Island Inspiration: Where to Eat and Drink in Maui
Known as “The Valley Isle,” Maui is the second-largest in the Hawaiian island chain. For diners, it offers the best of all worlds: With so much of the land zoned for agriculture, chefs there have access to some of the freshest ingredients — sometimes right outside their own restaurants. In fact, you’ll find some chefs have worked as farmers or fishermen, while some farmers have been chefs, so they understand the nexus of area flavors. The talent that has risen in the Maui culinary scene has really gotten a lot of recognition, not just in Hawaii but around the world, as well. Here is a taste of Maui, from traditional to modern and everything in between.
Farm-to-Table Fare: Hana Ranch Provisions
There’s no shortage of creative farm-to-table dining on Maui, but for entirely local flavor, there’s nothing quite like Hana Ranch Provisions on the Valley Isle — or anywhere else in Hawaii, for that matter. Morgan Maki, a Louisiana native who formerly cooked in San Francisco, took Paia’s hippie-chic vibe and elevated it to a level that you might find in the Bay Area. As an outpost of 4,500-acre oceanfront farm Hana Ranch, the restaurant serves excellent beet carpaccio, melty breadfruit-and-sweet potato gnocchi, rice bowls and, of course, its signature burger with juicy, grass-fed beef.
Go to: Hana Ranch Provisions
Local Favorite: Sam Sato’s
If there’s one thing Hawaii people love, it’s saimin, and Sam Sato’s is one of the more popular places for locals to get it. While the dish is originally Chinese, the Hawaiian version is a mash-up that reflects the ethnic melting pot of the plantation workers who created it: Chinese noodles with Japanese broth, and add-ons of Filipino green onions, Portuguese sausage and Korean kimchi. Sam Sato’s is famous for its Dry Mein, which is basically a bowl of saimin with the broth on the side, which you can opt to use for dipping or as a pour-over. If you want to really look local, order a couple of barbecued beef sticks on the side and some french fries. The parking lot and subsequent wait for a table can be impossible at peak meal times, so it’s easier to go at an off hour.
Go to: Sam Sato’s
Perfect Pit Stop: Leoda’s Kitchen & Pie Shop
If you’re making the long drive from Kahului to Lahaina or vice versa, pull off Honoapiilani Highway to the wooden buildings in that tree tunnel and head to Leoda’s. In fact, you don’t have to be making that drive to make it a point to visit; it’s that good. The personal-size pies with local ingredients are the main attraction, and they’re small enough that you can get a few. The banana cream, chocolate macadamia nut and Olowalu Key lime (made with limes fresh off the owner’s trees) are the most popular, but all are excellent. The savory items are popular too, particularly with many Maui chefs. Try the Ham’n or ahi sandwich, or get a fried salad to pretend you’re being healthy.
Shave Ice: Ululani’s
Few visitors leave Hawaii without slurping up shaved ice — or shave ice, as locals call it — which is more exquisite than a regular snow cone. The ice here is shaved fine: Ululani’s arguably has the fluffiest, finest ice on the island, if not the state. The flavors are irresistible too, with unique offerings like lychee, tiger’s blood, wedding cake, pickled mango and wet lemon peel as well as perennial favorites like strawberry and vanilla. Ululani’s is so popular that there are now six locations around Maui, but the main one is in Lahaina, on Front Street, right by the ocean.
Photo courtesy of Ululani's
Tropical Paradise: Mill House Maui
Maui Tropical Plantation — upon which the Mill House Maui sits — is located at the edge of ‘Iao Valley, with endless views of fields and the West Maui Mountains. Due to its size and history as an agricultural hub, the estate grows many of the ingredients used in the restaurant, ensuring quality control and freshness. Executive Chef Jeff Scheer, named 2015 ‘Aipono Chef of the Year, opened Mill House to rave reviews with his creative take on fusion dishes, bringing European-inspired favorites together with local ingredients. Try the Chickpea Panisse and the pillowy gnocchi ragout, but save room for desserts like the Milk and Honey. If you time your visit right, try to get a reservation at the Chef’s Table on select Friday and Saturday nights, where Scheer does an intimate, off-menu coursed dinner in an open-air setting.
Popular Watering Hole: Mala Ocean Tavern
Maui restaurateur Mark Ellman has the magic touch, and he works it with Mala Ocean Tavern, which has locations in Lahaina and Wailea. The restaurant has a hip vibe but is Maui casual, so you can wear shorts and a T-shirt there and still feel comfortable. Sitting at the bar is a treat, since the bartenders are so friendly, but the place is constantly crowded, so you may have to sit wherever you can. The cocktails are always fresh and lively, often with fruit pulp in them. If you’re looking to nibble on something, Ellman offers a selection of small plates — organic when possible — using whole grains, no preservatives, no hydrogenated oils and everything in proportion. But the food offerings are so creative and sophisticated you almost forget that they’re good for you. Almost.
Sushi Pop-Up: Rua
Every Friday and Saturday night from 5 to 10 p.m., chefs Grant Oura and Jayse Sato pop up with a BYOB sushi joint in the Vineyard Food Company in Wailuku. Both previously worked at Nuka, another acclaimed Maui sushi restaurant, and have had extensive training at high-profile restaurants in Hawaii and on the mainland. They offer cuts of fish beyond the usual maguro and hamachi that everyone knows, using Rua to educate the community about elevated sushi in creative presentations — often, it’s seafood that they or their friends have caught that day. It’s not all raw; Sato handles more of the sushi, while Oura takes care of the cooked entrees. They don’t take reservations, so go early: There’s a line down the street, especially on Friday nights, but it’s worth the wait.
Best Dining View: Merriman’s
Owner and chef Peter Merriman has a prime spot directly on the point overlooking Kapalua Bay, so diners get a panoramic ocean view from every seat in this Kapalua restaurant. There’s no bad time to go, but the optimal time to enjoy the breathtaking ocean view is at sunset or at brunch — when you can watch the ocean activities like surfboard yoga float by. The food is outstanding, too, since Merriman is one of the 12 founding chefs of Hawaiian Regional Cuisine. Splurge on the lobster Benedict for brunch, and one of the local coffee choices; at sunset, perch at the bar with a handcrafted cocktail and a plate of hot seared Kona kampachi.
Old-School in a New Spot: Tin Roof Maui
Sheldon Simeon of Top Chef fame has opened a new lunch spot in an industrial area of Kahului, called Tin Roof Maui, specializing in affordable rice bowls. The name, Tin Roof, has meaning for Simeon in two ways: First, it’s a nod to his hometown of Hilo, where every home is shielded by a tin roof. Second, it symbolizes his restaurant’s homespun beginning as a simple place that was scraped together with his own money and sweat equity. The food is approachable, too: People wanting a taste of Simeon’s impressive talents can get lunch for less than $10, in the form of a bowl of rice topped with fancy versions of local favorites like pork belly, garlic shrimp, chop steak and mochiko chicken. (Poke bowls are $13.) But go early — when Simeon sells out, he’s done for the day.
Authentic Italian: Taverna
If there’s any question about Taverna’s food being authentic, just ask Chef Roger Stettler: He was a wreck during the week leading up to the opening, when his Italian mother flew in just to see if he had done right by her. (She approved.) Stettler tries to use local ingredients in his Italian fare wherever possible, so you’ll find island fish in his seafood salad, and local vegetables in his truffled Bistecca alla Fiorentina. You can opt to dine on the patio for a golf-course view or in the main dining room, but most people seem to prefer eating at the gigantic bar, which is a big square for optimal people watching. It’s a great place to drink, too, as bar manager Greg Shepherd has created 10 specialty cocktails, six spritzers and three Negronis in addition to the extensive wine-and-beer menu.
Food Truck: Maui Fresh Streatery
Most food trucks offer the same menu items week after week, to avoid complications in a tiny kitchen, but Chef Kyle Kawakami takes a different approach with Maui Fresh Streatery by making farm-to-table street food. He creates a new menu every two weeks, using seasonal ingredients and incorporating different regional or ethnic themes, comprising a fancy French-fry dish, a salad entree, a sandwich and a hot entree. Follow @MauiFreshStreatery on social media to see what he’s currently cooking up, and to track timing and location. (His truck is usually open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Shell Station on Kaahumanu Ave. across from the Maui Beach Hotel.)
Burgers: Fatt Chicks Burgers Brews & Grill
You’d think that a good burger would be easy to find on Maui, but that hasn’t always been the case. Fatt Chicks Burgers, located on the Waiehu Golf Course, was created to fill that void for Chef Bonny Davis and her partner, Tootsie. After extensive trial and error, they developed their own signature patty using local beef, and created a line of gourmet burgers for their restaurant — the most popular being their original spicy Korean burger, which is dressed with housemade kimchi, gochujang aioli, crispy fried onions and a kalbi-style glaze. Locals and visitors alike drive out of their way to get a fancy, meaty feast in a casual setting, whether they’re golfers or not.
Elevated Local Food: Star Noodle
Noodles are the star at Star Noodle, with dishes that seem to represent every ethnic group around the island. The Hapa Ramen and Star Udon feature a rich pork broth (using the kalua pig bones from Star Noodle’s sister company, Old Lahaina Luau) and are so filling they can feed two people. Bring a crowd to try other things, like the Filipino bacon and eggs, steamed pork buns, Brussels sprouts and Vietnamese crepe. All the food is reminiscent of favorites served by plantation families on Maui, but with an elevated, contemporary twist. Chef Sheldon Simeon was working at Star Noodle when he hit Top Chef fame, and lines here at peak hours can be quite long, so plan accordingly.
Stylish Dining with a View: Ka’ana Kitchen
Andaz Maui is one of the island’s most-chic resorts, catering to more hip, young visitors looking for something different in fine dining. The signature restaurant, Ka’ana Kitchen, brings the casualness of Maui up to their stylish standard with a redesigned dining experience. You can get a seat at the chef’s table, where he will prepare a customized dinner, or you can order off the menu while enjoying the panoramic lanai view. Instead of breaking the menu into appetizer–entree–dessert format, the menu is organized by ingredient, compelling diners to think about their meals in a different way. And of course, the restaurant sources ingredients locally, so you eat with the seasons. The restaurant has no doors, so you can walk back to the kitchen and watch the chefs prepare your meal, if you wish.
Romantic Dinner: Humuhumunukunukuapua’a
The sunset view alone is worth the price when dining at Humuhumunukunukuapua’a at the Grand Wailea, but award-winning chef Michael Lofaro creates dining experiences that make it a whole package. Fresh, local ingredients are transformed into works of art with Polynesian influences, like his seared ahi loin with foie gras or his hamachi with yuzu, Hawaiian chile and celery shave ice. You can even choose your own lobster from the lagoon below. For a real treat, try to get a reservation for the quarterly Ka Malama dinner, where Lofaro and Hawaiian cultural ambassador Kainoa Horcajo fish, forage and hunt in the wilderness according to the Hawaiian moon calendar and use what they find to make a special feast that is also educational for diners.
Pizza and Cocktails on the Waterfront: Pi Artisan Pizzeria
When Pi Artisan Pizzeria opened, the owners worked with farmer-chef James Simpliciano to bring local ingredients and flair to their custom, wood-fired pizzas. You can choose your dough, sauce and toppings, or opt for one of the tried-and-true signature pizzas, like the Seared Ahi Tataki or the Chicken Ranch. The cocktails draw a lively happy hour crowd thirsty for drinks like the Blue Lavender Fizz, which uses blueberries and local lavender; the spicy Fire & Ice-T is an interesting twist for the more daring drinkers. Since it’s located directly on Lahaina Harbor, Pi gives diners unobstructed views of the water.
Hidden Gem: Paia Inn Café
Just off the main road in Paia, you’ll find Paia Inn and, if the sign is out, the cafe just behind it. (You might not know it was there unless you were staying at the inn.) You reach the cafe by walking down a long hallway into a hidden open-air courtyard, where you’ll find the chef cooking up fresh, mostly healthy dishes for breakfast and lunch. The strawberry-papaya parfait and the avocado toast are light options; the huevos rancheros verde is a zesty, more filling option. Be sure to get one of their fresh juices, made to order.
Way Off the Beaten Path: The Preserve Kitchen + Bar
On the eastern side of Maui, beautiful, remote Hana is one of the more tropical and less-visited parts of the island. After making the long drive to visit, head to the only real sit-down restaurant, The Preserve Kitchen + Bar at Travaasa Hana. Headed by local boy Chef Jason Johnson, the restaurant takes favorite Hawaii flavors and adds fine-dining flair — without getting too fancy, since this is sleepy Hana, after all. Most of the ingredients are sourced locally, especially since there are many farms within a stone’s throw of the resort. The Hana baby beet salad is fresh and sweet, and you can get a taste of Maui’s bounty in the house-cured pipikaula salad — made with salted, dried Hawaiian beef.
For Chocolate Lovers: Maui Specialty Chocolates
Though hidden back in the industrial area of Kahului, Maui Specialty Chocolates is a must-visit, especially if you plan to bring gifts home to people. The shop specializes in chocolates, of course, but people come here to get the mochi — pillowy-soft, sweet rice cakes filled with chocolate, or peanut butter and chocolate. When you bite into the silky-soft mochi, an almost-molten chocolate center gently oozes with very subtle, not-too-sweet flavor. It’s the most-tender mochi in Hawaii, and no one seems to know what the folks here do to make it so soft. It’s recommended to eat these treats within two days, although they probably won’t last that long.
Healthy Mexican Fare: Sangrita Grill + Cantina
Sangrita’s chef-owner, Paris Nabavi, is Persian, but came to Maui by way of Texas. While living in Texas he traveled to nearby Mexico frequently, and became obsessed with Mexican cooking when he realized the most-authentic items were not all fried and cheesy like the stuff that’s become popular stateside. He found the ingredients were usually fresher, and the flavors of the ingredients weren’t masked, to allow them to shine through. Nabavi adopted this concept for his own restaurant, making it different from any Mexican restaurant in the state. The Mother Clucker chicken flauta doesn’t just have a name that’s fun to say; it’s an award-winning dish. Try the special carnitas nortenas and a guacamole trio for a well-rounded meal. Gluten-free items are available.
Tasty and Affordable in Lahaina: Aloha Mixed Plate
Even locals will tell you that Maui — especially on the West Side — is very expensive for dining. Aloha Mixed Plate’s prices are a rarity in Lahaina, with most items under $10, and Corporate Chef Ivan Pahk ensures that they come out tasty for breakfast, lunch and dinner. One favorite is the AMP saimin, which is huge and has a deeply flavorful broth that is enjoyable even out in the Lahaina sunshine. If you’re lucky, the owners may also have fresh poi for sale from their taro farm in East Maui.
Food Truck Oasis: Hana Ranch Food Truck
For grab-and-go fare, head to Hana Ranch, where the burger-centric food truck parks right on the main road in Hana. Using ingredients directly from the farm, Chef Jon Watson — previously head chef of Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco — brings both culinary and farming experience to the table. He prepares the Hana Ranch signature burger, using beef from the ranch, as well as rotating options like a fish sandwich, salads with farm-grown ingredients and fresh-fruit smoothies.
Dessert: Tasaka Guri Guri
It's impressive that Tasaka Guri Guri has been in the same spot in Maui Mall for 40 years, but more so that it's been a Valley Isle treat for more than a century. When Jokichi Tasaka emigrated from Japan in the early 1900s, he developed a unique dairy-based hybrid of sherbet and ice cream that cooled people off on warm Maui days. It's a local staple to this day. There are only two flavors — strawberry and pineapple — and at $1.30 for two scoops, you might as well try both, which are served in no-frills paper cups. It's not too creamy, not too tart, and definitely refreshing in the tropics. You can also pack a container in dry ice to go, but don't even think about asking for the recipe; despite various copycat attempts, it has remained a secret for generations.
Photo courtesy of Catherine Toth
French Cuisine: La Provence
Kula is known for its protea and strawberries, but people are slowly discovering La Provence, which offers authentic French cuisine. Perfect after a morning watching the sun rise over Haleakala, the outdoor seating provides the ambience of a rustic French garden, and the beautiful pastries and fluffy croissants just add to the experience. Chef Thierry Michelier was born in France but has lived on Maui for more than 20 years, so he has both the French sensibility and the knowledge of Maui products to turn out the items that will be most appealing, including fusion dishes like delicate tropical lilikoi crepes.