The curious crossroads of Next Thai and Trader Vic's

July 7, 2011

The first time I met Grant Achatz was back in 2004 when I walked into his kitchen, then Trio in Evanston. I’d emailed him from Paris where I’d just finished a stage, asking if I could do the same there. He’d said yes. Months later I opened a whitewashed creaky screen door to find him working silently, alone in a space most kindly described as airy but vintage. Backlit by early spring’s morning sun, dressed in chef’s whites, he turned slightly. I rushed forward to introduce myself, shake his hand, and thank him. He put his knife down, shook my hand deliberately, quietly told me where I could find an apron, then turned back to his work.

I’ve seen Grant a few times since. His handshake's warmer, speak volumes.

I never met Victor Bergeron, the Vic of Trader Vic’s, but I imagine he was a very different man, if the Palmer House restaurant was any indication - which often it's not. I remember it as deep, dark, dimly lit by faux tiki torches, but just enough to find your Mai Tai and pupu platter. His 1984 San Francisco Chronicle obituary quoted him as once saying that in the early days he “sang and even let customers stick an ice pick in my wooden leg.”

I’ve been to a few Trader Vic’s around the world. Two in Chicago if you count the one in the Palmer House and the last one on State near Oak separately. I do.

Today, literally this afternoon, the hottest news in the foodie world is that tickets go on sale for the next iteration of Next Restaurant, Achatz’s newest restaurant that changes its menu completely every few months. Currently it’s Paris 1906. Soon, as detailed in Janet Fuller’s post in the Sun-Times yesterday, it will be a tour of Thailand.

Yesterday Phil Vittel at the Tribune reported that Trader Vic’s Chicago has closed, but he’s not yet been able to confirm. Rob Christopher reported the story last week on Chicagoist.

You’ll see in the comments on both stories complaints that Trader Vic’s was ripped out of the Palmer House. That the new location was hard to find. That the food, drink, and service were just no good. But really there’s not a lot of hue and cry over the loss.

The last Trader Vic’s space was in fact the home of the legendary Arnie’s. As in Arnie Morton. As in the father of Morton’s. As in the godfather of the Playboy Club.

The Playboy Clubs, where women dressed as surreal bunnies. I've heard a few stories from former regulars. They never mentioned the food or drink.

Next Thai. Trader Vic’s. Two restaurants opened by two men who couldn’t seem more different. One a tour that transports you to his Thailand. The other that transported you to his Polynesia. Both fully immersive escapist experiences to the extreme. One heralded as the future. The other forgotten to the past - but not by all.