Long weekend in San Diego 2022: Tiki Bars, Balboa Park, Mission Beach, and a funky old mid-century resort.
We decided to take a quick long weekend in San Diego when looking for a little side adventure before meeting up with my parents in Tucson, Arizona for a few days. It is a quick 2.5 hour flight from Seattle, and somewhere I’d never been. (Paddy has been before, when he was 18 on an ill-fated road trip with friends, but that’s another story).
We chose San Diego for the sunshine, beach, and because it is home to a couple renowned Tiki bars that we have seen rave reviews on. We know San Diego has a lot more to offer and this trip only touched the surface. We saw and did what we felt like for the short time that we had.
Day 1: Humphrey’s Half Moon Inn and False Idol
Our flight was a bit delayed, so we had to rush to check into our hotel and head downtown for dinner before our reservation for drinks at False Idol. Fortunately our hotel, Humphrey’s Half Moon Inn was a short 10 minute drive from the airport on Shelter Island.
Humphrey’s Half Moon Inn is a resort hotel dating back to 1967. It is located on Shelter Island, a harbor neighborhood of Point Loma. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, all buildings on Shelter Island were supposed to follow a Polynesian/tropical theme. Many of these buildings have since been renovated or torn down, but Humphrey’s has been updated and still holds onto it’s tropical roots. There is a large heated pool that is open until 11:00 PM, a hot tub, tropical gardens including two resident parrots and a koi pond. Rooms are either pool view, parking lot view, or harbor view, with a select few overlooking their concert venue.
We opted for a “tropical-view king,” with a request for a ground floor room with an outside sitting area. Our sitting area faced the walkway around the pool and the view wasn’t much, but it was nice to have a little area to drink our morning coffee outside.
We dropped our bags off, changed clothes, and jumped in an Uber to Cafe Sevilla in the Gaslamp District. We love Spanish food and tapas, and had planned on a relaxing tapas dinner before our 9:00 PM reservation at False Idol. Unfortunately, by the time we got to Cafe Sevilla, it was 7:45, which was just enough time to order a shared paella and two glasses of wine before dashing out in another Uber over to False Idol. Reservations at False Idol book up way in advance, so we didn’t want to risk being late. The Paella was delicious, and we would love to go back and try more of their dishes someday.
False Idol is in the Little Italy neighborhood, and while it is a newer tiki bar, it has all the elements of classic tiki: Speakeasy style entrance within another bar (Craft & Commerce), classic 60’s exotica music, low lighting, tropical decor, and a drink menu filled with many classics. I cannot stress enough planning ahead and getting a reservation. They do let some people in for standing room, but I saw many getting turned away at the door. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Reservations are for an hour and a half, about enough time to enjoy two rounds of drinks.
In addition to all the classic cocktails on the menu (many I recognized from Martin Cate’s Smugglers Cove book), they had different house-concocted variations of each.
We tried the Victory on the Red Sea (a variation on Three Dots and a Dash), The Polynesian Forty-Niner (a variation on the Pearl Diver), Steve’s Rum Barrel, and the False Idol Old-Fashioned. All were top notch, very complex, and beautifully presented. When we first started getting into tiki, I wasn’t so into rum or “tropical drinks” as the ones I had tried in the past were sugary sweet, hangover-inducing horrors of the 70’s and 80’s.
After visiting Barbados and sampling some higher-end aged rums and the cocktails of today’s serious craft cocktail tiki bars or immersion bars, I have become a lover of rum. You won’t find high-fructose corn syrup grenadine or piña colada mix in a legit tiki bar of today. Syrups and liqueurs are often house-infused and only quality spirits are used. That said, they are pricey. Expect to pay about $15-$18 a drink. You get what you pay for here.
We can’t recommend False Idol enough, and will absolutely be back on any future trip to San Diego.
Day 2: Balboa Park, Mission Beach, and More Tiki Cocktails
We started the day by grabbing some breakfast burritos from the Pearson Deli and Fuel Dock a couple blocks from Humphreys. This little family- run spot is beloved by locals in Shelter Island, and has delicious and inexpensive breakfast sandwiches and deli sandwiches to go. There is a restaurant at Humphrey’s that serves breakfast, but it is quite pricey. We made coffee in our room and enjoyed breakfast on our patio.
We opted to spend the early afternoon at Balboa Park, walking around the area of the Spanish Village Art Center. The park is huge, way too large to see all of it at once, so we just walked around the Spanish Village area. Lots of museums, Spanish-style architecture, gardens, and pavilions with vendors selling food and crafts. The art center portion is full of little studios selling paintings, prints, crafts, and sculptures. The sculpture studio was our favorite–so many bizarre and unique sculptures.
The rose garden was also lovely. A great spot to stop and enjoy a fresh-squeezed lemonade from a vendor cart in the pavilion.
After a siesta back at the hotel, we figured it wouldn’t be right to go to San Diego and not see the beach. We took an Uber to the Mission Beach Boardwalk to walk around and check it out.
Mission Beach Boardwalk reminded me of a smaller, cleaner version of Venice Beach in LA. To be honest, I prefer the gritty, surf-hippy LA vibe of Venice Beach to Mission Beach, but it was fun to see. The Belmont Park boardwalk area offers rides and carnival games, including an old wooden roller coaster dating back to 1925 that is still in operation.
We walked along the beach enjoying the late afternoon sun, eventually arriving at Miss B’s Coconut Club for dinner and drinks.
A giant cocktail in a huge, solid copper flamingo? Yes please!
We ordered the “Havana Good Time” cocktail for two, featuring vodka, grapefruit, cucumber, and kombucha. Paddy was a good sport about sharing this with me, because I wasn’t going to let this giant, boozy flamingo experience go. The cocktail itself wasn’t too strong, and was surprisingly good. Well balanced and tart, not too sweet at all.
For dinner we opted to share the jerk chicken plate (house specialty), and the coconut seafood ceviche. Both were delicious. The chicken was cooked perfectly and fall-off-the-bone tender. There was a really nice veggie medley on the side that I wished there was more of. The ceviche was served with plantain chips, and tasted like a hybrid of classic ceviche and Tahitian poisson cru.
We had one more cocktail before heading back to the beach to watch the sunset–The Oaxacan Dead. Consisting of tequila, mezcal, pomegranate, cinnamon, falernum, and grapefruit juice, The Oaxacan Dead is definitely one we would like to learn to make at home.
If you’re looking for fun cocktails and Caribbean food a couple blocks off the beach, Miss B’s is a great spot.
We ended dinner at just the right time to watch the sunset before heading to our reservation at The Grass Skirt. It had been a while since I watched the sun disappear into the ocean.
Now, on to The Grass Skirt, the other renowned San Diego tiki bar:
First of all, I cannot stress enough that you should make a reservation in advance. This place is popular and reservations go quickly online. They release new reservations about 3-4 weeks in advance of each date, so check the website when planning your trip and get a booking if you plan on going here. Weekends always fill up quickly, you may have better luck on weeknights.
Second, The Grass Skirt gets the award for the best hidden entrance that I have ever seen. A trait of a great tiki bar is that it be secretive and special, without a view to the outside world. An immersive experience. Super bonus if that means the entrance is disguised! To enter, you go to the Poke shop next door, and check in with the host. When your table is ready, you are led through a door that is disguised as a restaurant walk-in refrigerator in the Poke restaurant kitchen. That’s right, you walk into the kitchen, behind the restaurant cooks, and go into the walk-in. You are then immersed into the dark, tropical world of The Grass Skirt. Genius.
We were seated in the fireplace area, which is open air while still being closed off from the outside. The tiki fireplace is an impressive work of art and ambiance.
Our server was over-the-top fantastic. She chatted with us quite a bit, and was very knowledgeable about the cocktail menu. We told her we had our own basement tiki bar at home, and she seemed excited to have people who really appreciate the drinks and experience of tiki. She even brought us a couple shots on the house in complementary souvenir shot glasses–“Johnny’s Bananas,” a chiled, house-infused banana rum, and “Batida Time,” a tequila guava aperitif. Both were delicious.
On to the drinks:
Paddy tried the Oaxacan Dead, a different version of the cocktail we just had at Miss B’s Coconut Club. I started with The Grass Skirt Daiquiri, which had Navy Strength Rum, pineapple rum, lime, and smoked salt. A fruitier version of the classic daquiri. The Oaxacan Dead was a very different, fruitier, rum version (as opposed to tequila). It was just as delicious, however I think I prefer the tequila flavor for this drink.
For our next round I tried the W.W.Z., with rhum agricole, pomegranate, lime, cinnamon, and absinthe among other rums and ingredients. It was complex and boozy, very classic tiki. Paddy had the Kona Old-Fashioned, a rum version of the classic Old-Fashioned: aged rum, macadamia nut liqueur, and Bittermans xocolatl mole bitters. This one blew us away so much that we went out and bought a bottle of Trader Vic’s Macadamia Nut Liqueur when we got home so that we could enjoy these in our home bar. The Kona Old-Fashioned is slightly desserty, complex, and buttery with an exotic twist from the bitters. Definitely recommend!
The music at the Grass Skirt was a little more modern (there was even a DJ setting up when we left). False Idol gets the edge as far as a classic tiki experience goes, but both tiki bars are fantastic. Don’t miss these on your San Diego trip–and be sure to make a reservation.
Day 3: North Park and Relaxing on Shelter Island
On our last day, we opted to take it slow and not attempt to do All The Things. We could have explored Ocean Beach, or Old Town, or checked out more of Little Italy and the Gaslamp District. However, we were on vacation and we felt the need to relax and enjoy life. We would love to come back and see more of San Diego on our next trip.
When I visit a new city, I try to find a fun neighborhood to explore with fun shops, record stores, vintage clothing, etc. It looked like the North Park neighborhood had a lot of those things. After breakfast burritos at Portside Coffee and Gelato up the street from Humphrey’s, we called an Uber to check out North Park.
To be honest, we found North Park a little disappointing. Many shops were closed and boarded up (pandemic casualties, most likely). The record store we wanted to go to was closed (despite Google Maps stating that it was open).
However, we did find a few gems:
The Gold Dust Collective : Oddities, art and handmade jewelry and other items, as well as some vintage collectibles.
Artelexia : Shop specializing in Mexican gifts, crafts, home goods, and other fun things.
The Girl Can’t Help It : Vintage clothing and accessories. I’m not going to lie, you need to have a fat wallet to shop here. However, it’s a pretty amazing little collection and worth a peek if you like vintage.
Lucha Libre Tacos : One of two locations in San Diego, this taco shop has delicious tacos and burritos, and (dare I say?) “instagram worthy” interior. Hot pink walls and gold glitter vinyl booths? Yes please. Try the San Diego style burritos with French fries instead of rice for a true local experience.
After our jaunt over to North Park, we spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the pool at Humphrey’s.
For dinner, we had plans of checking out Mitch’s Seafood in Shelter Island as we had read rave reviews. Unfortunately, so had everyone else. The line was very long, and the harried staff was trying to clean up the dining area and convey to everyone that it was at least an hour wait. It was a little windy and chilly, and after one douchebag thought it was perfectly fine to be the “place holder” in line for his family of 17 who all showed up and butted into the line in front of everyone else, we left.
Tip: Go to Mitch’s Seafood on a weeknight instead, and maybe be prepared for a bit of a wait.
Not wanting to drop a fortune on dinner, we walked back and opted for a deck table at Ketch Grill and Taps. This turned out to be a happy accident, as Ketch had a very short wait, a beautiful open air deck with heaters and a nice view of the harbor. There were even some affordable menu options.
Paddy sampled one of their house-brewed beers, and I tried a pineapple margarita (it was delicious). For dinner we had the Ketch of the Day as a sandwich. This was a choice of three different fishes with several options of cooking styles, and two sides. For $17.50 it was an affordable dinner option and we got a great view. Just watch out for the seagulls–they are very shady and will try to sample an unattended plate.
We are excited to return to San Diego again and see more of this beautiful city. Stay tuned for the next leg of our adventure in Tucson!