Rum and Rhythm

The tiki ambiance and stiff cocktails are popular draws for the Fairmont Hotel's iconic Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar — but the venue's live music has an appeal all its own

Customers enjoy the ambiance at the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar in San Francisco.
WALLY SKALIJ/GETTY IMAGES

If C.J. Simbre’s life had taken a different turn, he might be a United States Customs agent stationed at San Francisco International Airport. But a twist of fate — falling in love, really — landed him a gig as the bandleader for The Island Groove, the longtime official house band of the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar in the basement of San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel.

Instead of a badge, Simbre sports a straw fedora. Instead of stamping passports, he belts Motown classics on a floating bandstand.

For more than 70 years, the Tonga Room has been one of the nation’s most iconic tiki bars. In fact, Anthony Bourdain, the late chef, author and television host, famously said of it, “If you have no love in your heart for this place, you are a sick, twisted lonely fuck with too many cats.”

The Tonga Room opened in 1945 when the Fairmont’s swimming pool was converted into a restaurant and bar. The space features a “lagoon” surrounded by dining tables, a bar and a dance floor made from an actual former lumber schooner. The decor is decidedly Polynesian, with faux lava rocks, twinkling lights and lots of palm leaves.

The over-the-top tropical ambiance and the stiff rum cocktails are big draws for legions of tourists and locals, but Simbre’s band has a pull of its own. The Tonga Room features a floating grass-hut bandstand, which travels to and from the center of the lagoon, accompanied by pre-recorded sounds of rain and thunder.

Simbre has been performing with The Island Groove for 11 years. His father-in-law, Dean Revelo, has been a part of the Tonga Room band for more than two decades, starting with a band called Mirage. When management decided that it was time to switch up the house musicians, they asked Revelo to form a new band. He roped in his musical son-in-law and The Island Groove was born.

“If I’d never met my wife at a Tahitian dance class, I wouldn’t be here,” Simbre says. Simbre, who had his sights set on being a Customs agent or some other law enforcement job, jumped at the career change when Revelocalled.

The 41-year-old father of four makes the one-hour commute from his home in American Canyon to the Fairmont on Nob Hill four nights a week. In addition to playing keyboards and singing with The Island Groove, he manages the band — which requires Simbre to keep a roster of available performers ready to fill in. Each night, the band consists of three or four musicians playing guitar, drums and keyboards.

“We’re all accomplished musicians,” Simbre says about The Island Groove’s lineup. Unlike Simbre, his fellow bandmates have day jobs. “One does auto loans, one is an IT guy,” he says. “Our guitar player is an electrician for the South San Francisco Unified School District.” Revelo still plays drums and sings with the band.

The Island Groove plays Wednesday through Sunday nights. They perform several 45-minute sets consisting of everything from Frank Sinatra classics to modern-day pop hits, much like a Hawaiian-shirt-clad wedding band.

How does Simbre pick the nightly set list? “I read the room,” he says. “We have a song list of 200 songs that, over the years, we’ve dwindled down so we know what works.”

If attendance appears skewed toward older patrons, Simbre will start with a cha-cha or a waltz. If the crowd seems younger, The Island Groove will feature more modern hits, like a Bruno Mars song. Simbre’s goal is to create a party atmosphere — although in his 11 years, he’s learned there’s such a thing as too much of a party atmosphere.

“We were docked for about three months because these two females jumped in the pool and swam over to us and actually put their feet on the motor and broke it,” Simbre says.

As it happens, patrons jumping into the Tonga Room’s lagoon is an all-too common occurrence, and it carries an automatic $500 charge. For safety reasons, the band is required to stop playing and dock the boat when someone cannonballs into the water. “We had an entire wedding party jump in once,” Simbre says.

The Island Groove performers are not Fairmont Hotel employees but rather hired as subcontractors through a booking agent. Simbre is all too aware that at any moment, management could decide to make another switch and bring in some new blood. But for now, he plans to perform on his remote-controlled floating bandstand for as long as he can.

“As long as they’ll have me, it’s a great opportunity,” Simbre says. “It’s my escape.”

Keep reading: Being a part of the Dodgers’ was a boyhood dream for lifelong fan Dieter Ruehle. Now it’s come true — as the seventh organist in the history of the franchise.

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