December 23, 2014

San Diego's Bali Hai

Bali Hai exterior, daytime

photo by: Jenni Konrad, Flickr

San Diego’s Bali Hai celebrated 60 years in October 2014. It is located on San Diego’s Shelter Island.

With a location on the tip of Shelter Island and sweeping views of San Diego’s downtown, the Bali Hai would give any tiki bar a run for its money as far as location goes.

It’s been here since 1952, when it opened as Christian’s Hut. The name was repurposed from the staff watering hole below Clark Gable’s apartment during the filming of Mutiny on the Bounty.

The name didn’t stick, but many of the movie set artifacts did, including “the Goof” -- a tiki that’s still perched atop the restaurant’s roof.

Mr. Bali Hai statue

photo by: Jonnie Santos, Flickr

Mr. Bali Hai greets visitors at the restaurant’s front entrance. A 2010 restoration project brought him back to a tidier state.

When oil-man-turned-restaurateur Tom Ham bought the place in ’54, Christian’s Hut became the Bali Hai. To save money, Ham simply inked out the restaurant’s previous name on the old menus.

The tiki temple was well known for its Polynesian floor shows into the '80s. Pressure from Mothers Against Drunk Driving and a disagreement between the performers led to its demise, but 60 years on, the Bali Hai is still hoppin’.

Bali Hai exterior, night

photo by: Greg Bishop, Flickr

The Goof has sat atop the Bali Hai since the restaurant opened as Christian’s Hut. It was brought to the site in the back of the original owner’s woody station wagon.

A 2010 restoration sanded 40 years of paint from the restaurant’s 15 different types of original wood, including California redwood and knotty pine from eastern San Diego County. Though a fresh paint job was initially in the works, Tony Baumann -- the current general manager and grandson of Tom Ham himself -- decided that preserving the wood’s original appearance was a must.

The $4 million project also installed a permanent open-air structure on the site’s concrete patio and tidied up Mr. Bali Hai -- another massive 1950s tiki that greets visitors at the front door. A second-story deck was added and more bar space was opened. Meanwhile, much of the structure’s floor plan and all of its charm remain unchanged.

View of downtown San Diego from Bali Hai

photo by: Jeff Tabaco, Flickr

The Bali Hai offers some of the best views of downtown San Diego from across the bay.

Location: 2230 Shelter Island Drive, San Diego, CA 92106

Hours: Mon.-Thurs.: 11:30 a.m.-9:00 p.m., Fri.-Sat.: 11:30 a.m.-10:00 p.m., Sun: 9:30 a.m.-9:00 p.m.

You’re Eating: Local swordfish, pan seared, served with a grilled orange forbidden rice and a sauce of black pepper, fish sauce, oyster sauce, soy sauce, and sugar.

You’re Drinking: The Mai Tai (of course): Jamaican dark rum, Puerto Rican light rum, triple sec, Trader Vic’s orgeat syrup, and sweet and sour.

You’re Taking Home: Replica mugs of Mr. Bali Hai and the Goof.

Best Yelp Review: “The Mai Tai's [sic] here? Holy moly! The waitress warned me about no fruit juice and all rum, but I thought I could handle it. Turns out I can't! Go ahead and order a glass of juice on the side, you're gonna’ need it!”

David Weible is a former content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation is inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

Now accepting nominations for the 2024 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places! Letters of Intent are due September 29, 2023.

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