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BALI HAI RESTAURANT, SHELTER ISLE, SAN DIEGO, 1962

Bali Hai Restaurant, 1962

On the marquee: EXOTIC CANTONESE CUISINE – DANCING TONIGHT – POLYNESIAN FLOOR SHOW. Near the marquee: A 1959 Rambler.

Last week I couldn’t leave San Diego without enjoying a tiki-taste-treat sensation of the highest order — the lunch buffet at the Bali Hai. Architecturally the restaurant is a cross between a Tiki hut and a flying saucer.

You may arrive by boat. They have a dock. It is on Shelter Isle after all. But I arrived by car. The first thing you notice when you get out of the car is what they call “The Goof” on the roof. Upon closer inspection he seems to be half man-half tiki donning a chef’s hat and large hoop earrings similar to those worn by the lord of the manor, Mr. Bali Hai himself, a half Mr. Potato / half Tiki God who greets customers at the front door. Like countless others and I have been before, I was charmed by his big wide eyes, red lips, hoop earrings and friendly spirit (you can see him on the left in the slide).

Once inside, I ogled the vintage décor until it was upstaged by the lunch crowd that I would be dining with: a group of sensible seniors that were most likely bussed in from somewhere far less exotic. Together we lined up at the bank of chafing dishes helping ourselves to sweet and sour pork, chicken chow mein and macaroni and cheese – which by the way are especially good when stirred together on your plate into a pan-Americana goulash. And when washed down with a big gulp-scale mai tai served in a Mr. Bali Hai souvenir Tiki mug – your stomach will thank you. If you can bear to take your eyes off of your plate or the buffet table, the view across the bay to the city’s skyline is absolutely picture perfect. One wonders (but not out loud of course) how this space age Polynesian restaurant has survived on this perfect plot of land for more than five decades.

After I piled my final plate high with a slice of lemon cake decorated with real live orchids and cottage cheese garnished with ripe kiwi slices (I eat healthy), I stumbled into the gift shop and just couldn’t resist a pair of Mr. Bali Hai salt and pepper shakers. Yes, any restaurant with a gift shop is VERY special. And the Bali Hai is no exception!

Here to you and another 50 years of the Bali Hai!!