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It's Tiki Time: The Impact of Lighting at the Tonga Room

Randall Whitehead takes us back in "tiki" time to explore how the lighting there provides an outdoor effect. 

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The Lighting Doctor, The Tonga Room
Randall Whitehead explores the lighting at the Tonga Room.

Earlier this month, friends and I went to the Tonga Room, located in the famous Fairmont Hotel. It is the ultimate tiki lounge that transports you back to the 1940s. It was designed by Mel Melvin who was the leading set designer at Metro Golden Mayer at the time. This is a beloved San Francisco icon but needed a lighting retrofit. The challenge was to upgrade the period illumination without losing the feel of the original design.

The setting is very theatrical. The ceiling is totally black, so that the lighting disappears into the darkness. This creates a night sky effect, with the surface mounted directional fixtures subbing in for starlight. You feel like you are outdoors, but the venue is actually located two stories below ground level.

The Lighting Doctor, Tonga Room

There is a “lagoon“ located in the center of the space (shown above). This is the former swimming pool from the late 1920s. A band plays from the boat that is floating on the water. Every 20 minutes it rains. The poolside areas are illuminated with both decorative and indirect lighting, The structures were used as a way of creating some bounced indirect lighting for the dining areas. 


Tonga Room, The Lighting Doctor
Giant thatched umbrellas, also known as palapas (shown above) cover selected tables. The original blown glass fixtures were retrofitted with dimmable LED filament bulbs, rated for enclosed fixtures.


The Lighting Doctor, Tonga Room

In the entryway (shown above) you are greeted by a magnificent tiki deity, flanked by torch lamps. The original flame tip bulbs were replaced with LED versions with a CRI of 90 and a color temperature of 2200° kelvin, which is the color of candlelight. The elaborate wood carving and the bamboo paneling are illuminated with the original surface mounted directional fixtures which have been retrofitted with PAR20 LED bulbs. These are 90 CRI with a 2700° kelvin color temperature.


The Lighting Doctor, Tonga Room
On one side of the pool is a structure with a pitched roof (shown above) where the ceiling reveals the underside of a thatched roof. An outrigger canoe, suspended from the apex beam, hides an indirect LED linear light source which provides ambient illumination for the space. The sconces, matching the design of the entryway torch lamps, have also been retrofitted with LED flame tip bulbs as well.


The Lighting Doctor, Tonga Room
Near the entry, you’ll find another cozy area of the restaurant (shown above). The lower niches are bathed in a red light, which spills out into the dining area. The original recessed downlights were retrofitted with PAR20 LED floods and dichroic red lenses. Larger shielded floodlights, mounted on the ceiling, use PAR 30 LED floods to illuminate the wood paneling of the wall.

The Lighting Doctor, Tonga Room
Along the edge of the lagoon (shown above) you can see the rain shower. The original string lights were replaced with LED versions, enclosed within the original raffia wrapped blown glass orbs. These bulbs are rated for enclosed fixtures and have a color temperature of 2200° kelvin. The palapas are lit from the outside using LED PAR 30s, placed in the original ceiling mount directional fixtures. The original pool lighting, which was halogen, has been replaced with a color tunable version so the water can have a range of colors.

This place is a must see if you are visiting San Francisco. The food is Asian/Hawaiian inspired and it’s pretty good. Right now, the Tonga Room is only open from Thursday through Sunday, due to Covid constraints. Soon Wednesday night will also be added. It pays to go early before it gets too crowded. The tropical Mai Tai drinks are deliciously deadly.

*All photos courtesy of Randall Whitehead.

Randall Whitehead headshot

Randall Whitehead is an educator and author on the subject of lighting design. His work has been featured in many magazines, including Architectural Digest, Home & Garden and Esquire. He has appeared as a guest expert on HGTV, Discovery, CNN and Martha Stewart Living Radio.

His Latest book Beautiful Light outlines how to create successful and subtly beautiful LED lighting designs for homes and gardens. Available through Amazon and Rutledge Books.

You can see his entertaining 1-minute instructional videos at furniturelightingdecor.com. And you can follow him on Instagram:  @randall.whitehead


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