It may look and operate as an actual lighthouse, but the main gig of Tom Ham’s Lighthouse is being one of the city’s treasured brunch institutions—a guiding light for the hungover, the early risers, and the hard-to-impress out-of-towners.
Tom Ham, a tax accountant and UCLA grad, saved the Polynesian-themed Shelter Island restaurant Bali Hai from bankruptcy back in the ’50s, and in 1971 he opened his next project just across the water: A restaurant built around a functioning US Coast Guard beacon on Harbor Island that would offer its patrons incredible views. Although he died two years later, both businesses have stayed in the family for generations—first Larry Baumann, Ham’s son-in-law, took over; now grandsons Andy and Grant Baumann run the Lighthouse and Tom Baumann runs Bali Hai.
Ham’s vision for the restaurant was to serve sea views and California cuisine, making it a seafood restaurant first and foremost. But when they introduced brunch service in the ’80s, it really took off—the one Sunday brunch shift ended up accounting for over 25 percent of the restaurant’s revenue.
To expand the menu and the dining experience, the restaurant was remodeled in 2012. The Baumanns knew that staying in the game this long meant making changes, so to keep up, they let the public guide them. By popular demand, they incorporated more seafood in the menu, highlighting items like oysters, lobster, and scallops, and added 32 draft handles to round out the meals in true San Diego fashion.
“Once we opened after the remodel, we knew that if we didn’t hit brunch out of the park, word was gonna get out,” Andy Baumann says. “Since then, it’s grown its own legs. It’s its own entity now, and it’s quite the experience.”
Known for its full-fledged buffet, Tom Ham’s brunch offers everything from a sprawling raw bar and made-to-order omelet station to cinnamon French toast and a dessert spread designed by their in-house pastry team.
Of course, the beloved buffet had to make some adjustments in 2020. Initially, the restaurant attempted to serve the buffet right from the kitchen, having the waitstaff build the plates for guests. Baumann says that setup quickly became overwhelming, so they turned to a plate-up menu, serving seafood by the pound. It worked, but it wasn’t the experience the customers wanted, nor was it the volume and kind of labor that the staff was used to.
What customers want, Baumann says, is “that ability to walk around, go to the action stations, see the variety. They want to try every item on the buffet. Even just getting another piece of bacon, those things matter to the customer.”
The buffet came back in full swing last summer, and Tom Ham’s is one of the few local buffet institutions to make a full comeback. But that should come as no surprise for the restaurant whose guests had always remained loyal. Since Tom Ham’s opened 50 years ago, dozens of brunch spots have come and gone, but this lighthouse stands on solid ground.