Ten years ago Honolulu had two kinds of restaurants: high-end fine dining aimed at tourists and a select few residents, and affordable mom-and-pop spots where plate lunch and noodle soups were served without fanfare. In the past few years, though, the food scene has diversified. Food trucks and farmers' markets are elevating plate lunch, while areas like Chinatown, which was once known more for its homelessness epidemic than anything else, is now host to art galleries, clothing boutiques, and restaurants worth dressing up for.
Below is a list of restaurants that, with the exception of Lewers Lounge, have opened in the past two years. They represent the new wave of Hawaii dining, where chefs place an emphasis on island-sourced ingredients and imaginative takes on local classics are served in casual, stylish settings.
Best Bar: Pint & Jigger is a gastro-pub on King Street near the University of Hawaii. The shuffleboard in the back draws small groups, while long wooden tables near the front are perfect for a crowd. Share an order of the pigs-in-a-blanket with the table, but keep the stout burger with beer cheese to yourself. A rotating 21-beer tap includes a number of local breweries, but it’s the inventive cocktail menu—with drinks like the Mesquite Smoked Manhattan—by co-owner Dave Newman, formerly the bar manager of Nobu Waikiki, that will keep you coming back for more.
Best Pause While Sight-Seeing: Lucky Belly is on my itinerary any time I’m near downtown Honolulu. Take a morning tour of Iolani Palace for a sense of Hawaiian history and a peek at beautifully preserved artifacts. After that, walk through one of the oldest Chinatowns in America to Lucky Belly, where you can relax with a bowl of ramen and Asian-inspired starters such as pork belly bao. Dusty Grable, a certified sommelier and local boy who cut his teeth at San Francisco’s Gary Danko before coming back home to open his own restaurant, has created the well-edited wine, beer, and sake list.
Best Dessert: Farmer’s Markets are the new tourist hot-spot in Honolulu, and it’s fun to see locals and visitors lining up to eat Vietnamese street food from The Pig & the Lady or buy Mahiki Heirloom tomatoes from WOW Farm. Save room for Hawaiian Cheesecakes. David Bearden, the chef-owner, makes a classic New York-style cheesecake, with or without a macadamia nut short bread crust, and his flavors are sourced from Hawaii's many available fruits. His lilikoi cheesecake, made from island passionfruit, is my favorite. Buy a cupcake or two for yourself, and a whole cheesecake to carry back with you to friends and family.
Best Nod to the Past: Lewers Lounge is where the characters of Mad Men would spend their Hawaii vacation. Located in the Halekulani Hotel, in the middle of bustling Waikiki, this jazz lounge transports you to a quieter, more refined era. The lights are dim, the red velvet banquets plush, and the jazz trio in the corner croons Bobby Darin’s version of "Beyond the Sea." A waitress in a cream-colored dress offers a menu with everything from martinis to mai tais. If you want dessert instead of drinks, order the coconut cake. A dress code is required—closed-toe shoes and pants for men, evening attire for women—but it merely adds to the sophisticated ambience.
Best Dinner: SALT: bar & kitchen is the newest dining darling in Honolulu. Located in the Kaimuki neighborhood, SALT won Honolulu Magazine’s prestigious Hale Aina Award for Best New Restaurant, and Chef Quinten Frye was selected as a semi-finalist for this year’s James Beard Award. Frye’s menu hits the right balance between trendy and local with dishes such as fresh-caught tako (octopus) with homemade chorizo, brown butter gnocchi with vegetables from island farms, and house-made charcuterie. If you want a more formal dining experience, the upstairs loft space is quiet and cozy, but the action in the downstairs bar is fun, where a muted television plays surf footage while bar master Julian Wolfstrom mixes cocktails and describes the latest barrel he caught.
Best Place to Recover from Surfing: Side Street Inn is come-as-you-are casual. The original Side Street was a dive bar with great food that drew chefs and servers late-night as everyone got off their shifts. The new Side Street is on Kapahulu Avenue, a short walk from Waikiki, and perfect for any hour. Order "Da Works" fried rice with lup cheong (Chinese sweet sausage) and kimchee. Between the fried chicken and pan-fried pork chop, it’s a toss up, but the kal bi (Korean-style short ribs) is a must, as is the corn chowder, when they have it. The portions are family-style, ideal for sharing or for chowing down after a day in the water.
Kristiana Kahakauwila , a native Hawaiian, was raised in Southern California. She earned a master's in fine arts from the University of Michigan and a bachelor's degree in comparative literature from Princeton University. She has worked as a writer and editor for Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado, and Highlights for Children magazines. She taught English at Chaminade University in Honolulu and is now an assistant professor of creative writing at Western Washington University. Her book This is Paradisewas released earlier this month.
Photo Credits: Best Bar: Courtesy of Pint and Jigger; Best Pause While Sight-Seeing: 9nong/Shutterstock; Best Dessert: Courtesy of Hawaiian Cheesecakes; Best Nod to the Past: Courtesy of Halekulani Hotel; Best Dinner: Courtesy of Salt Bar & Kitchen; Best Place to Recover from Surfing: takaokun/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)