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False Idol Is a Study in How to Do Tiki Right

The new Little Italy bar captures the best of tiki culture


False Idol | Photo: Zack Benson

Mid-century American tiki culture was all about fantasy. Escapism was the goal and the destination was some tropical island that never really existed. Freedom from the constraints of reality means a license to go over-the-top. That’s why tiki cocktails are boozier and more vibrant than any other cocktail genre, and why they’re best enjoyed near an underground waterfall or beneath a canopy of glass fishing buoys, bamboo, and glowing puffer fish.

The Coronado Luau Special | Photo: Arlene Ibarra

Welcome to False Idol. The latest project by Consortium Holdings (Noble Experiment, Polite Provisions, Ironside), is a study in how to do tiki right. Trying to describe the new bar, which opened earlier this month, doesn’t do it justice. It’s an experience—it’s got the right lighting, right sounds, right vibe.

To create False Idol, Consortium reached out to Martin Cate, whose Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco is considered one of the best tiki bars in the U.S. Consortium had first contacted Cate when they were designing Fairweather, the rooftop bar just outside Petco Park, hoping he’d help turn it into a proper tiki spot, says Consortium beverage director Anthony Schmidt. But, the location disqualified it—too much sunlight, Schmidt says. A tiki bar should be a little dark, a little dangerous, just a bit dive-y.

“It should have this cave-like feeling and we couldn’t do that at Fairweather,” he says.

A renovation of Little Italy restaurant Craft & Commerce offered a chance to create a proper tiki bar. Cate helped create the interior layout while Ignacio “Notch” Gonzalez, who designed Smuggler’s Cove, worked with San Diego tiki artist Bosko Hrnjak to adorn False Idol in bamboo, colorful wood carvings, the glass-buoy canopy, and enough other clever details that will require a few visits to take it all in.

“We’ll be adding to this for the rest of its life. It’ll never be done,” Schmidt says. “There’s always something to add, some little knick-knack.”

False Idol could serve Malibu Rum and pineapple juice and still be a destination. But Consortium spots are known for their cocktails. Schmidt and Cate collaborated on a menu of 38 cocktails that’s half classics—some standard, some lesser-known—and modern interpretations of those classics. The Mai Sha Roa Na, a take on a Mai Tai, includes Jamaican rum, a house-made vanilla-macadamia cordial, madeira, banana liqueur, and fresh lemon juice. Both the Pearl Diver (classic) and Polynesian Forty Niner (modern) feature Don the Beachcomber’s spiced-butter Gardenia Mix.

The Pearl Diver | Photo: Arlene Ibarra

The menu also pays homage to San Diego tiki bars of yore—the Barefoot Bar at Vacation Village, the Islands Bar at the Hanalei Hotel, and the Hotel Del’s Luau Room. While the Coronado Luau Special is the original recipe, for a couple other cocktails, they only had general descriptions to work from. “So, we took the creative liberty,” Schmidt says. “But we wanted to do a dedication to San Diego.”

Tiki may be about bold statements, but a great tiki cocktail (actually any great cocktail) has nuance. In False Idol’s cocktails, it’s easy to appreciate every ingredient’s role. Not a fan of rum? There are whiskey-based tiki drinks (Eastern Sour, Bourbon Special) and gin-based tiki drinks (the Singapore Sling and the Saturn—one of my favorites). Huge fan of rum? Schmidt’s planning a rum tasting club that’ll highlight some of False Idol’s more than 200 rare and vintage rums.

False Idol opens at 6 p.m. seven days a week. Reservations are highly recommended. You can find Schmidt, easily one of San Diego’s most charming and talented cocktail creators, behind the bar Thursdays and Sundays.

Got an idea for a future blog post? Write to 2kellydavis@gmail.com.

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