Bali Ha’i at Pontchartrain Beach was the creation of Harry Batt Sr., who had developed a great appreciation for Asian culture and food on his many travels.
The restaurant was first called the Pontchartrain Beach Comber when it opened in 1958, but a lawsuit from Tiki pioneer Don the Beachcomber resulted in a 1959 name change: Bali Ha’i, taken from the musical South Pacific.
The exotic experience began even before arrival at the restaurant. A bamboo-decorated “Sampan Taxi” would pick diners up from the parking lot and deliver them to the Bali Ha’i entry port, an impressive bamboo A-frame peak. There were also shuttles running from the restaurant to downtown New Orleans, complete with onboard Tiki drinks.
The drinks menu was glamorous and theatrical. The giant Tiki Bowl, supported by three miniature Tikis, came with extra-long straws for everyone to sip from together. The Fogg Cutter cocktail was served in a ceramic smiling Tiki head, which could be purchased and taken home. There was even a large carved volcano that dispensed drinks to customers.
The Cantonese menu brought new dishes to New Orleans diners, including moo goo gai pan, chow mein, rumaki and eggrolls. The new spices and sauces livened up familiar seafood, but American standards were also available for the less adventurous diners.
Bali Ha’i became the place for celebrations for decades – weddings and anniversaries, proms and graduations and, of course, the perfect first date. Private parties could book the Bora Bora Hut, the Lanai Hut or the Samoan Hut.
Although Pontchartrain Beach closed in 1983, the restaurant stayed open for a few more years. By 1988, the furnishings and memorabilia had been sold off to the public. The entry port was moved to a pavilion at Veterans Memorial Park in Kenner, where it still can be seen today.
A full wall mural of the Hawaiian Islands complemented the Joseph Lenz-designed Tiki décor at Bali Ha’i: bamboo walls, Taiwanese spears, Samoan tapa cloth, burlap and palm fronds on the ceiling accented by Japanese fish nets and floats, Tiki gods carved from fern roots and totem poles everywhere. Most of the items were imported from 10 different Pacific islands, giving the restaurant a very authentic Polynesian vibe.