It was a Saturday night, and I was on my own. Where to dine? How about a place my girlfriend wouldn’t care for. Like Hawaiian Tropic Zone.
There isn’t much Hawaiian in Hawaiian Tropic Zone, except that the servers are all in bikinis. Twice nightly (6:30 p.m., 8:30 p.m.), they participate in mandatory beauty contests, with the restaurant’s patrons voting on the outcome. There’s a huge platform above the bar (see photo) where the girls strut their stuff. The winning server gets $100. Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, and most of the girls were in green bikinis.
When HTZ first opened, the local serving staff was supplemented with imports from nationwide beauty contests, who were brought to New York and boarded rent-free in “dorms.” None of those interlopers seemed to be on duty last night. My server, who’s from Buffalo, said she has worked at the restaurant since it opened last September. I thought she was easily the best-looking woman there, but she doesn’t have much enthusiasm for the nightly beauty pageants. “They make us do it,” she said. And then shrugged her shoulders.
When I got home, I suddenly realized that I’d seen her photo before. A little bit of googling, and I found it: she was the one featured in a Grub Street post about four months ago. What’s it like working in a bikini every day? “The most common issue is men asking myself and other waitresses if their boobs are real, which puts you in an uncomfortable situation. Mine are, but a lot of the other girls’ aren’t!”
As far as the food goes, there wouldn’t be much to write about, except that a serious chef, David Burke, is in charge of the cuisine. Like a few other celebrity chefs, Burke has spread himself a little thin lately. His flagship restaurant, davidburke & donatella, is still tough to get into, but my last visit there was disappointing. Since DB&D, Burke has expanded to Bloomingdale’s, a Chicago steakhouse, and now the Times Square Hawaiian Tropic Zone. A clone of the Hawaiian Tropic Zone and another David Burke restaurant are announced for Las Vegas.
BBQ Chicken Spring Rolls (left); Coriander Crusted Tuna (right)
The menu seems to be a mongrel, with no obvious theme that I can make out. BBQ Chicken Spring Rolls ($13) were lumpy and dull, but thanks to the accompanying barbecue sauce, were at least passable. Coriander Crusted Tuna ($32) was far more successful. The various accompaniments—vermicelli, peppers, scallions, napa cabbage, wasabi vinaigrette—seemed a lot more than were wanted, or needed.
The server recommended the Bikini Punch ($12), made with Bacardi White Rum, Cruzan Coconut Rum, lime juice, passion fruit juice, pineapple syrup, orange juice. It was a great suggestion, and I had two of those. Cocktails at HTZ are a generous size, so that was all I needed.
The décor at HTZ is glitzy and over-done. The clientele aren’t all men; to my surprise, I saw plenty of women dining there. There were tons of empty tables at 8:30 on a Saturday night, but my server said it is usually busier. It was St. Patrick’s Day. She speculated, “Maybe they’re all at the pub.” She wasn’t just a pretty face: service was excellent.
The mainstream critics have pretty much ignored Hawaiian Tropic Zone, except for Bob Lape of Crain’s New York Business, who awarded a rather generous two stars (PDF) in February. I find that Lape is usually about a star higher than all of the other critics, but I suspect HTZ wouldn’t even get one star from Bruni or Platt.
My visit coincided with one of the nightly beauty contests. The emcee said that the result would be tabulated in a half-hour or so, but when I left 45 minutes later, there was still no announcement. There’s also a nightly drawing, with Dinner for Two as the prize. I was the winner, so it looks like I’ll be coming back at least one more time.
Hawaiian Tropic Zone (729 Seventh Avenue at 49th Street, Theater District)