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.
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.
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?
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.
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).
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.
Even if you’re not drinking, do stop by the bar to peek under the ceiling’s apex. You’ll be glad you did.
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.
Bali Ha’i also has something many tiki establishments do not: outdoor gardens. And they are beautiful.
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.