370 Seventh Avenue, Downtown San Diego
“This place looks out of my league,” my friend texted me hours before we were planning to meet downtown for drinks and appetizers.
He was referring to the Cat Eye Club, which, during its first few months of opening was a Mad Men-styled bar complete with a Mondrian-style stain glass in the front and a dress code designed to appeal to San Diego’s upper crust (or as my friend Heidi calls them: “The $30,000 millionaires”).
“Let’s do something more my speed,” my friend said. “I only own jeans.”
Luckily, times change, bars change. Now the Cat Eye Club is trying a tiki lounge theme.
Let’s make it clear: you wouldn’t know that if you looked at the Cat Eye Club’s website. It hasn’t been updated, but I swear to God, you don’t need to dress up to get in there these days.
I first found the club during the transition from Don Draper to Don Ho and loved the mid-60s interior. I also loved the gimlets.
“We’re the home of the two-ounce pour,” the bartender helpfully explained. He probably didn’t say it exactly like that, but I’m a lightweight and thoughts get fuzzy after a gimlet with a two-ounce pour.
The tiki transformation is now complete. I came back a few weeks later, safe in the knowledge that the Cat Eye Club still serves martinis, gibsons and Manhattans. But now the selling point are tiki drinks sold in Polynesian-themed mugs and bowls, and pupu platters of spring rolls, skewers, wontons and other Pacific rim goodies.
The $22 pupu platter is pretty damn good. I liked the grilled shrimp the best, but all the items had something worth recommending. But food is not the main attraction at the Cat Eye Club.
“That’s 7 ounces of alcohol in that Scorpion Bowl,” the bartender said as he lit on fire a huge bowl filled with alcohol and fruit juice. Honestly, he probably didn’t say it like that. He said something though. I’m sure of that.
The Scorpion Bowl has El Dorado Demerara rum, Maison Rouge VSOP, and orange and pineapple juices. It’s $27 worth of fruity goodness and is best for sharing. Unless you want to share a drunk tank.
When my friend who was afraid of the dress code got there, the place was quiet and dark. A jukebox in the corner, Turner Classic Movies on a TV over a faux fireplace and furniture that makes it look like the mid-century living room of my dreams.
It was the perfect place for cranky guys in their forties to get their drink on while telling the bartender things they need to know about life. Or at least music.
The Pandora station was playing 1960s hits. Fine, but this is a tiki bar. It needs “faux-waiian music” — the fake tiki-cocktail music created by mid-century entertainers like Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman.
And I slurred exactly that to the bartender. Maybe not exactly that. I don’t remember.
Still, he was accommodating. He also accommodated us by making my friend a “Ghost of Black’s Beach,” a rum drink made with Benedictine and lemon juice and served in a skull mug.
I had a Tourmaline Typhoon. That has Ballast Point aged rum, Ballast Point white rum, guava puree, and lemon juice. It is served in a tiki mug with a banana on top.
“That looks like a duck,” my friend says.
“It’s supposed to be a dolphin,” says the accommodating bartender.
By the time “Girl From Ipanema” came on the Martin Denny Pandora channel, my friend and I wanted something in the same vibe but not so retro.
“Do you have a Pet Sounds channel?”
The accommodating bartender checked. He did. He put it on.
The seven ounces plus of alcohol in both of us made us compelled to explain to the bartender about the importance of this album.
“Brian Wilson, leader of the Beach Boys, releases this album of orchestrated goodness — as good as Beethoven, and his best friends, his family, everyone around him, hates it,” says one of us.
“Mike Love, the lead singer keeps saying to him, ‘Don’t ‘F’ with the formula, Brian. Keep it girls and cars,” says the other one of us. Does it matter who?
“The only one who likes the album is Paul McCartney, who is inspired to create Sgt. Pepper,” says my friend. “There was a big competition between the Beach Boys and the Beatles.”
“And even Paul McCartney thinks the Beach Boys won.”
More people arrive and I drink some water while my friend has a couple of vodka sodas — with the famous Cat Eye Club two-ounce pour.
We feel that we have sufficiently "edumacated" this young bartender about Brian Wilson and Pet Sounds so we take our leave.
“Feel better that there’s no dress code?” I ask.
“Yeah, but when you write this, you need to make the whole thing about Pet Sounds and just put that the food was good at the end.”
I'm easy. The food was good.
So were the drinks.