San Diego has been called America’s craft beer capital, but sometimes a drink with a higher ABV is in order. Something with two types of rum, some pineapple and exotic spices, served inside of a ceramic head. It’s only natural that tiki culture should thrive in San Diego—after all, it’s right next to the Pacific Ocean, a temperate beachside city where every season feels like summer and it’s never a bad time for a fruity, refreshing cocktail. And in recent years, bars have been stepping up their tiki game in thrilling ways, from wildly decorated speakeasies to unusual twists on zombies and painkillers.
As summer gets hotter and tens of thousands of visitors are getting ready to descend upon the city in time for Comic-Con, here’s a lineup of must-visit tiki bars to visit for some much-needed (and strong!) refreshments.
Hidden inside of Little Italy restaurant Craft and Commerce is False Idol, named by Food Network as one of the best bars in America. Local restaurant group Consortium Holdings is the team behind the bar, which is festooned with tropical flora, skulls, and grinning tiki heads aplenty—it feels like a miniature tropical theme park where the concept is high-proof cocktails. False Idol boasts the largest menu of tiki drinks in San Diego, and to be clear, its menu is exclusively tiki drinks—more than two dozen classics paired with False Idol’s own innovative counterparts, which means perusing the menu might take a little while. And when its volcanic decor begins to erupt (just a light and sound show, thankfully no actual molten projectiles) there’s even a periodic show to go with it.
One of San Diego’s longest running restaurants, Bali Hai dates back to the post-World War II tiki boom, first opening its doors back in 1954. And after 68 years, the historic tiki temple is still serving up some of the strongest mai tais in town (its website boasts over 2 million sold, though that seems like an undercount). The bayfront polynesian restaurants and bar is spacious and large, yet always bustling, its scenic backdrop making for a popular wedding locale. But it’s worth stopping by even for one round, be it a zombie, Navy grog or Mr. Bali Hai, in a souvenir tiki mug.
Kindred isn’t a tiki bar in the traditional sense. The South Park spot is a vegan restaurant and metal bar, with a giant beast head sculpture mounted onto the wall (patrons often leave offerings in its fearsome jaws) and Sleep’s “Dopesmoker” playing on a loop in its bathrooms. And yet its seasonal, rotating menu often features some of the best island-inspired cocktails in town. Though its weekly tiki night Permanent Vacation recently came to a close (its spirit to be resurrected at a second location soon), regular fixtures like the King Friday and Iron Tusk are refreshing rum-based highlights. And their always evolving selection of souvenir tiki mugs—including a Henry and Glenn (Rollins and Danzig, natch) tiki and a Cat Magic Punks collaboration—are metal AF.
It’s easy to see the appeal of a tiki bar by the beach, but stepping inside Pacific Beach’s Grass Skirt—with its abundance of bamboo, neon hula girls and giant tiki head fireplace—is like being transported to a fantasy tiki wonderland of its own. The details in the decor, designed by Southern California nightclub designer Davis Ink, are reason enough to stop in, but its extensive menu is rife with tiki standards and punchbowls, served in a parrot or with a parasol or garnished with a flaming lime. It also hosts an annual pig-roast luau for those seeking out a Hawaiian experience on this side of the Pacific.
Another conceptual speakeasy from the team at Consortium Holdings, Raised by Wolves—located within the UTC mall (no really)—is less like being shipwrecked in paradise than cozying up in the library of a lavish, historic mansion. But don’t let that fool you—tropical drinks are often part of its evolving menu, often with a twist. And definitely make sure to swing by during Halloween, when the place gets a spooky makeover including rum-spiked creations such as the Astro Zombie and the Young Blood. And if you seek something that isn’t on the seasonal menu, ask for a dealer’s choice and you’ll be sure to receive something inspired from its team of bartenders.
Located just a short walk from the shore in touristy Mission Beach, Miss B’s Coconut Club is a casual Caribbean eatery where the cocktails often steal the spotlight. While its food menu features staples such as jerk-rubbed wings, coconut shrimp and coconut seafood ceviche, its extensive menu of classic and revamped tiki drinks—like their variation on the mai tai, the Rum Cannonball, and the Havana Good Time, served in a metallic flamingo—is the main attraction.
Jeff Terich is a Richmond, Virginia-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in SPIN, Bandcamp Daily, uDiscover Music, Grammy.com and San Diego Magazine. His Twitter is @1000TimesJeff.