Bali Ha’i: Going Strong since 1954

Bali Ha’i: Going Strong since 1954

Once upon a time in 1935, a little film called “Mutiny on the Bounty” was made on Catalina Island, and a bar for the cast and crew was improvised. After the film wrapped, the bar, named Christian’s Hut (after the character Fletcher Christian), moved to Newport Beach.

A few subsidiaries of Christian’s Hut opened, including one on San Diego’s Shelter Island. Named “The Hut“, it didn’t do well until it was taken over and renamed Bali Ha’i in 1954.

Bali Ha'i, established 1954.

Bali Ha’i, established 1954.

Bali Ha’i is unique in having two mascots (and neither of them tikis). The Goof , perched at the roof’s apex, was originally the mascot for Christian’s Hut. In front of the entrance is Mr. Bali Hai, a headhunter-esque character who originally had a bone through his nose.

Mr. Bali Hai, painstakingly restored (but missing his nose bone).

Mr. Bali Hai, painstakingly restored (but missing his nose bone).

Being outside and mere yards away from the Pacific Ocean, Mr. Bali Hai needed some restoration work done in the early ’00s. Kevin Kidney and Jody Daily (artists/designers who are best known for their work at Disney) took on the task. Mr. Bali Hai’s replacement nose bones still haven’t been installed; I’ve heard children liked to climb on them.

Mug collectors take note: there is a Mr. Bali Hai cocktail, and you can keep the mug.

Let’s go inside, shall we?

Look VERY closely at this support beam and you'll see the faint outline of a tiki carving. I'm guessing this is original.

Look VERY closely at this support beam and you’ll see the faint outline of a tiki carving. I’m guessing this is original.

Downstairs lobby.

Downstairs lobby.

There are a few different dining spaces here – downstairs, the South Pacific Room seems to be used primarily for events, along with an outdoor pavilion. (When I visited, both of these spaces were closed off while staff set up for a wedding.) There is also a small private dining room upstairs.

Speaking of upstairs, that’s where you’ll most likely be dining. And the Top of the Isle room is spectacular.

Looking down the stairs.

Looking down the stairs.

Top of the staircase. Check out that tapa cloth!

Top of the staircase. It’s dark, but check out that tapa cloth!

Snazziest hostess stand ever.

Snazziest hostess stand ever.

Tapa "squash" lamps. I'd bet these were sourced from Oceanic Arts.

Tapa “squash” lamps. I’d bet these were sourced from Oceanic Arts.

Marquesan canoe carving.

Marquesan canoe carving.

Mascot ukuleles.

Mascot ukuleles.

I know you’re here for the tiki decor, but I must say, the actual dining experience was top-notch. This is my new favorite place in San Diego.

A week before my lunch here, I had trouble with the online booking software, and called the restaurant to book directly. The young woman who answered the phone was very apologetic and took care of it.

Everyone I encountered here was incredibly friendly and helpful, from the seating host to the server to the busboy who kindly topped off my water. Food-wise, special needs are well taken care of (plant eaters should ask for the “green menu”, and there is another menu for those avoiding gluten).

Green menu (as of November 2016).

Green menu (as of November 2016).

Bali Ha'i's sweet and sour tofu.

Bali Ha’i’s sweet and sour tofu.

May I say that the sweet and sour tofu at Bali Ha’i is the best I’ve ever eaten (and I’ve eaten a LOT of sweet and sour tofu)? The sauce is lightly sweet, and the sweetness balances the tart flavors perfectly.

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Orchid at my table.

This was the view from my table at lunch.

This was the view from my table at lunch.

Even if you’re not drinking, do stop by the bar to peek under the ceiling’s apex. You’ll be glad you did.

Bali Ha'i's amazing tiki bar ceiling.

Bali Ha’i’s amazing tiki bar ceiling.

Close-up of the lamps.

Close-up of the lamps.

I should note that because so much of the restaurant has floor-to-ceiling windows, this created a glare problem when I tried to photograph cases of Polynesian artifacts (and that big map of the South Pacific showcasing tiki styles). I will have to return for dinner some evening to (hopefully) retake pictures without the glare.

Tiki push plate on the ladies' room door.

Tiki push plate on the ladies’ room door.

Bali Ha’i also has something many tiki establishments do not: outdoor gardens. And they are beautiful.

A tiki restaurant this close to a Navy base needs an anchor.

A tiki restaurant this close to a Navy base needs an anchor.

Beautiful.

Beautiful.

The ultimate tiki water feature: the actual Pacific Ocean in the background.

The ultimate tiki water feature: the actual Pacific Ocean in the background.

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As you can see, this space is discreetly equipped with lights for events. It must look amazing lit up at night.

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Tiki has always been a manufactured paradise, but I still prefer real palm trees over fake ones.

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I didn’t see tikis in the garden, but I did find this modern-looking moai.

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I’m not sure how old the signage is, but the screen is very midcentury.

I plan to return the next time I’m in town. I hope my readers who visit San Diego will support this vintage treasure, too.

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