Bali Hai whispers in the wind of the sea, ‘Here am I, your special diner! Come to me, come to me!’
Bali Hai Restaurant
Address: 2230 Shelter Island Drive, San Diego
Phone: (619) 222-1181
The Vibe: Relaxed, romantic, casual
Signature Dishes: Coconut Shrimp, Hawaiian Tuna Poke, Crispy Ahi Tuna, Spice Rubbed Swordfish, Mongolian Lamb, 14 oz. Wok Fried Bass
Open Since: 1955
Patio Seating: Yes
Take Out: No
Happy Hour: 3-6 p.m. Monday-Friday
Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
By Kelley Carlson
At the northeastern tip of San Diego’s Shelter Island is a landmark restaurant that practically transports guests to the South Pacific islands. Bali Hai Restaurant – named for a famous show tune – opened in 1955 and was the first building in a newly constructed neighborhood that had previously been a mere sandbank in San Diego Bay.
Today, the community of Shelter Island is filled with marinas, hotels, parks and restaurants, yet Bali Hai continues to garner much attention from residents and worldwide travelers.
There’s plenty of free parking for those who drive and there is a dock just outside the disc-shaped restaurant for those cruising the water in vessels.
The building is constructed from more than 15 types of wood, some of it rare. Outside the front entrance is Mr. Bali Hai, a large droopy-lidded face that people love posing next to for photos. And on top of the roof is the head of “The Goof,” an icon with a bit of a mysterious past.
Once inside, guests ascend to the second floor to reach the main dining room, which offers a panoramic view of San Diego Bay, downtown’s skyline and North Island.
“Going to lunch is like going for a vacation,” said Bali Hai owner Larry Baumann, son-in-law of original owner Tom Ham.
As sunset nears, the colors reflect on the downtown buildings’ windows, and once darkness arrives, the city lights begin to twinkle. Occasionally, guests are treated to the moon rising over the skyline.
The dining room features island-inspired decor and is filled with more than 100 Polynesian artifacts, such as wood weapons, tiki figures, antique tapa cloths and ocean charts. The space closest to the parking lot is designated as the cocktail lounge, where patrons can watch a sporting event on one of two flat-screen TVs or share a fruity, turquoise-hued Scorpion Bowl for two. And in the center of the room is the bar, where an overhead digital counter display keeps track of every World Famous Bali Hai Mai Tai ordered.
The restaurant’s signature cocktail is created from the original Trader Vic’s recipe and guests are warned beforehand that it is strong. It’s a mix of Coruba Jamaican Dark Rum, Ron Rico Light Rum, orange liqueur and sweet and sour; no fruit juice is added. The drink is so popular, Bali Hai gets calls from bars in Hawaii seeking the recipe, and people from around the world stop at the restaurant specifically to try one, according to Baumann.
As of the mid-afternoon June 9, there had been a total of 2,233,248 Mai Tais ordered, 22,232 of them in 2013.
In addition to the main dining sections, Bali Hai has private areas for events, including weddings. “We’re blessed that we’re woven into the fabric of so many families’ lives, who celebrate every occasion here,” Baumann said.
With some people arriving from graduations and others coming straight from the docks, it’s not unusual to see restaurant patrons wearing an array of styles, from designer dresses and tuxes to shorts and T-shirts. Regardless of the attire, everyone has the opportunity to enjoy the award-winning Pacific Rim-inspired cuisine from Executive Chef Dion Morales.
Patrons can whet their appetizers with items such as the Scallop Carpaccio, thin slices of scallops with XO oil, fennel, black lava salt and small, tart slices of lime that enhance the dish’s flavor; the Battered Crab Cakes, topped with kimchi bean sprouts and served in a slightly spicy sauce; and pieces of Crispy Ahi Tuna with colorful cucumber ceviche and togarashi water.
Among the notable entrees are the Rice Cracker Crusted King Salmon on a bed of edamame with bacon lardons, tea-smoked dashi and sweet cipollini onions; and the Spice Rubbed Swordfish, which rests on a soba-noodle salad with an orange sesame vinaigrette.
Other favorites include the Pan Seared Halibut, Confit Duck Leg and Seared Diver Scallops. Gluten-free and vegetarian dishes are available, as well.
Kids may order Macaroni & Cheese and Keiki Steak with broccoli and steamed rice from a menu on which they can color.
Baumann revealed he recently signed a 40-year lease for Bali Hai and his family’s other establishment, Tom Ham’s Lighthouse.
On The Menu Recipe
Each week you’ll find a recipe from the featured restaurant online at lajollalight.com. Just click Get The Recipe at the bottom of the story.
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