't know exactly," I said, "but the street address puts it in that knot of new buildings north of old downtown." "They seem to get uglier every year," she remarked. "Look at that monster dead ahead." She was not overstating the case. A great, gray monolith dimly reflecting the evening sky lay athwart our path, exuding cold menace, like a House of Correction out of 1984. We turned left, exposing an even more threatening aspect of the facade and a tiny sign high up the blank and featureless wall. Westin, it read. "I seem to recall it's in the Westin," I said, heart contracting. "Oh, no," she moaned. "You mean this is where we're going?" Sure enough, transfixed, we saw a great gaping concrete maw yawning on our left, like the loading dock of a concrete Avernus. Dimly in its depth we discerned what could only be a desolation of hotel entrance and, across the dismal void, a faint sign reading "Trader Vic's." A mere five minutes' worth of looping down through gray caverns to find a parking space and another five groping through the labyrinth for egress to the light found us almost at our goal, flanked by a contorted metal thing more resembling an abandoned android than a Tahitian tiki. Trembling with disanticipation, we moved through the door and found ourselves in . . . Honolulu, circa 1950? Vic Bergeron became wealthy and famous providing cautious midcentury Americans a cheesy but entertaining taste of the tropics. (Seattle's first Trader Vic's opened in the downtown Westin in 1949, and closed in 1991.) A master of marketing and pleasing the public, it's hard to imagine what Bergeron would say if confronted with the nightmarish setting the hotel's architects have contrived for this 21st iteration of the legendary establishment that bears his name. I think in time he would become reconciled, realizing that the corporate mission has changed. Americans can visit Papeete and Bora Bora on their own now; what the hapless citizens of soulless suburbia now need, these wretches for whom the strip mall and underground car park are the setting of daily life, is solace, sanctuary, a place to pretend that their world's not a drably, nay, wrenchingly ugly place, and getting uglier with every passing year. Trader Vic's Bellevue provides such sanctuary, in the heart of the monolith itself. The interior is warm, full of muted inviting tones of bronze and rust and dark polished wood. The servers practically glow with good humor and eagerness to please. The ambient music, while not exactly period, emanates the gentle cheery note of a more innocent era. Likewise the menu. Large, hefty, with engagingly tacky illustrations, if offers the best of all possible options. Yes, you can, if you wish, wallow in memory, ordering a Trader Vic's special salad featuring hearts of palm and drenched in "Javanese" dressing ($10) or the bongo bongo soup ($7), cream of spinach laced with oysters. You can indulge in a succulent pork chop Hawaiian ($33)— certified Berkshire, whatever that means—accented with Maui onion marmalade, or mahi mahi steak ($24) in a beurre blanc sauce flavored with macadamia nuts. Up the Polynesian quotient with one of Vic's notorious cocktails. He claimed the mai tai as his own invention. But should you choose to eschew the faux-macromicromelanesian approach, TV's more than ready for you. There's a gorgeous appetizer offering little mounds of chopped and seasoned scallops, tuna, and salmon accompanied by not quite enough crispy taro chips ($12 for a choice of two, $18 for all three); there are succulent butterflied and grilled prawns, panko-dusted and demanding to be dipped in spicy sauce ($16). We enjoyed our entrées of veal medallions in a rich morel sauce ($36) and rack of lamb ($42) with curried noodles, although one does not usually think "peanut sauce" when ordering lamb. You may have been ogling a bit at those prices. We did, too, until realizing that they are part of the presentation. Trader Vic's today is multinational, with as many outlets in the Persian Gulf as in the U.S. It is a certified Unique Experience, and nobody minds paying a premium for an Experience, especially in Abu Dhabi. Vic's excels at after-dinner comfort foods like Sargasso rum ice cream with praline sauce and warm chocolate torte with macadamia nut ice cream, and gooey after-dinner drinks like Pink Clouds (crème de noyau and crème de cacao, $7) and Black Stripes (spiced rum and "honey-crushed cherries," $7) abound. Understandably, even if you don't usually indulge in such potions, you may need the extra boost in blood sugar to help sustain you on the trek back through concrete hell to your car and home. rdowney@seattleweekly.com

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