OK, let’s get this out of the way: Trader Vic’s is awful. Terrible food served in a rudderless, soulless venue for prices that should make you weep bitter tears of despair. Pound-for-pound it must rate among the worst restaurants in London, or the world. You’re not going to read anything nice here: this is a proper whinge about a truly, bewilderingly bad place.
I wonder who was smoking how much of what when they stumbled upon the idea of Trader Vic’s. Apparently in the 60s it was a destination restaurant. Charlie Chaplin used to eat there and it gets a mention in a Warren Zevon song. It recently underwent a big refurbishment, which I imagine cost an eye-watering sum of money: it was about as well spent as an investment in Bernard Madoff’s latest venture.
It’s Polynesian themed, though the food itself comes from everywhere and nowhere; a sort of vague globetrotting mulch. It looks like Mahiki with a migraine. Every surface is carved and zig-zagged and etched and swirled. The walls are cluttered with the kind of tat you might find in a low-rent wholesaler; the exact wooden rainmaker I bought for £3.99 from a shop on Glasgow’s Byres Road in 2001 takes pride of place. Breaking up the carved heads and bamboo pillars are paintings of the European ships that would sail in and ravage the indigenous Polynesian populations with disease and sell them into slavery. Nice one, yeah, I’ll have a cocktail while I mull that over, cheers.
Our first table was nestled under some kind of canoe; we didn’t stay there long. I never ask to be moved in a restaurant – it stems from my childhood, when my father would ask to move several times during a meal, for no reason at all; a feeling in his bones or something in the air. But the guy at the next table was so impressively obnoxious we had no choice. We ended up next to a leery stag-do in full fancy dress (this was at Hallowe’en). I resisted the urge to move back.
To start, we ordered three dishes from the “tidbits” menu. The deep fried prawns were fine but the “Chinese mustard” and “spicy tomato” dips tasted exactly like Colman’s mustard and brown sauce. The beef cho cho was appalling; inedible, stringy grey strips of meat that concertinaed off the skewer onto my lap. It outshone the spicy tuna tartare, though – this culinary abomination is served on nori chips, which were so greasy they had assumed the texture of Kevlar. The tartare was loaded with so much chilli it could have been anything; goldfish or ferret or moon rock or the physical embodiment of disappointment.
Virtually nothing left its plate, and the plates didn’t leave the table for a good 20 minutes. In fact, clearing tables is not high on the priority list at Trader Vic’s: crockery and leftovers lay strewn across the restaurant like elephant graveyards of meals long deceased.
The main courses were no respite. The “volcano shrimp” was every bit as bad as it sounds: supermarket-grade prawns that have been water-boarded in sweet chilli sauce – the kind of thing you might make yourself if you were drunk. It tasted empty and sad, like a closed fairground, or your parents getting divorced.
The miso-glazed cod was the pick of the bunch, in the way Faye Tozer might be your favourite member of Steps. The fish was actually well cooked but it arrived floating in a shallow, murky swamp of soy broth that brought to mind the polluted forest in The Animals of Farthing Wood. It costs £28. Every dish was lazy and poorly conceived, as if the end result of someone actually eating the stuff wasn’t a part of the planning process.
I ordered dessert but half an hour later it still hadn’t arrived. I gave up. Enough is enough. Trader Vic’s is an anti-restaurant – it’s a lacklustre tourist attraction for people who hate food, and themselves; somewhere you might think was fun, if you’ve never been for a meal, or seen someone on the telly eat one.
To round it off, as if trained to deliver the pièce de résistance, a mouse emerged from under a table to complete a victory lap of the restaurant. I pointed this out to the waitress, who looked forlorn.
“Yes, we’re in the basement,” she said. “It’s not too bad though.”
I felt sorry for her. I felt sorry for myself. I feel sorry for you for having read this.
First published in City A.M.