Who serves the best-known cocktail in town?
The Bali Hai, hands down.
The family-owned Shelter Island restaurant calls its concoction the World Famous Bali Hai Mai Tai and the bar menu touts it as "Quite Possibly the Strongest Drink You'll Ever Consume." A lot of locals and tourists have consumed one in the Bali Hai's 64-year history, too. Owner and family patriarch Larry Baumann estimates that more than two-and-a-half million Bali Hai Mai Tais have been sold — 72,000 of them last year alone.
"Absolutely phenomenal," said Baumann of the drink made with two kinds of rum, dashes of Trader Vic's Orgeat Syrup and Triple Sec, and a splash of Sweet & Sour. (It'll cost you $9.25, by the way.)
While the Bali Hai Mai Tai may be a major draw, it's far from the only reason the tiki-themed Polynesian restaurant on the north end of Shelter Island keeps going and going.
"We're blessed to be woven into the fabric of so many people's lives," said Baumann, the son-in-law of Bali Hai founder Tom Ham, a legend in San Diego's community and business landscape. Besides being a longstanding choice for dining and cocktails, the Bali Hai has hosted countless birthday parties, class reunions, weddings and other special occasions since it opened in 1954, after originally debuting a year earlier as The Hut. "We get to spend the best of times with people," Baumann said.
Of course there's also the sweeping bay view, which few San Diego dining establishments can match and a casual, tropical atmosphere in which everyone has fun — even the employees. "They love coming here," said Baumann of his staff of more than 100.
The Bali Hai is a tiki temple, recognizable for its bursting colors, Polynesian artifacts and naturally its two famous tikis: the guy known as "The Goof" (name unexplained) who is perched on the restaurant roof, and Mr. Bali Hai, modeled after a South Pacific headhunter, who you can't miss when you enter.
The ground floor is devoted to the Bali Hai's special events, with general restaurant dining upstairs. There's also an outside deck and pavilion for parties, and even a private dock for boating customers to pull up and order food and drinks.
Baumann and wife, Susie, own the restaurant, while son Tom (named for his grandfather, Tom Ham) manages; Baumann's two other sons, Grant and Andy, run the family's other business, Tom Ham's Lighthouse on Harbor Island.
The restaurant is a tiki temple, yes, but it's also a shrine of sorts to Tom Ham, a remarkable man whose biography is illustrated in a glass-encased narrative pictorial prominently displayed inside the front entrance.
"He was way ahead of his time," said Baumann, who never met Ham personally. "His cronies talked about him with such reverence, and about what a leader he was.
"He really taught us that you need to give back to and be part of the community. We've tried to do that at many levels."
The philosophy that Baumann imparts to his staff is the same one passed on by Ham himself, who in the early days of the Bali Hai was known to dress like the rest of the employees, in a red-and-white Hawaiian shirt and white pants. "I keep the message simple," said Baumann. "People come here to have a good time. Just help 'em."
While they come from out of town, Shelter Island being a popular attraction for tourists, "we have more regulars than people would think," said Baumann, citing customers who frequent the Bali Hai as often as a couple times a week. Quite a few, he said, come from as far inland as La Mesa and Lemon Grove. "This is like going on vacation for them."
What once was a Cantonese menu in the fledgling days of the Bali Hai is now "Pacific Rim" style cuisine, according to Baumann. The farm fresh ingredients incorporate flavors from China and Japan as well as Hawaii. Seafood is a favorite, as it is in many San Diego restaurants. So are sushi and the ever-trendy poke. The latter, in fact, has led to an annual Poke-Fest held at the Bali Hai.
The extensive dinner menu features everything from lamb and pork stir frys to fish to a variety of pupus (tasting dishes) for every taste. A Dinner Green menu offers meat-free options, from wasabi fries to salads to sweet & sour or Kung Pao tofu.
A remodel in 2010 pumped $4 million of improvements and renovations into the restaurant, giving the Bali Hai the look of anything but a place that opened way back in the '50s. Other longtime San Diego dining destinations have disappeared, but the Bali Hai is among those still thriving.
"San Diego has more owner-operators in the restaurant industry than most cities," said Baumann, whose involvement with the Bali Hai goes back 41 years. "San Diego is the biggest little town there is."
One reason Baumann keeps at it is that connection with generations of families who patronize the Bali Hai. He smiled recalling a grandmother who brought her 21-year-old grandson in for his first legal drink. The drink?
A Bali Hai Mai Tai. What else?
— Bali Hai Restaurant is at 2230 Shelter Island Drive in Point Loma, San Diego. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. Happy Hour: 3-6 p.m. Monday-Friday. (619) 222-1181; balihairestaurant.com