For Polynesian flair, San Diego’s Bali Hai reigns
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA firstname.lastname@example.org August 3, 2012 3:52PM
Bali Hai owner Larry Baumann shows off the restaurant’s sweeping view of San Diego Bay. RIGHT: The tiki destination’s iconic menu. | top: Dave Hoekstra~sun-times
IF YOU GO
The Bali Hai is at 2230 Shelter Island Dr., only six minutes from the San Diego International Airport. Call (619) 222-1181; www.balihairestaurant.com. Lunch: 11:30-3:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; champagne Sunday brunch: 9:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner: 5-10 p.m. seven days a week. The very popular Happy Hour is from 3-6 p.m. Monday-Friday.
Updated: September 6, 2012 6:08AM
SAN DIEGO, Ca. — Life is a countdown.
And it is a great day when all the numbers add up.
Maybe Tom Ham knew there was little time to waste. In 1955 the Los Angeles accountant bought the Bali Hai Restaurant in San Diego, now America’s most iconic tiki destination with the closing of the Kahaki in Columbus, Ohio, in 2000.
The tropical temple of mirth sits on San Diego Bay with a breathtaking view of the city skyline.
“Tom didn’t like sitting in an office doing taxes,” said current co-owner Larry Baumann, who is Ham’s son-in-law. “The restaurant was two years old when he bought it.”
It was named Christian’s Hut, after Fletcher Christian, the character who led the revolt in the 1935 Clark Gable film “Mutiny on the Bounty.” Ham caught the drift.
“He figured out how to buy bankrupt businesses, solve the problems and then sell them,” Baumann recalled during a relaxed afternoon conversation in the 50-seat Bali Hai lounge. The wide-open dining room seats 140 people. “Tom saw Shelter Island Incorporated had filed for bankruptcy,” he continued. “He wondered what that was. It was the restaurant and the marina next door. He drove here from L.A. He walked in the dining room, looked around and said, ‘This is Bali Hai.’ Nobody knew what he was talking about. But he was well read and loved the South Pacific. And Bali Hai translates to ‘top of the isle.’ So this is truly the top of the isle.”
Ham bought the property, sold the marina and checked in with his inner Tommy Bahama; he died of a heart attack in 1973 at age 53.
Baumann took over the operation after Ham’s death and is now co-owner with his wife Susie, Ham’s daughter. “I came to work for him as a part time bartender when I got out of the Navy in the early ’70s,” Baumann said, who had just spent 18 months in Vietnam. “I was in my early ‘twenties and had no idea I would be here 40-plus years later,” he said. “I met my wife here. She was her Dad’s right hand. Tom Ham was way ahead of his time. He was chairman of the 100th anniversary celebration of San Diego.”
Shelter Island offers more than the Bali Hai. Humphrey’s Half Moon Inn & Suites is a pristine, 182-room Polynesian-themed hotel within walking distance of the Bali Hai. Concerts are presented in a 1,350-seat outdoor bandshell adjacent to the hotel. (Esperanza Spalding appears on Aug. 21; Bonnie Raitt headlines on Sept. 25. For a full schedule visit www.humphreysconcerts.com; room and concert packages available). The island also is a key component of the annual Tiki Oasis convention, which runs Aug, 16-19 in San Diego, attracting tikiophiles from across the world (visit www.tikioasis.com).
In 1989 the Baumanns ended the 28-year-old live Polynesian entertainment policy at the Bali Hai’s subterranean South Pacific Room, which was a popular destination for Hollywood hipsters like Humphrey Bogart and Jerry Lewis. They came to Shelter Island because of the Del Mar Race Track, 20 miles north of San Diego.
“Many of them would stay at the Half Moon Inn,” Baumann said. “We had Polynesian floor shows twice a night, six nights a week. Our Mai Tai led the way. It is the original Trader Vic’s recipe. Lot of rum and no fruit juice. Everybody in the South Pacific Room drank those.”
The Bali Hai has sold 2.2 million Mai Tais since 1953. “Of course every big city in the country had a tiki palace and maybe this location is what has worked for us,” Baumann said. “If we were downtown maybe we would have gone the way of other tiki palaces.” The South Pacific space is still used for banquets and weddings.
Shelter Island is actually a man-made peninsula. As a channel was dredged for Navy ships in the bay, a sandbar was created on which the tiki escapes were built. “Bali Hai was the first building they broke ground at in late 1952,” Baumann said. “Then Kona Kai, the hotel on the other end of the island (800) 566-2524; www.resortkonakai) broke ground shortly after.” The motto at the Kona Kai Resort & Spa is “Drive to Hawaii.”
The Bali Hai was originally designed by a Los Angeles architect who is unknown to the current owners. A 5-foot-seven-inch wooden tiki known as Mr. Bali Hai greets customers at the front door. Regulars call the nutty-looking fiberglass tiki atop the roof as “The Goof on the Roof,” and guests can order Goof Punch (Lemon Hart rum, Coruba Jamaican Rum, Jamaican Dark Rum, Jamaican Light Rum, passion fruit syrup and a blend of fruit juices; $15.75 with mug, $7.75 without.) I took the mug home. And I did not drive.
Some think The Goof is a nod to Fletcher Christian. Tiki historian Sven Kirsten has suggested the icon was modeled after a bar that was built for the 1935 set of “Mutiny on the Bounty,” which was filmed on Catalina Island. There’s more to it. “[Architecturally] The Goof on the Roof actually holds up the whole center of the bar,” Baumann said.
The restaurant’s round logs are made from heavy Ponderosa Pine from the Laguna Mountains in East San Diego. The rectangular wood comes from the Pacific Northwest.
“You could not replace this wood today,” Baumann said. “We have some huge logs and very long beams. The wood is like an internal skeleton. I can literally take every window and wall out and just have a pavilion because there are no bearing walls. This is called ‘Old European Bridge’ style. This is how they used to build bridges, with big beams and big bolts.”
The Bali Hai underwent a major renovation in 2010. Paint was sandblasted to reveal the original wood.
“Sandblasting took two weeks,” said Baumann’s son Grant, 40, who is the Bali Hai general manger. “The guy said there was 18 layers of paint over 50 years of paint. It came out beautiful. It ties the building together so well.”
The Bali Hai recently signed a 40 year lease extension with the Port of San Diego. Part of the deal included the Bali Hai agreeing to make capital improvements on the building.
“The Bali Hai is blessed because we are woven into the fabric of so many family’s lives,” Baumann said. “Families spend every special occasion here.”
And it is family that keeps the Bali Hai afloat. Susie is an accountant, just as her father was, and president of Shelter Island, Inc. The Baumann’s other sons, Tom, 31, and Andy, 27, also work at the Bali Hai. Tom, a former Merchant Marine, is dining room supervisor is Andy is the bar manager. (Daughter Jessica, 38, is a homemaker in Oregon.)
“We’re as family as a family business goes,” Baumann said, looking out at another great day on the San Diego Bay.