Yes, before it was Bali Hai, it was “Christians Hut,” then “The Hut,” according to Larry Baumann, owner/GM and son-in-law to late founder Tom F. Ham Jr. It’s a somewhat long history, but worth telling.
Baumann explained that early on, restaurateur Arthur “Art” Gregg Wellington LaShelle owned the popular Christian's Hut on Balboa in Newport Beach. He based the tropical restaurant on the original Christian's Hut he had opened on Catalina Island in 1934 for the cast and crew of MGM's “Mutiny on the Bounty,” starring Charles Laughton and Clark Gable (as Fletcher Christian).
In 1952, Baumann said LaShelle received approval from the Port of San Diego to build another of his tiki restaurants on the newly developed Polynesian-themed Shelter Island. The circular Tahitian “hut-shaped” building was designed by architect Robert Benedict Brout with Raymond Frazier and help from Boyle Engineering.
LaShelle's corporation reportedly spent more than $200,000 building the new restaurant, under the direction of Aline Hudson from Hollywood.
“She used hand-hewn, local timber's from San Diego and moved ‘The Goof’ down from the Newport Beach location to decorate the roof. Complete with a two-story birdcage inside the restaurant (where the main bar is located today),” Baumann recalled.
Christian's Hut opened in August 1952 but by the next month had dropped “Christian” in favor of simply, The Hut. The corporation spent more money than it took in, Baumann continued.
Then, Shelter Island Inc. filed for protection in bankruptcy court, asking for more time to pay some 139 creditors. That’s when Tom F. Ham Jr., a CPA, recommended it as a potential moneymaker to his client William Kirk.
Kirk purchased it only after Tom Ham agreed to operate it. Tom Ham requested and received a stock option because he was moving his family from Los Angeles, Baumann said.
In 1954, The Hut was formally re-opened as The Bali Hai.
“The name Tom Ham came up with was while looking out the large bay view windows. Bali Hai translates to both ‘your special island’ (from the musical ‘South Pacific’) and ‘top of the isle,’” he said. “The view today is still truly from the ‘top of the isle.’”
Under new management, with some upgrades-thick carpeting throughout, a kitchen upstairs for speedy service and an enlarged topside dining room, they had 400 reservations the first night.
To manage Bali Hai, Ham hired Adolph Rempp, a celebrity on his account (inventor of Adolph's Meat Tenderizer), who had managed Christian's Hut in Newport Beach. Also, chef Eyvind Oas (Rincon Springs, Del Mar Racetrack), served prime rib from the “Chinese oven,” steaks, seafood, Polynesian shrimp and chicken curry while head bartender A.D. Allen (Admiral Kidd) lead the beverage program, according to Baumann.
Baumann said it took Ham until 1963 to purchase controlling shares from Kirk.
“He hired Polynesian dancers and musicians for nightly floorshows, which became quite popular. Many celebrities danced and partied,” he said. “The Polynesian floor show ran Tuesdays to Sundays, two shows a night for almost 30 years, until the mid-1980s.”
More than 65 years and almost 3 million Mai Tai's later, Ham's family – Baumann included –continues to successfully operate the Bali Hai Restaurant, which remains one of the largest and most famous original “Tiki Temples.”
Sadly, Ham Jr. passed away quite suddenly in November 1973. His daughter Susie and husband Larry Baumann took over shortly after and now their son Tom Drake Baumann (Tom Ham's grandson) manages Bali Hai.
In 2010, the Baumann’s renovated the Bali Hai using the incredible talents of the late architect Graham Downs who was able to understand the Bali Hai is much more than a building too many, many people. He saved the feel, the magic, the “aloha spirit.”
They also signed a 40-year lease with the Port of San Diego.
“The Bali Hai is a special place to many people, locals bring their out-of-town guests to show off the city and show them the Mai Tai counter. The family feels blessed to be here and further blessed to be woven in the fabric of so many families' lives,” he said.
“Susie and I feel like the Bali Hai is one of our children. A great deal of our success is due to the fact and family is present much of the time,” he said.
Shortly after Tom Ham took over Bali Hai the Half Moon Inn became a favorite of the Hollywood set that would come for the Del Mar racing season... the Bali Hai benefited greatly from that.
A fun story he recalled was a few years back when actress Annette Benning said in an interview that sitting at a window in Bali Hai was one of her favorite things.
And don’t forget the Mai Tais, which span generations ... to date almost 2.6 million served.
“Recently a regular lunch customer came in with a young man in tow for happy hour,” Baumann said, “I greeted and said, ‘we don't usually see you this time of the day.’
“She responded: ‘It is my grandson's birthday and I am buying him his first Mai Tai.’ My astounded look brought this response: ‘Oh, it's a tradition in our family.’ My first thought was where else would this happen?”
And in October they celebrated the Bali Hai's 65th anniversary with a grand party and the mayor giving a proclamation.
“We anticipate many more years of service to San Diego and beyond,” Baumann said. “People come here to have a good time; we just help them!”
As for what Tom Ham might think today if he saw his pride and joy: “My feeling is that Tom Ham would be pretty darn pleased with where we are today,” Baumann added. “The building with its unique timber is irreplaceable.”