By Frank Sabatini Jr.
A slice of Tiki culture hidden in Little Italy
The recent multi-million dollar renovation of Craft & Commerce has spawned a cozy backroom lounge capturing a bygone era that is once again trending in pop culture.
Separated by a secret door from Craft’s new cabin-style design is False Idol, where guests are transported to a time when mai tais, pina coladas and other fruity rum drinks were in vogue.
Contained within the 1,000-square-foot space are Tiki totems, tribal masks and wall carvings representing the false idols of Polynesia, plus a 16-foot bar top that doubles as a display case for copious ephemera reflecting Tiki history, both locally and nationally. Embedded into a wall is a faux volcano rigged to erupt when certain punchbowl drinks are ordered.
“There are so many hidden things to find. You can come in all year and still never see everything in the place,” said Anthony Schmidt, a partner with CH Projects, which also owns Neighborhood, Underbelly, Nobel Experiment, Ironside Fish & Oyster and other drinking and dining hotspots throughout the city.
“A Tiki bar should be one notch above a dive bar and serve drinks that make you feel like you’re on vacation,” he added.
Martin Cate is a Tiki-culture expert from the Bay Area who helped develop False Idol’s rum-centric cocktail program. He owns San Francisco’s thriving Tiki bar, Smuggler’s Cove, and co-authored with his wife a book titled, “Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki” (Random House). Prior to that, he worked at the famed Trader Vic’s, a bellwether in the Tiki movement.
Cate explained that Tiki culture is an American phenomenon that began in 1933 with the opening of Don’s Beachcomber Café in Hollywood. (It was renamed a few years later to Don the Beachcomber.) The fad hit its zenith in the late 1950s and continued spreading until collapsing in the late ’70s.
“The baby boomers didn’t care for it,” he said. “They found their kicks in other ways.”
It wasn’t until the late ’90s, and more so in the past couple of years, that Tiki enthusiasts re-emerged, attracting along the way new generations of bar-goers who never drank tropical libations from conical-shaped mugs flaunting Maori-inspired carvings.
At False Idol, such mugs are deployed for both classic and contemporary Tiki drinks. Some of them, such as the Polynesian Forty Niner and the Singapore Sling, are made respectively with bourbon and gin instead of rum. But all share in common the obligatory acid components from limes, lemons, grapefruit or oranges.
The rum selection that Cate and Schmidt have procured features some rare finds, such as Plantation, which hails from an independent bottler in Belize who finishes making the spirit in separate cognac and port casks.
Their collection also includes a bottle of Black Tot, an authentic British Royal Navy rum they purchased from the original stock before production ended in 1970.
Before Craft & Commerce’s remodel, Schmidt said his team considered converting their East Village Fairweather bar into a full-blown Tiki lounge, but reneged on the idea because the space is largely open to the outdoors.
“Tiki bars are supposed to have a dark, intimate feel to them, a place to escape,” Schmidt said. “We realized there was no way to control the light there.”
He believes the company made the right choice by instead annexing the concept to Craft & Commerce, and said False Idol is a good fit for San Diego.
“There used to be Tiki bars and restaurants all over the city,” he said, referring to The Island that operated in the former Hanalei Hotel in Mission Valley; the Luau Room once hidden inside the Hotel del Coronado; and the existing Bali Hai on Shelter Island, where the Tiki theme dominated much of the peninsula in the 1950s.
False Idol is open from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., daily and doesn’t serve food. But a full menu is available at Craft & Commerce. Both establishments are located at 675 W. Beech St. For more information, call 619-269-2202 or visit falseidoltiki.com.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.