Inside Look: False Idol, San Diego

The tiki renaissance continues to expand, and one of the newest and most notable additions to the scene is False Idol in San Diego. A collaboration between Martin Cate (Smuggler’s Cove, Whitechapel) and CH Projects in San Diego (Noble ExperimentPolite Provisions), the bar is located via a secret entrance inside the newly renovated Craft & Commerce. False Idol isn’t Cate’s first foray outside of San Francisco—he’s also a partner in Chicago’s Lost Lake and a co-owner of Portland’s Hale Pele—but the bar does represent his first venture in Southern California. “San Diego is a fantastic city that I’ve had the pleasure of visiting regularly for years,” he says. “I love the food, the climate and the people. [The city’s] combination of maritime tradition and rich Polynesian Pop history (as exemplified by the restaurants and architecture of Shelter Island) makes it the perfect setting for a new tiki bar.”

The phrase “Polynesian pop history” comes up frequently when Cate describes False Idol—the subject even inspired the name of the bar. “I was having lunch with Arsalun [Tafazoli, Co-Founder of CH Projects], and we talked about how California artists embraced and studied traditional Polynesian designs and added their own unique interpretations—much like Picasso and Gaugin had done with South Seas art before them—and how for decades, these figural designs were embraced by Americans in their homes and bars,” he says. “So while the notion of a ‘false idol’ exists in some religions, in some respects, mid-century American artists’ unique interpretations add additional meaning to the expression, because these new figures never were idols of any kind. Arsalun stopped me right there and said, ‘That’s perfect; we’ll call it False Idol.’ ”

Like Cate’s other bars, False Idol transports guests to a time and place that’s dramatically different from what’s outside. The interior combines all the expected elements—from an indoor waterfall and flaming volcano to a tiki god carvings etched into the main bar (designed by Tiki Objects by Bosko), petrified puffer fish and glass bouy balls. Designed by Ignacio Gonzalez, who also designed spaces for Smuggler’s Cove and Whitechapel, Cate says the space is simply an extension of his tiki philosophy. “All of my projects are designed to be unique and varied concepts within the world of Polynesian Pop that explore different facets of tiki bar design. The focus at False Idol is to maximize the art of carving while still offering a fully immersive environment.”

Unlike Smuggler’s Cove, which emphasizes the history of rum, the False Idol menu focuses on tropical cocktails, featuring 36 classic recipes from around the world in addition to original drinks devised by Cate and beverage director Anthony Schmidt. With a decade of bartending experience, Schmidt comes to False Idol after having overseen the bar programs at CH’s cocktail bars (Noble Experiment, Polite Provisions, Craft & Commerce, Fairweather, Rare Form and Ironside Fish & Oyster). The list also includes nods to San Diego’s tiki history, with drinks like the Coronado Luau Special from the former Luau Room, and the Panther’s Fang from Barefoot Bar. Drinks are served in custom-made tiki mugs, and there’s no lack of theatrics. The Alkala The Fierce cocktail—named after an ancient demon believed to explode in fits of rage—is served in a flaming volcano bowl, and the bar’s volcano erupts every time the drink is ordered.

On the spirits side, the back bar is stocked with more than 200 rare and vintage rums, including a Plantation Black Label Belize 2004 aged and finished in bourbon, Cognac and port casks. The bottle is only available at False Idol.