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Where to Find a Glass Full of Paradise

Written By: Lauren Vikander San Diego’s 5 Go-To Spots for Tiki Bar Cocktails 
Photographed By: Noble Andrews

Here’s a riddle for you. What do funny little wooden carvings, bamboo, Hawaiian shirts and strong rum cocktails garnished with pineapple and tiny colorful umbrellas all have in common? The answer: tiki culture. The first tiki bar can be traced all the way back to Los Angeles in 1934, when Don the Beachcomber opened its doors in Hollywood attracting celebrities and Los Angelians looking for potent but tasty cocktails and an escape to the tropics. Yet, tiki culture really caught on after World War II, when tired servicemen brought back striking souvenirs and charmed stories from the exotic South Pacific glamorizing the tropical lifestyle of Polynesia. Suddenly, everyone wanted to hang out, drink fruity rum cocktails, and spread the aloha spirit at the local tiki bar. The tiki craze took off like an epidemic of island fever. Tiki was popping up everywhere from the typical bar, to garden style apartment complexes, to entire themed villages. People simply couldn’t get enough.

Today, most of the tiki culture from the ’50s and ’60s is long gone to make way for more contemporary styles. However, what remains has stood the test of time and deserves to be recognized for its fruity, fun excellence.

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Jake’s Del Mar
1660 Coast Blvd
Del Mar, CA 92014
858.755.2002 | www.jakesdelmar.com

Situated right on the sand of Del Mar’s panoramic beach, Jake’s serves up tropical inspired cocktails and seafood. With an open floor plan, breathtaking ocean views and lots of natural light, this little piece of history will captivate your senses. The original building was constructed in 1910 as the hotel garage for the elegant Stratford Inn, later known as The Del Mar Hotel, famously known for hosting the Hollywood and horse racing elite in the ’20s, ’30s and ‘40s. Today, the exposed rough-hewn roof trusses, reclaimed wood tables and industrial lighting give the restaurant distinguished character and create an established feel.

However, the star of the show here is not necessarily the architecture or the amazing views, it’s their solid food and drinks. I had the privilege of trying something newly added to the menu called the Coconut Express. Much like the restaurant itself, this drink combines the elements of tropical ingredients and lavender scent to create a delectable twist. The main ingredient in this paradise goodness is award-winning Kōloa coconut rum, which comes straight from the island of Kaua’i. Made with the islands infamous tall sugar cane, the rum has a rich flavor rooted in the volcanic soil and nurtured by the pure waters of Mt. Wai’ale’ale. After my first sip from that martini glass, I couldn’t put it back down. It is well balanced, not too sweet, not too aromatic and not too strong. I will definitely be back for that mixology.

Native Knowledge: Jake’s Del Mar almost always has a wait. Be sure to call in advance for a reservation. However, there’s a secret little patio where the locals hang just outside the bar area. It’s open seating and you can order anything from the full menu out here.

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Duke’s La Jolla
1216 Prospect St
La Jolla, CA 92037
858.454.5888 | www.dukeslajolla.com

Views, views, views, and more views. Overlooking La Jolla Cove Marine Reserve with arguably the best view of the Pacific in the entire city sits Duke’s newest location. The 13, 000 square feet of contemporary luxury, rare surfboards and two levels of enormous sunny patio space form a scene that would make Duke himself proud.

Now, Duke’s is known for its iconic locations. The original, Duke’s Waikiki sits right on the world famous beach where the Duke Kahanamoku surfed. Duke’s Malibu is located on legendary Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) with views reaching both north and south. And of course, there’s Duke’s Huntington Beach, which is nestled on PCH right next to the infamous Huntington pier surf break. Yet, Duke’s La Jolla has truly raised the bar. Here, the menu has evolved to fit the refined existence of this affluent little seaside village. “We really want the Duke’s experience to fit into the La Jolla lifestyle, and become a neighborhood mainstay, ” says Jackie Reed, VP of CA Operations for T S Restaurants. That being said, Duke’s favorites the restaurant is known for are still on the menu, including the very same Mai Tai you can get at the Barefoot Bar in Waikiki.

This infamous Mai Tai is unique in California because it is made with POG (passion fruit, orange and guava juice), which is hard to come by on the Mainland. Just one sip and my mind instantly whizzed back to my summers spent on Oahu’s pristine shores swimming in the warm turquoise sea and laying on the dreamlike white sand beaches. The long-standing recipe blends light rum, dark rum and Orange Curacao, which gives it that little Mai Tai punch. Additionally, the POG adds just the right amount of tropical fusion creating a brilliant balance to the drink.

Native Knowledge: In case you didn’t know, Duke Kahanamoku is Hawaii’s most famous citizen, an Olympic medalist in swimming, and considered the father of modern day surfing. Duke’s first surfboard was constructed after the traditional Hawaiian “olo” boards. It was 16 feet long and weighed 114 pounds!

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Bali Hai Restaurant
2230 Shelter Island Dr
San Diego, CA 92106
619.222.1181 | www.balihairestaurant.com

If you’re looking for a certified tiki bar, look no further than Bali Hai. No really, this place has a certificate of authentication for its amazing tiki-ness (only one of a few still standing in the U.S.). This chic Polynesian paradise first opened its doors in 1954 on the tip of Shelter Island and boasts impressive views of the harbor and San Diego’s skyline. And what’s better than a view? A cocktail and a view. With five decades of knowledge behind them, Bali Hai has some of the most creative and outstanding signature cocktails around.

One of the newest additions to their drink menu is the Paralyzing Puffer Fish. According to Tommy Baumann, a third generation Bali Hai family member, the recipe went through multiple iterations over the course of a few months before they achieved the perfect balance between “paralysis” and a fresh, zesty flavor. Local Ballast Point rum, Bacardi 151 and Fugu Horchata Vodka create the base for passion fruit syrup, pineapple and lime juice. Served over ice, the end product has a bright golden hue and distinct tropical rum flavor with notes of cinnamon and passion fruit.

If you like to stick to the traditional tiki drinks, look no further than the Bali Hai Mai Tai. Found under the section of the menu titled, “Strong libations! You’ve been warned!” this is quite possibly the strongest drink you’ll ever consume. Crafted with dark rum, light rum, orange liqueur, a dash of Trader Vic’s Premium Orgeat Almond syrup and a splash of sweet and sour, this island classic is straight rum goodness.

Native Knowledge: This is one of the only restaurants in San Diego with a dock, so you can park your boat while you devour their delicious poke and tiki cocktails.

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Cat Eye Club
370 7th Ave
San Diego, CA 92101
619.330.9509 | www.cateyeclubsd.com

From the second you walk through the red leather pin-tucked door off 7th Avenue, the shagadelic tiki vibes of the Cat Eye Club take possession of your body and soul. The long entrance lined with a rock wall reminiscent of old Palm Springs leads you into a dimly lit little room full of groovy sights and sounds. At the Cat Eye Club, ’60s Mondrian meets traditional tiki flair, and the result is the cat’s meow. With only six seats at the bar and less than 10 tables in the whole joint, this place is intimate and feels much more like an elite speakeasy than a place you can just walk through the door. But this is not just another pretentious little bar with fancy drinks. Here, the vibe is welcoming, friendly and plain old fun. In fact, the bartenders encourage you to indulge in your guilty pleasure drink. So all you Piña Colada and Long Island Iced Tea lovers out there, rejoice! You now have a fruity haven to enjoy your libations.

My guilty pleasure served at the Cat Eye Club is called the Ghost of Black’s Beach. Why? Because it’s served in an amazing skull tiki mug, made with falernum syrup (hints of almond, ginger and/or cloves, lime and sometimes vanilla or allspice) and is garnished with fresh pineapple and cherries. As I watched Frank Miller, the Cat Eye Club’s managing partner, lovingly craft this dangerous little number, he told me about the three drinks they have on tap: the Cat Tai (their version of the Mai Tai), the Walking Dead (which has a two drink limit due to the high alcohol volume) and the classic Long Island Iced Tea (because it’s a crowd pleaser). This special tap system allows the recipes to be perfected and consistent each time while allowing the flavors of the cocktail to infuse. This creates a more complex finished product, not to mention it’s efficient. Miller added the final squeeze of lemon juice, gave all the ingredients three quick shakes and strained the mixture over fresh ice into a skull tiki mug. The final product was impressive. Spiced undertones gave way to a dangerous balance of rum and sweet and sour that keeps you coming back for more.

Native Knowledge: Come Wednesday night to take part in the infamous hermit crab races. Sip your guilty pleasure while you cheer on your champion and bet on the crabs. If you bet on the fastest crab, you get to spin the prize wheel to win anything from a handshake to $100 gift card.

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Kettner Exchange
2001 Kettner Blvd
San Diego, CA 92101
619.255.2001 | www.kettnerexchange.com

Less than a year old and already recognized by numerous food and lifestyle magazines for its killer food, drinks and ambiance, Kettner Exchange (KEX) is definitely here for the long haul. Located in San Diego’s Little Italy, KEX screams sexy. The stunning interior is complete with a two-story driftwood chandelier, sculpture and a cozy fireplace with an old photograph of William Kettner himself. To all the beautiful people who exude fashion, power and sex appeal, one thing is clear — this is the place to see and be seen in San Diego right now.

As we sat on the sun-soaked rooftop with bar manager Steven Tuttle and talked about their cocktail program, it became clear to me that although KEX is not necessarily a tiki bar, its cocktails are not to be dismissed. Tuttle studied the art of mixology under New York City’s Sam Ross (Milk & Honey/Attaboy) and Phil Ward (Death + Company/Mayahuel) who ultimately shaped the way we drink today. In San Diego, he established an award-winning menu at Craft & Commerce, Ironside Fish & Oyster Bar and El Dorado Cocktail Lounge, which led him to the forward-thinking cocktail program at KEX.

A word to the wise — when you have a bartender this good at your disposal, ask him what his favorite cocktail on the menu is and trust in him to do the right thing. In this case, the drink of choice is called the Tiki Cross, inspired by Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar in the Disneyland Hotel. With a hefty 11 ingredients, including house-made orgeat and fresh squeezed juice, this one takes skill to craft; however, the end product will transport you right to a hammock on the beach. The Tiki Cross achieves a delicious equilibrium between the traditionally strong tiki drink and the painfully pretentious craft cocktail of today. Definitely don’t leave without trying it.

Native Knowledge: There is a hidden chef’s table in the kitchen that seats eight people, where KEX hosts private events once a month. Here you get the royal treatment from world famous Chef Brian Redzikowski and a unique off-menu cocktail experience from bar manager Steven Tuttle.

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