False Idol’s Coronado Luau Special
Photo by Arlene Ibarra

Tiki culture had its heyday in the '40s and '50s, when restaurants and clubs started using Polynesian design themes. For bars, there was an emphasis on sweet, rum-based cocktails that were often served in an elaborate mug or glass and garnished with all kinds of flair (umbrellas, fruit, maybe even fire). The trend died down over the years, but the culture still has a devoted following.

So it made sense Tiki bars would be resurrected. San Diego already has the old-school Bali Hai restaurant (2230 Shelter Island Drive) in Shelter Island, but two new speakeasy-style establishments—False Idol (675 Beech St.) in Little Italy opening later this summer and The Grass Skirt (910 Grand Ave.) in Pacific Beach in the fall—will almost certainly mark the trend's grand return.

"It's much more approachable and adventurous. It's much more relaxed," says Anthony Schmidt, the beverage director of CH Projects (Polite Provisions, Noble Experiment), who teamed up with Martin Cate of San Francisco Tiki bar Smuggler's Cove for False Idol's cocktail menu.

Still, there are a lot of rules, unspoken or simply implied, that seem to be in play when it comes to Tiki culture.

"Of course it's ingredients like house-made syrups, fresh lime juice and various ices," says Otto von Stroheim, the creator of the annual Tiki Oasis convention, the local, three-day festival devoted to the culture. "But you also need dim light fixtures, rock or bamboo rattan textures, secluded alcoves or booths for multiple environments within the room."

There's certainly a market for it in San Diego and it wouldn't be surprising, given that we're already a destination for the largest Tiki-themed festival, to see the city become something of a trendsetter within the movement in a few years.

"San Diego already has an intensely rich history of Tiki culture and bars," says Schmidt. "There were great ones in the Hotel del Coronado and dotted all over Hotel Circle. It's unfortunate they had to go, but that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to bring back that tradition."


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