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Food & Drink

Beloved San Francisco tiki bar Trad’r Sam blinks back to life

A neon sign reads "Sam" on a city street in San Francisco at night.
The Richmond District’s Trad’r Sam, which may be the oldest tiki bar in America, has reopened, and its neon sign is being restored. | Source: Julie Zigoris/The Standard

Geary Boulevard’s Trad’r Sam poured its first mai tai in 1937—the same year the Golden Gate Bridge opened to traffic—making it America’s oldest tiki bar. The love runs as hot as a lava flow for this irreplaceable dive, so when the bar closed for renovations in September—overshadowed by a bitter family feud—regulars were concerned the 86-year-old, self-described “Polynesian paradise” might never reopen. 

But they needn’t have worried. 

Just like the neon sign hanging above its door, Trad’r Sam has blinked back to life. Three weeks ago, the bamboo-covered Dutch door swung back open to customers, with two bartenders who were on staff before the pandemic returning for the bar’s revival. Siblings John Munguia and Dorothy Riedel—who co-own the bar in a 50-50 partnership—have sparred over the bar’s operation. 

Four customer sit at a circular bar drinking cocktails and a bartender stands behind the bar in a tropical shirt.
Customers enjoy drinks at the tiki bar Trad'r Sam on Monday in San Francisco. | Source: Julie Zigoris/The Standard

But the beloved watering hole looks and smells better than ever. Gone are the somewhat cringe-inducing island names for the seating areas—tiki bars have come under scrutiny for their appropriation of Polynesian culture—but the physical bar top, the flooring, the blenders and the taps are all new.

“Before, the lightbulbs flickered for real, but now that flickering is cosmetic,” said longtime customer Edwin Galley, referring to the new fixtures that glow like tiki torches. 

Two customers sit at a round table inside a bar that has two other round tables show and a jukebox machine hanging from the wall.
The bamboo arches with island names were removed as part of Trad'r Sam's recent renovation. | Source: Julie Zigoris/The Standard

While only the “Sam” of that famous sign is lit right now, the “Trad’r” will soon glow as well, said Jim Rizzo, who is the owner of local company Neon Works and has been restoring the sign. The first word is trickier to resuscitate because its access panel is blocked by the plastic sign reading “Polynesian Drinks,” itself a historic artifact. 

The things that made Trad’r Sam beloved are still the same: the deep bench of regulars, the horseshoe-shaped bar that invites conversation, the multi-ingredient cocktails for under $10 and that inscrutable drink menu. 

Black and white photo of Geary Boulevard at 26th Avenue in San Francisco with signage that reads Trad'r Sam
In this circa-1950 photo, Trad'r Sam is seen on Geary Boulevard at 26th Avenue in San Francisco's Richmond District. | Source: Courtesy Jack Tillmany/Western Neighborhoods Project

The cocktail list describes the potions by their impacts rather than through their ingredients: The Pisco Punch will “smack you right in the head,” the Mickey Feather Stone will have you “plead insanity afterwards” and Tahitian Deep Purple “makes you see rainbows.” The menu ends up being another conversation starter since you have to ask the bartender about what exactly is in those high-octane island drinks. 

Trad’r Sam breaks the rules in glorious ways. It opens earlier on Mondays than it does on Fridays—the rare place you can have a lunchtime cocktail on the first day of the week—and any surplus from the blender is served to patrons in a sidecar cup, or what some bartenders call a “forehead kiss,” rather than tossing it down the drain. 

Bartender Becker Frederick Von Felsburg—who worked at the bar for eight years pre-Covid before returning for its reopening—knows the regulars by name as well as their drink orders: mai tais and Manhattans, beers or shots. He’s thrilled to be back behind the bar. 

“It’s like seeing a corpse on the side of the road every day, and all of a sudden it’s up and walking around again,” he said, as if the dive were the biblical Lazarus, or possibly the zombie that lends its name to the seven-ingredient drink of the same name. 

A picture of a neon sign reads Trad'r Sam, with only the "Sam" aglow with red neon.
Jim Rizzo's company Neon Works has been restoring the Trad'r Sam sign. | Source: Courtesy Jim Rizzo

Local John Healy lives two blocks away from Trad’r Sam and has been going to the bar for 30 years. 

“That’s my exercise,” Healy said. “It never gets too stale.”

Asked what keeps him coming back to the bar after that amount of time, his response was simple: alcohol. He eschews the tiki vibe—as many regulars do—and his drink is the comparatively non-tropical mix of vodka and cranberry known as a Cape Cod. 

“You can be born, work and die on Geary,” Healy said, noting the Kaiser Permanente hospital down the way. “It’s the boulevard of broken dreams.”