By Kevin Nelson
Some time ago I was having a glass of pinot and a pizza at the bar of Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville, and I asked the bartender what Coppola himself liked to drink. Coppola, the well-known filmmaker, owns the place.
The bartender grabbed a menu and pointed to the top where a box with a picture answered my question. His “favorite tropical drink,” it said, is “Navy Grog” and its ingredients are “fresh lime juice, grapefruit, soda, honey, Puerto Rican rum, dark Jamaican rum, Demerara rum, Angostura bitters, crushed ice cone.” No details on the proportions.
The drink, it said, was created by a Dr. Bamboo who served it at Luau, a Beverly Hills Polynesian restaurant where Coppola liked to hang in the late 1960s and early ‘70s when he was making The Godfather and other landmarks in the history of American cinema. This piece of information piqued my curiosity so I went online to see what I could learn about Luau, which closed many years ago. (Another Polynesian restaurant bearing its name now operates in a different Los Angeles location.) In its post World War II-prime Luau was like Trader Vic’s (also gone to restaurant heaven), which served tropical food and drinks in settings designed to evoke Elvis’s Waikiki in Blue Hawaii or Marlon Brando’s Tahiti in Mutiny and the Bounty. Bamboo and coconut trees, tropical plants, decorative volcanic rocks, bananas, Tiki carvings and of course, rum drinks like Coppola’s Navy Grog.
The Luau was owned by a much beloved Los Angeles restaurateur named Steve Crane, who referred to himself as “Stefooma, High-Talking Chief.” Or so he wrote in his welcoming letter on the menu. I don’t know what the food tasted like at the Luau, but no matter what it must have been a kick to see Stefooma and the mysterious Dr. Bamboo in action. Stefooma has, sadly, passed on, and I have no idea about Dr. Bamboo. You can, however, see the Luau’s 1953 menu online, thanks to the Los Angeles Public Library which has developed a marvelous database of hundreds of menus from old LA restaurants, as well as steamships, airlines and banquets, even from other cities. This is a public treasure. There is a browse-worthy collection of menus and images from Bob Cobb’s famous Brown Derby, the Ambassador Hotel, Cocoanut Grove and other LA night spots of yore.
While looking over Luau’s menu I did not see a Navy Grog; however I did find a Luau Grog. “Eight separate ingredients go into the making of this one,” reads the cocktail menu. “Not a weak drink nor yet a lusty one. You might say it’s mellow. We do know that it has authority.”
A lusty yet mellow drink with authority. Sounds good to me. Even better was the price back then: $1.50. At those prices my guess is that Coppola probably had more than one.
By the way, the Sonoma County winery is worth a trip. Full of movie memorabilia related to Coppola’s career, a nice resort-style setting and pool, restaurant and bar. The wine is good too, and the pizza I had was named after Sofia Coppola, Coppola’s filmmaker daughter. For my impressions of the resort on a recent trip, see here.
Kevin Nelson’s latest book is Foodie Snob, a humorous look at foodies and all their wonderful likes and dislikes.