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August 25, 2008 at 11:59 AM

A final “aloha”: Trader Vic’s closes in Bellevue

Trader Vic’s has seen its day — again. The Lincoln Square restaurant closed after service Saturday — two and a half years after its much-anticipated opening. “I’d heard rumors they were going to be closing,” said a concierge at the adjacent Bellevue Westin late last night. Yet employees working at the hotel, just a mai tai splash from Trader Vic’s front door, were surprised to find the restaurant’s windows papered over on Sunday.

“It closed because it just didn’t make it,” said restaurant-consultant Larry Hamlin, one of about 25 local investors in the franchise — who’d hoped the Lincoln Square restaurant would bring back the paradise lost after Trader Vic’s at the Seattle Westin closed in 1991.

The Bellevue location proved less than golden, according to Hamlin. “All of the investors lost their money.” Managing-partner Paul Reder, owner of the Tap House Grill, “put in over a million and a half dollars and was the one feeding it during this period of losing money,” said Hamlin, citing a letter sent to investors late last week. “It was not successful, they were losing money every month and they determined it was best just to close.”

When word went out in 2006 that the iconic restaurant chain would open in Bellevue, Trader Vic’s-ionados –including Seattle’s celebrity auctioneer Sharon Friel (whose signature adornment is a gardenia — commemorating a love affair with Trader Vic’s that goes back to her sorority days) and Bellevue attorney Theresa Dowell (whose Leschi home is a tiki-lover’s treasure chest of Trader Vic’s memorabilia) were thrilled to hear that “TV’s” was coming back to the Seattle area. “I’m ecstatic! It’s a dream come true,” Dowell said at the time. She’d traveled as far as London, Taipei and Bangkok to eat crab rangoon and drink the Trader’s signature cocktails.

But as competition for diner’s dollars reached a crescendo in Bellevue and elsewhere, stratospheric prices –among other disappointments — have kept some hard-core fans from returning to the Lincoln Square restaurant.

Tom Robinson has eaten at Trader Vic’s’ the world-over for nearly 50 years, and attended the gala preview-dinner in Bellevue with his wife, Barb. But they’ve made very few treks from their home in Edmonds since then. “It’s not a destination anymore and I don’t think the franchises are going to do very well. They’ve cheapened it,” said Robinson, whose house, like Dowell’s, is decorated with Trader Vic’s memorabilia. “I thought it wouldn’t last, but I didn’t think it would close this fast,” Robinson said after hearing the news of the closure. “We were there just a few weeks ago for the first time in a year and a half.” Lunch service, he said, was abominable — despite a near-empty dining room.

Robinson has been less enchanted with the place for many reasons, including a downslide in both food and service. As for drinks? His favorites are now made with “Trader Vic’s”-brand rum rather than the orignal Meyer’s. These are problems that extend well beyond Bellevue, he said. While dining at the London Trader Vic’s, Robinson heard that the owner was in the house and complained about the “cheapening” of the cocktails to the manager — asking him to pass the word on to his higher-up. “I told him they should maintain the Trader Vic’s tradition and said, if it goes on like this, the chain won’t survive.” Back in the day, Robinson says, they’d have apologized and comped his drink. Instead, “Every time the owner walked through the bar, he’d look my way, and if looks could kill I’d be dead now.”

Charity auctioneer Sharon Friel was also surprised to hear about the closure. “This is stunning,” she said this morning. Especially since she’d just called Trader Vic’s on Friday, hoping to have them set aside some bottles of mai tai-mix to serve at a Hawaiian themed party she held at her home yesterday. “They told me they were out,” she said. Ditto for the little salt-and-pepper menehune she’d hope to buy as party favors. “But no one said anything about closing.”

Friel admits that she and her husband Dick haven’t been to Trader Vic’s in 18 months, and senses that the closure is “a sign of the times.” Not just the financial downturn, she says, but a generational change. “It was my generation that has all these memories,” says the former sorority-sister who recalls Trader Vic’s original Seattle location as the height of luxury back in the early ’60s. “But even I didn’t support it.”

For patrons who did, the closure has hit hard. “Our group has met in the lounge every Sunday for Happy Hour since the doors opened just over two years ago,” wrote Michael Merry in an email sent to the Seattle Times — after he’d heard rumors of the closure. “We call it our `church.’ Sometimes it’s two of us, sometimes it’s close to 20. We think it is a great way to end one week and prepare for another.” Merry will miss “the best smoked ribs and mai tais I have ever tasted” — and especially, the Trader Vic’s staff. “They’re like our family, and it will be hard to see them leave.”


Posted by Patrick

3:02 PM, Aug 25, 2008

It’s a shame, but it was a terribly overpriced restaurant with mediocre food and terrible service. It reminds me of Stars when Pacific Place first opened. They made a “splash” when they opened, but never had the quality or service to back it up. I recently ate at TV in Las Vegas. It was also terrible and mostly empty inside.

Posted by mai tai love

3:41 PM, Aug 25, 2008

I think the “new” Trader Vic’s would have survived if it had had what the old one did, good food, good drinks. We went twice, it was disappointing both times, but the prices seemed high for what you got, definately where the drinks were concerned. The bar had a great atmosphere, the dining areas a little less so, but it was really just as some others have said, all around cheapening.

Posted by Mikey

3:55 PM, Aug 25, 2008

I never got past the Happy Hour menu and the San Francisco Mai Tais, so I can’t speak for the rest of the offerings. All I know is that I could eat and drink my fill there every Sunday for around $45. No other place in town had the same tasty offerings…and NOBODY had Mai Tai Prawns!

I also never experienced “terrible service” that was indicated by the earlier post. The staff was always happy to see our group, and drinks were always on the table within two minutes of us walking in the door.

I’m sure that their location was a big contributor to their demise as well. A huge monthly lease and less than ideal location, with early mismanagement of the establishment were certainly other factors.

I do hold out hope that another group of investors may consider opening another Trader Vic’s franchise in the area, albeit in a less costly, smaller, and more visible location. For now, I guess I’m saving up my money for trips to the next closest location, in Emeryville, CA. I gotta have my San Fran Mai Tais!

Posted by Beach comber

4:26 PM, Aug 25, 2008

The prices were high, the food only average. I blew most of my paycheck in the old Trader Vics in the Westin back in the days. This time around I went once and swore I’d never go back. Where were my clay ovens? My pressed duck? My poo-poo plater?

I’d rather eat at PF Chang’s. So I guess if I hadn’t seen this posting I wouldn’t have known that they were gone “again.”

Posted by Thomas

8:11 PM, Aug 25, 2008

It is sad that Vic’s is gone but I have a hard time feeling sorry for them when every other restaurant in Bellevue seems to be doing fine. What do you expect from absentee management, nonsensical financial exec and too many fundamental mistakes out the gate to mention? I am with Mikey, saving my money and heading to the Beverly Hills Vic’s.

Posted by Sean

8:13 PM, Aug 25, 2008

On top of the food and drink quality issues (which I heard from enough people to make me shy away), I think the location itself wasn’t very good. I go to Bellevue a fair amount, and I almost never even remembered it was there. It wasn’t very visible from the street, and a bunch of other restaurants in that area are. It was just too hidden.

Posted by DC

9:39 PM, Aug 25, 2008

I turned 18 in the Trader Vic’s in the basement of the Benson Hotel in Portland. My date’s Grandmother chaperoned and said “It’s your day, order whatever you want. I ordered the Prawns cooked tableside. A Tuxedo clad Captain cooked my dinner right there and I was so impressed! I knew I had to work in the restaurant business after that and did for 30 years. The bill came and the prawns were $9.95 and her grandmom hit the floor. “I didn’t mean order that!!!” she cried. On my trips to the Napa Valley I always try to stop at the Trader Vic’s on the Bay on the way back to the airport for a Mai Tai and a memory. I’ll Miss Trader Vic’s here for sure.

Dave Coyle, Former Sommelier Metropolitan Grill

Posted by BenSeattle

10:27 PM, Aug 25, 2008

While I live in Kirkland and often frequent the Bellevue Square neighborhood, even knowing that Trader Vic’s had opened wasn’t enough to entice me inside. A decor that only your grandma could love and prices that basically said, “This is a hold-up…. pay if you dare, sucker” were enough to turn me elsewhere.

I have no sympathy for operators who think that a familar name, cheesy menu and prices designed only to pad investors pocket will actually create a new clientel. The head-in-the-sand numbskulls who lost a bundle on this fiasco are only reaping what they sowed.

Posted by B.D.

6:14 AM, Aug 26, 2008

I enjoyed Trader Vic’s lounge. The Happy Hour prices brought decent appetizers and drinks at affordable prices. Their dining room however I thought was over priced and in the 3 times I ate there I found that the service was spotty.

Now, having said that I think that the thing that really doomed it was location. No easily spotted sign. No access from within Lincoln Square itself. Patrons had to walk around the outside of Lincoln Square of cross over in front of cabs and other cars from the hotel. The elevators either dropped you off inside Lincoln Square to walk around or inside the hotel for the crossing. Not good.

Staff was told of the closing on Thursday night. I found out Friday when my partner called me and had me meet her in the lounge Friday. They were a bit miffed. On the other paw, drinks were stronger and free fancy cups were easily had if you knew how to be nice to your waiter. 😉

Posted by Nancy Leson

6:59 AM, Aug 26, 2008

Ah, DC! Great to hear from you on the blog. And also from the rest of you — who clearly have opinions regarding Trader Vic’s: many of which echo the sentiments of my early review:

Posted by Rich

11:00 AM, Aug 26, 2008

My wife and I suspected this was coming after visiting the bar several months ago. A new head chef had totally cheapened the menu (probably didn’t know how to cook much of the traditional fare), eliminated the best of the appetizers (how idiotic to eliminate cheese bings!), and the drinks were substandard. While I’m not old enough to be considered a TV “old fogey” I really missed the ambience of Henry greeting you at the door when TV was in the Westin. While disappointed that the Bellevue TV missed that boat (as well as much of the old menu favs) it’s hard to be that sad. As mentioned by other posts, service was spotty and a follow up to our posted complaint about the new menu was never answered when sent to the web site. The ownership structure reminded me of the original Mariners ownership (except they were missing Danny Kaye) so again, the end result isn’t surprising. Worldwide TV does seem to suffer from a bit of a creativity deficit but there’s still a place for a restaurant like it in our neck of the woods (just nowhere near Lincoln Square where the Bellevue cops hang out, chasing presumed seatbelt violators while the rest of the city gets robbed). Sad to say that Pearl will suffer the same fate. Oh well, see ya in California TV fans!

Posted by George

3:19 PM, Aug 26, 2008

Who didn’t see this coming?! I’m “only” 35 years old but have been dining at TV’s for over 30 years and drinking there well in excess 14 of them! I’ve been to about a dozen TVs including all three Bay Area locations, Tokyo, London and Chicago (when it was open), Beverly Hills (ditto), Manhattan (ditto), and Portland (ditto) and *sigh* Bellevue (*sigh* ditto). The Trader has been a family tradition for over 50 years and I’ve turned many people on to the IDEA (sadly not the execution) of Trader Vic’s (including my wife of nearly 10 years — my 4 years old son and 1 year old daughter were well on their way to becoming lifers). Sadly, it’s not correct to say that “changing times” brought the restaurant to its knees. The blame can be laid squarely at the feet of management who simply gave up trying many years ago (not just the Bellevue management). The drinks became horrible (missing a gardenia here, a swizzle stick there, plenty of crushed ice, oh, and the right mix of ingredients) and the food was often unappetizing. I tended to be more forgiving than others (having gone about 6 times in the two years) but knew in the back of my mind that it was failing. What the Trader mastered in the 50s and 60s, they could have again. People WANT excellent drinks and excellent but not snobby food. They WON’T, however, allow the Trader to rest on it’s laurels! What a sad waste of a truly unique franchise… Oh, and Bellevue?! Why enter the land of P.F. Chang’s and other soulless chains when Seattle has a much more sophisticated (albeit less wealthy) population?

Posted by Seattle_Lady

7:46 AM, Aug 27, 2008

I’m disappointed to see that Trader Vic’s closed. I have to admit the food was mediocre but the drinks were always good and the staff was always friendly to me. Some of the best serivce I ever received in Bellevue was there.

I have to agree I think their down fall was they weren’t out there where everyone could see them. I think the investors relied way too much on word of mouth and memories of the old one in Seattle to draw in customers.

On the same token knowing that one of the investors is the owner of the Tap House Grill had his hand in Trader Vic’s kind of sealed the fate for Trader Vic’s. Tap House Grill is awful. The service is lousy at best. The food is horrid. The only thing going for that place is it has approximately 100 beers on tap. I say approximately because the last time I dined there was my 30th birthday and practically all the food or drinks we requested they were out of. The hostess and trying to get reservations was a nightmare. Given his track record I would say the only thing Paul Reder is after is the cash that can be made from owning a restuarant.

Posted by CHAWK

9:16 AM, Aug 27, 2008

Long Live the Menehune

Posted by Eastsider

11:09 AM, Aug 27, 2008

I used to work at Trader Vic’s and had many friends still working there… From my understanding, Trader Vic’s was not turning any sort of profit until they brought in new management in early 2007. New management was able to make some big changes; the food and drink quality were more consistent and the staff was happier, guests and employees could really feel the positive changes. Finally, (largely due to the new management), TV’s made a profit during the 2007 holiday season. But the profit they made during the holidays did not make up for the slow Summers (who wants to go eat in a “dungeon” when it’s sunny outside?). The owner posted the restaurant for sale and there were no takers.

From a business standpoint, the biggest downfalls of TV’s were corporate TV’s, the investors, those darn Passports (also called Prime cards), and obviously the location. Corp TV’s sells everything to the franchises at ridiculous prices. Those tiki salt and pepper shakers, we sold them at the same price we buy them from corp: $20. Those fancy plates on the tables: $70 each. The franchises are required to use the overpriced TV rums and drink mixes. I could easily go on and on about corp TV’s. As for many of the investors, they would constantly come in on our busy nights without reservations, demand the best seat in the house, and spend their free gift cards. Seems to me that if I was investing into a business, I would not want to p-off the paying guests by making their reservations late and taking the “good” seats. The only time we ever saw the owner was when problems arose or management changed. Guests with a Passport could get two entrees for the price of one; I don’t understand how TV’s was making any money off of those. And the last time I was in Hawaii, I don’t remember it being dark and lumey?! So, why was the restaurant so depressing? If they had made the atmosphere a little brighter and laid back, maybe people would have had different impressions. All in all, there were many factors that doomed TV’s, it was bound to happen sooner than later.

The main thing that makes me angry about the closing, is that the employees AND the management were not officially informed of the closing until Saturday, the day TV’s closed. The rumors began on Thursday, but nothing was confirmed. I can’t believe that even the GM, who put his sweat and blood into trying to make TV’s succeed, was not even given a two-week courtesy notice! I spoke with the CFO and an investor on the night of the closing, they said the closing was decided upon/ finalized on Friday in a meeting. So, thanks to TV’s, our tax money will be paying for the employee’s unemployment checks over the next few weeks while they look for new jobs.

btw…”Thomas”- Don’t bother saving your money to go to the Beverly Hills Trader Vic’s, they closed down in April of 07.

Posted by Mikey

11:30 AM, Aug 27, 2008

I keep seeing “exhorbitant prices” mentioned.

People…for one thing, you ARE in Bellevue. What do you expect? Also, take a look at Trader Vic’s main web site, and check out the pricing at their other locations around the country. Talk about astronomical prices (Atlanta)! Even the flagship store in Emeryville has much higher prices than Bellevue.

By comparison, I think the Bellevue location was priced accordingly, given the market, etc.

As far as the pricing goes, I could get out of there, having one of every item on the Happy Hour menu ($39 total) and a few drinks to go with it, for right around $50. I aways wanted to order one of everything, but never got around to it. Still, the usual bill at the end of the day was right around the $40 to $50 range. Not too bad for an afternoon of eating and drinking, in my book.

I never dined in the restaurant, as I had no need for a big meal., so I can’t comment on the food there, but the Happy Hour menu was sufficient for my needs.

The Mai Tai Prawns were Heaven on Earth, and will be sorely missed! The Vietnamese Summer Rolls were quite tasty, the Sesame Chicken was decent (especially when served without the sesame seeds, and smothered in peanut sauce) And, of course, the ribs….they were always “fall off the bone” delicious!

My thanks to the GM, Michel, for everything he did in his time there. It’s a shame he couldn’t get it turned around fast enough to satisfy the investors.

My stomach will now have to find some other goodies to fill it!

Posted by Soupwhistle

3:56 PM, Aug 28, 2008

I ate lunch at Trader Vic’s on Saturday and had a great meal. A fine steak. Nothing too outrageous I know, but it was so good. I’m just as snooty as the next guy and was happily surprised by my meal. My mai tai was good, too. So, I guess we were the last ones to enjoy our meal there. Too bad. Are we all too cool for “Polynesian” dining now? Too bad it didn’t work. I think everyone failed to get the irony.

Posted by janedoey

1:58 AM, Sep 01, 2008

Finally! I must say that they weren’t ALL THAT! I really was disappointed with the food. The high prices and the quality, portions…watered down drinks! They got their chance, they blew it!

Posted by Roberto Rodriguez

11:52 PM, Sep 08, 2008

That’s not fair. I was about to go to Trader Vic’s in Bellevue this Friday and found out it has closed its door last month…

I’m deaf and a regular at TV, the service was excellent. The employees TV were very friendly and always checking on me to make sure I’m happy with everything. I thought the manager was cool and often say hello whenever I’m at TV. Now where’s best place to go for drinks? Right now I’m in mood for a couple of Mai Tai or maybe Booker’s Manhattan. But that wouldn’t be the same without TV.

Best wishes for everyone who worked at TV. Hope they find other job soon.

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