As the tiki folks who read my guide to Phoenix tiki bars know, I still have a lot to learn about the world of tiki. But we have really gotten into the scene (in my introverted way) since our first tiki bar out in Las Vegas. I’ve been to all the tiki bars in Arizona, visited tiki bars across the Midwest, started collecting signature tiki mugs… And we started our home bar with tiki recipe books. Needless to say, I really enjoy this corner of Americana. So, when we got vaccinated in the year of our Lord 2021, we wanted to celebrate with tickets to Tiki Oasis. It seemed like the biggest tiki celebration we’d probably ever have the chance to attend, and it was nestled among some of the amazing modern San Diego tiki bars. So, we made a weekend of it.
Whether you are considering Tiki Oasis in what I hope to be less strange years post-2021, or will be visiting San Diego in general and want to see the tiki sights, this little, honest guide is for you.
The Wonderful World of San Diego Tiki Bars
San Diego is home to one of the oldest tiki restaurants still in operation in the US. It’s got the sun and sea for tiki. And its modern tiki bars are exceptionally fun.
For anyone looking to get into tiki or cross a few special places off of their tiki bucketlist, San Diego is a must-visit location. There is a tiki bar for everyone here.
The Bali Hai is a tiki classic, which opened all the way back in 1954. You can delve into the story of this historic restaurant on their website, but no tiki trip to San Diego tiki bars would be complete without a visit. At least, not if you’ve never been.
For as special as it is, the Bali Hai isn’t really what I would consider my jam when it comes to tiki. The restaurant is beautiful, and the views are unmatched, with its huge glass walls. But it’s really more of a classy place for date night than it is a fun-loving tiki place. The prices are higher, and the food is fancier. But it also lacks the immersion of other tiki restaurants/bars on this list. Also, while I think it is inarguable that tiki has questionable roots, there are some strong… inappropriate vibes when it comes to the Bali Hai signature tiki mug and the giant head that adorns the top of the building. I know it’s historic, but we didn’t even bother buying a mug because it just felt… a little too on the nose. I know people will have differing opinions than me on this in both directions when it comes to tiki, and I think all perspectives are legit. But for me, it was an additional element that just made Bali Hai one of my less favorite tiki spots in San Diego.
Food and Drinks at the Bali Hai
In terms of food, I wasn’t disappointed. But again, this is a classy date night sort of menu. By this, I mean the entrees are expensive, and don’t include sides. But everything that we ordered was amazingly delicious and I enjoyed every bite.
I can’t quite say the same of the drinks. Perhaps because they were a bit too alcoholic for me. But for those of you less concerned about that, the Mai Tai is their classic drink. Although it is notably stronger than most (so much so that it is noted on the menu). They also limit how many you can order due to this as well.
That being said, the Bali Hai has served 2 million mai tais and counting; consider getting one for yourself if you are ready for the intensity of their drinks. And again, even though it wasn’t my personal favorite, I did enjoy visiting, and it’s a bucketlist tiki restaurant for its historic role in the sub-culture.
Ok, so I have to be honest here, we weren’t able to get a reservation at False Idol. So, I can’t tell you what it was like. However, from what I have seen online, this is a spot much enjoyed by the tiki crowd. If you can get a reservation here, I’d suggest it. (Let me know how it is! *sobs*) I hope to make it here someday in the future.
The Forbidden Cove is a bit of an odd one among San Diego tiki bars, and I have mixed feelings about it. This little speakeasy-style tiki bar is located inside of another bar, Kilowatt. The brewery/bar that you have to go through in order to find the Forbidden Cove wasn’t my style at all. And no shade to anyone who does enjoy places like Kilowatt, but it reminded me of the chaos of Animal House and kind of had that party-brewhouse feel. It wasn’t exactly the kind of place I wanted to be struggling to find a speakeasy in.
And getting into the Forbidden Cove was a bit confusing, to the point that I can’t even exactly tell you how to get in. I think you need to ask the bartender in Kilowatt for an idol. Then you can use it as a key to open a door behind the brew barrels to get into the speakeasy. However, we didn’t know that, and sort of lucked out when someone else came out of Forbidden Cove. We were able to slip in. Since we had reservations, it was a little frustrating not knowing the process and the bartenders at Kilowatt were too busy to help.
Drinks and Atmosphere at Forbidden Cove
In any case, once we got in, I really enjoyed the atmosphere that they created in the speakeasy. It was a dark room, with glowing lights of various colors, and tiki accents everywhere. I have read that some consider this spectacular tiki vibe to be a rip-off of False Idol. But since I didn’t manage to visit there, I can’t say if I agree. For what it was, I thought the atmosphere in Forbidden Cove was very nice. We also had the chance to experience it when it was near capacity and when it emptied out. Full capacity wasn’t nearly as fun and relaxing, but it also didn’t make me want to throw down my drink and swim out through the crowd.
Now, when it comes to the drinks at Forbidden Cove, things get a little… unique. They don’t use rum in their tiki drinks, they use undistilled sugar cane liquor. Some people find the flavor of this alcohol to be a bit odd, and it definitely wasn’t a rum flavor in the least. I wasn’t bothered by it myself, but if you are looking for traditional tiki flavors, you won’t find them here.
All things considered, I think some hardcore tiki fans will find this place a little off-putting. But if you go willing to try the unique flavors and enjoy the speakeasy, you will have a good time. Forbidden Cove is only open on Fridays and Saturdays from 5 until midnight. It’s highly suggested that you get a reservation.
The Grass Skirt
Of every San Diego tiki bar related thing that I did during my Tiki Oasis weekend, the Grass Skirt was my favorite. Amazing tiki atmosphere, great drinks, good food, and an adventurous find.
Although I wasn’t aware of this when we planned our trip, the Grass Skirt is a speakeasy! And it isn’t as confusing to find as the Forbidden Cove, so I don’t want to spoil the fun for you. Keep your eyes peeled for signs of tiki as you search for the entrance, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Once you find your way inside the tiki bar, you will not be disappointed. There are beautiful little surprises by way of décor around every corner. The patio is host to a massive tiki head fireplace. There are little couched tables lining the outer walls that feel like escapes. And the bar is festooned with golden skulls, tiki memorabilia, and tv screens that lend atmospheric interest more or less throughout the night. There is even a gigantic tiki head with a table inside it for people with large enough parties.
Food and Drink at Grass Skirt
The tiki drinks here are traditional, with a little twist here and there. But nothing surprising in a disappointing way. All great flavors, from traditional to signature. The Grass Skirt also has some really nice food options. The menu isn’t huge, but each is an Asian-Polynesian fusion dish made with love. There are some really nice, healthy options here as well, like the ahi poke.
As far as I am concerned, you can’t go wrong with this place. Get a reservation ahead of time, and come enjoy yourself. You won’t be disappointed. They are open every day from five until at least 11pm, except for Mondays, when they are closed.
My Honest Opinion of Tiki Oasis
I have been to quite a few conventions (although mostly nerd-related). I used to work Phoenix’s Comicon (it got renamed due to San Diego Comicon suing con in another state, coincidentally) every year for about 6-7 years until COVID-19, I’ve also been to Star Wars Celebration, a couple anime cons, and cultural celebrations as well. And these experiences left me a little… confused by Tiki Oasis.
Primarily because I ended up feeling like my ticket price really didn’t cover anything. After paying about $155 per person for the event, every single panel/class/talk was extra. It was a really expensive ticket, in my opinion, for it to not include anything. And while I think the organizers did their best to make this clear when tickets were purchased, I was a little shocked by how restrictive the ticket really was in practice- compared to every other convention I have been to.
Frankly, the best part of Tiki Oasis for me was the vendor hall, but that wasn’t worth what I paid to get in.
An Event for Hardcore Tiki Fans
Now, all that being said, that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t get your money’s worth. Many people that went really went all out with their weekend. They dressed up every day, they stayed at the convention hotel and decorated their balconies. They really really immersed themselves in the tiki culture in ways that you can’t do anywhere else. For people who love tiki, have friends who love it, and are way more outgoing than me, I think Tiki Oasis was probably a wonderful experience. And if the tickets hadn’t been so expensive, I’m sure I would have been more excited about my experience as well.
As it is, I wouldn’t suggest paying for a ticket unless you are really going to go all out for the weekend. Far better to come and visit the vendor hall when it is open to the public, or just enjoy the tiki culture of San Diego on your own time- if the cost of a limited ticket seems like something that would get under your skin like it did mine.
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