Welcome to Oahu: Where to Eat and Drink in Honolulu and Beyond
Welcome to Oahu!
Oahu has always offered more than just kitschy luau shows and pig roasts. The island is a virtual culinary melting pot, with everything from high-end French cuisine to food truck fare. Whether you’re craving traditional Vietnamese pho or a burger made with locally ranched beef, Oahu’s got it. And while the scene is no longer solely dominated by the Hawaii Regional Cuisine chefs like Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi, their farm-to-table philosophy has influenced a whole new generation of chefs, restaurateurs and food producers who are taking advantage of the island’s bounty of local ingredients.
Photos courtesy of Melissa Chang, Catherine Toth Fox, George Mavrothalassitis, Pint and Jigger, The Halekulani Corp, Travis Sasaki, Huy Vo
Hot Spot: The Pig and the Lady
Good luck getting a table without reservations at The Pig and the Lady, the still-hot Chinatown restaurant that serves a contemporary, street-style spin on traditional Vietnamese fare. Two years after its start as a pop-up at local farmers markets, the Le family, headed by James Beard Foundation Award nominee Chef Andrew Le, opened its first brick-and-mortar location, with a built-in — and extremely loyal — following. The whimsical menu is inspired partly by Mama Le’s home cooking and partly by the rich culinary heritage of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. While you can’t go wrong with any of the noodle dishes — the Farmer’s Pho uses ingredients found at farmers markets, a nod to the restaurant’s humble beginnings — the small plates, including the Laotian fried chicken with pickled chile and the P&L escargot and bone marrow sauteed with betel leaves and fresh turmeric, aren’t to be skipped.
Iconic Spot: House Without a Key, Halekulani
The typical daydream of Waikiki often looks like this: watching the sunset paint the skies over the Pacific Ocean while classic Hawaiian music wafts in the tradewinds, all with a refreshing mai tai in hand. And that’s exactly the scene at House Without a Key, the oceanfront, open-air restaurant at the posh Halekulani Hotel. Immortalized in a 1925 Charlie Chan novel, this popular gathering spot serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Three times a week, chefs cook lobster, lamb chops, Angus beef burgers and more over a kiawe grill at sunset. The experience is enhanced by signature cocktails and live Hawaiian music with former Miss Hawaii hula dancers under the century-old kiawe tree. Don’t leave without ordering the hotel’s signature coconut cake with creme anglaise.
Cocktail Bar: Pint + Jigger
A watering hole popular with hipsters and foodies, Pint + Jigger serves cocktails and stellar food at small tables by the bar or along communal tables in the dining room. The ever-changing beer list has 21 rotating taps and at least 40 different bottle offerings. Cocktails like the tequila-based Smoking Gun, with fresh lilikoi and smoked macadamia simple syrup, and the 5th Amendment (whiskey, Yellow Chartreuse, Fernet and lilikoi bitters) are developed by owner and bar manager Dave Thor Newman, considered one of the best mixologists around. Dinner fare includes the applewood-smoked double-cut bacon, spiral-cut barbecue-flavored chips and the popular Marrow of Bone topped with chimichurri and served with crostini. The bar’s signature Stout Burger, served with beer cheese and a garlic aioli, is worth the calorie splurge too.
Cheap Eats: Rainbow Drive-In
One of the few remaining classic drive-ins left on Oahu, Rainbow Drive-In, off Kapahulu Avenue — or Rainbow’s, as it’s more commonly called — has been serving plate lunches and post-beach fare like burgers and chili bowls since 1961. Plate lunches are the quintessential lunch in Hawaii. True to the name, they consist of an entire meal — two scoops of white rice, a dollop of macaroni salad and some kind of meat main — on a plate. The most-popular plate lunch at Rainbow’s is the mix plate, which comes with barbecue beef or pork, a boneless chicken cutlet and a nice cut of mahi mahi. Pair this with the drive-in’s famous Slush Float, a dessert that combines strawberry slush with vanilla ice cream.
Real Hawaiian Food: Helena’s Hawaiian Food
You know it’s good Hawaiian food when the restaurant is packed with locals. And that’s what you’ll find — amid savvy map-armed visitors — at this humble hole-in-the-wall in Kalihi. Helen Chock, owner of Helena’s Hawaiian Food, opened the restaurant in 1946 on North King Street and moved it to this location about 15 years ago. Her skills have not gone unnoticed: In 2000 the unpretentious eatery received the prestigious James Beard Award for its classic regional fare. The food here is simple and delicious, including the smoky kalua pig and the creamy luau squid, a Hawaiian dish made by cooking young taro leaves and squid in coconut milk until super tender. The pipikaula short ribs — salted and dried similar to beef jerky — are a must. The cash-only restaurant is only open from Tuesdays through Fridays, with a line at lunchtime, so it’s best to order takeout.
Late-Night Spot: Side Street Inn
It’s not much to look at, even on the inside, but Side Street Inn proves that fine dining doesn’t need to be fancy. Though it’s located on a small, cluttered lane near Ala Moana Center, the popular late-night sports bar serves a menu that lures even James Beard Award-winning chefs like Alan Wong. (Side Street Inn has a second location on Kapahulu Avenue that’s a bit more spacious and modern.) This unpretentious restaurant, run by Chef Colin Nishida, specializes in large, shareable plates of island comfort-food favorites, such as Hawaiian-style pulehu short ribs, Chinese-style crispy skin roast pork, steamed Manila clams with Portuguese sausage and bell peppers, and kimchi fried rice. The most-popular dish, though, is the pan-fried pork chops, which are crisped on the outside, juicy on the inside. Wash it all down with the bar’s wide selection of domestic and imported beers — including its own signature Side Street Inn Rogue Ale — wines, spirits and cocktails. And yes, there’s karaoke, too.
Date Spot: Hoku’s, The Kahala Hotel & Resort
For starters, you can’t beat the view. Tucked away in an exclusive residential neighborhood just minutes from Waikiki, Hoku’s, the signature restaurant at The Kahala Hotel & Resort, perches on the second floor with panoramic, palm-framed views of the Pacific Ocean. Its menu features Asian and Mediterrean influences using locally sourced ingredients, like the sauteed French foie gras paired with an Okinawan sweet potato puree and macadamia nuts, or the fisherman’s soup filled with scallops, mussels, shrimp, locally caught fish and ogo (Hawaiian edible seaweed). The restaurant recently updated its offerings, adding a bison rib eye and a grilled five-ounce Miyazaki Wagyu strip loin that literally melts in your mouth. But some of Hoku’s classics remain, like the popular Ahi Poke Musubi and seafood tower. After dinner, head next door to The Veranda, where you can sip wine and listen to jazz in a romantic open-air space.
Iconic Dish: Malasadas at Agnes’ Portuguese Bake Shop
You’d be hard-pressed to find malasadas anywhere outide Oahu, including parts of Portugal, where this dessert hails from. These deep-fried dough balls doused in white sugar made their way to Hawaii with Portuguese immigrant workers from Madeira and the Azores in the late 19th century. And they quickly became a local favorite, with bakeries around Oahu selling their version of this Portuguese treat. While there are more convenient bakeries — namely Leonard’s Bakery on Kapahulu Avenue — selling malasadas, the trek to Agnes’ Portuguese Bake Shop in Kailua is worth the effort for the piping-hot, made-to-order malasadas hand-shaped (per Portuguese tradition) with a hole in the center. Agnes’ also sells other pastries, such as Russian tea cookies, bacon-maple fritters, lemon bars, jelly doughnuts and bread pudding.
Tasting Menu: Chef Mavro
There aren’t many chefs on Oahu who can boast the accolades of George Mavrothalassitis. Not only has he earned the prestigious James Beard Foundation Award and helped found the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement, but he also has racked up accolades from nearly every association and publication in the business. And Chef Mavrothalassitis — or Mavro, for short — still works in the kitchen every night. His is one of the few restaurants on Oahu that offers a tasting menu with wine pairings. (There’s no wine list.) The four-, six- and 11-course menus change seasonally, showcasing local ingredients like the lobster from Keahole on Hawaii Island paired with sweet corn grown in Kahuku or the locally grown zucchini blossoms tempura with an island tomato coulis. If something not on the tasting menu catches your eye, the staff is flexible about customizing menus for the best dining experience. The tastings run from $95 to $185 per person, with wine pairings of $60 to $125 more, depending on the number of courses.
Dessert: The Little Oven
This elusive little dessert shop, hidden on bustling King Street, garners a devoutly loyal — nearly cultlike — following, mostly because of its unpredictability. Here’s the backstory: Joyce Harada traveled to Europe and was inspired by the pastries and desserts she ate there. So when she returned to Oahu in 2007, she opened The Little Oven — and didn’t tell anyone. You literally had to walk past it — almost by accident — to even notice it was there. Two years later, word started to spread, thanks to social media, and it wasn’t long before dessert lovers were pouring in from everywhere to line up outside her little shop. She’s closed up before — once for two years — but has recently reopened, to the delight of her fans, hopefully for good. The menu changes often, but some recent favorites include the Brownie Fluff, a decadent and rich brownie with a marshmallow topping that’s perfectly browned, and a calamansi tart paired with a watermelon Prosecco sorbet. Expect to wait — there’s almost always a line of hungry dessert fiends outside.
Gelato: Via Gelato Hawaii
Since opening in Kaimuki last year, Via Gelato Hawaii — which started as a food truck — has served more than 100 different flavors, from black sesame to green tea haupia to Frosted Flakes. Everything — like the fudge and caramel that get swirled into base gelato flavors, and the freshly baked waffle cones — is made from scratch. “It takes time,” says owner Melissa Bow, “but it’s way better.” And the best part? The gelato shop is open late enough for post-dinner noshing — until 10 p.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. (It’s closed on Mondays.)
New Restaurant: MW Restaurant
It’s nearly impossible to walk into MW Restaurant without reservations anymore. Nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award for Best New Restaurant in 2014, MW, run by the husband-and-wife power team of Wade Ueoka and Michelle Karr-Ueoka, has quickly become one of the most-buzzed-about restaurants in town, serving creative dishes that feature local ingredients, such as the popular fried Jidori chicken with a garlic-soy sauce and Hawaiian-grown hearts of palm, and the panzanella salad using Ho Farms baby tomatoes and goat cheese from Hawaii Island. The dining room is spacious and sleek, with high ceilings and a modern decor. And the attentive waitstaff and creative bartenders only enhance the dining experience. For dessert, try the Tropical Fruit Creamsicle "Brulée" with lilikoi sorbet, tapioca, tropical fruits and lilikoi custard, or the MW Candy Bar with macadamia nut praline crunch, salt caramel, Waialua-grown chocolate and housemade cookies.
Sushi: Mitch’s Fish Market & Sushi Bar
Set in an industrial area near the airport, Mitch’s Fish Market & Sushi Bar is an unexpected find for world-class sushi. The restaurant looks like a standard neighborhood hangout, with a few simple tables — no white linen here — and a couple of sushi chefs behind the counter, but reservations are essential for this BYOB. While the menu features the usual hand-roll and sushi assortment — chutoro, unagi, natto and hamachi — unique specialties that can’t be missed include the live lobster and abalone, and a giant clam served open with the clam meat chopped into a mixture of mushrooms and a rich mayonnaise-based sauce. Owner Craig Mitchell keeps the menu varied with fresh fish from around the world, so the specials change depending on what’s available.
Rock Star Chef: Lee Anne Wong
A household name for her turns on Top Chef and Unique Eats, Lee Anne Wong moved to Oahu permanently in 2013 to open her first Hawaiian eatery, Koko Head Cafe, in Kaimuki. Her innovative twists on breakfast and brunch fare include kimchi bacon cheddar scones, Breakfast Bibimbap with three meats in a hot skillet, and a poi (taro) biscuit topped with a soft-poached egg and mushroom gravy. In 2014 she penned her first cookbook, Dumplings All Day Wong, and has opened her second restaurant concept, Hale Ohuna, a modern noodle bar within walking distance from her brunch house. The New York native used her well-earned connections to secure exclusive beers and sakes not found in Hawaii for this restaurant, which got lots of buzz on social media well before its doors even opened.