Thanks to its deep waters, green pastures, and fertile fields, the Big Island provides local chefs with a cornucopia of fresh ingredients. The challenge for visitors is finding restaurants to match their budgets. Don’t be afraid to nosh at a roadside stand or create a meal from a farmers market, as locals do, but indulge at least once on an oceanfront sunset dinner for the best of all the Big Island has to offer. Reservations are advised during holidays and summer.
The Kona Coast
With few exceptions, this is a no-man’s-land for memorable, sensibly priced dining; chains abound, and service is often slow. One bright spot: Honu’s on the Beach, the indoor/outdoor restaurant at the Courtyard King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel. Fresh sushi attracts locals as well as visitors. Well-prepared farm-to-table Hawaii Regional Cuisine is available nightly.
Those with big appetites should head to the Big Island Grill, 75-5702 Kuakini Hwy. (makai side, south of Henry St.; 808/326-1153), for American fare and local favorites such as loco moco and chicken katsu in a strip mall, with parking. Kamana Kitchen, 75-5770 Alii Dr. (808/326-7888), serves classic South Indian dishes in a pleasant Waterfront Row dining room.
Take Your Pick of Poke
With all the fishing boats plying Kona waters, it’s no wonder places selling ahi poke—the finely diced raw tuna staple of the islands—and similar dishes pride themselves on just-caught ingredients.
Da Poke Shack (808/329-7653) has built a loyal following for its ahi poke bowls and lunch plates in a hole in the wall in the Kona Bali Kai complex, at 76-6246 Alii Dr., Kailua-Kona.
Taste award-winning wares from poke bombs (cone sushi topped with a variety of diced seafood) to bowls with quinoa or native fiddlehead fern salad as side options at Umekes Fishmarket Bar and Grill, 74-5599 Pawai Place in Kailua-Kona (808/238-0571), which sports a handsome wood and aqua interior with plenty of seating and a full bar.
Tapping into Kona Brewing Co.
Father and son Cameron Healy and Spoon Khalsa opened microbrewery and pub Kona Brewing Co. (808/334-2739) in an obscure warehouse in Kailua-Kona in 1998. They eventually expanded to operate a restaurant on Oahu and enjoy widespread Mainland distribution of the most popular brews, including Fire Rock Pale Ale and Longboard Lager. The brewpub at 74-5612 Pawai Pl. offers affordable specials at lunch and happy hour, seasonal draft brews, a palm-fringed patio, and short free tours (for ages 15 and older).
Rays on the Bay (808/930-4949) at the Sheraton Kona is a rare waterfront option—and a vibrant one, with live music, great cocktails, and slightly pricey but creative island cuisine. Keauhou Shopping Center has several more affordable options than Kenichi Pacific (808/322-6400), a stylish Asian fusion/sushi dinner spot. The best is Peaberry & Galette (808/322-6020), a small cafe with a wide selection of savory and sweet crepes, plus a few sandwiches, salads, and good, 100% Kona coffee.
For ocean views with your Kona coffee, consider two cafes on the makai side of Hwy. 11. The Coffee Shack, 83-5799 Mamalahoa Hwy. (between mile markers 108 and 109; 808/328-9555) in Captain Cook, serves egg dishes, plump sandwiches on fresh-baked bread, and 8-inch pizzas. Italian-themed Caffe Florian serves panini and other light fare; it’s located at 81-6637 Mamalahoa Hwy., Kealakekua (at Kee-Kee Rd.; 808/238-0861). The family-run Keei Cafe, 79-7511 Mamalahoa Hwy. (mauka side), Kealakekua, includes pasta, fresh fish, steak, and rack of lamb on its compact but diverse menu, in a pleasant dining room featuring locally made art (808/322-9992).
The Kohala Coast
Sorting Out the Resorts
There’s no getting around sticker shock when dining at the South Kohala resort hotels, especially for breakfast and lunch. Dazzling sunsets help soften the blow at dinner, when chefs at least show more ambition. Here’s a quick guide to help you distinguish among the top dinner-only hotel restaurants, all serving excellent (for the most part) yet costly variations on farm-to-table Hawaii Regional Cuisine:
- Mauna Lani: Brown’s Beach House at the Fairmont Orchid, Hawaii, offers attentive service at tables on a lawn just a stone’s throw from the water. CanoeHouse in the Mauna Lani resort presents a “Captain’s Table” Blind Tasting Menu.
- Mauna Kea: Manta Restaurant at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel offers a sweeping ocean view, artful cuisine, and dozens of high-end wines by the glass from the nifty Enomatic dispenser.
- Waikoloa Beach: Kamuela Provision Company at the Hilton Waikoloa Village has the oceanfront setting to rival other resorts’ restaurants, although its culinary ambitions are not as high as the prices. Book an outdoor table for at least a half hour before sunset.
For convenient alternatives to pricey hotel dining, the Waikoloa Beach Resort offers several hidden treasures. The Queens’ MarketPlace food court includes Lemongrass Express (808/886-3400), a compact spot with indoor-outdoor seating and seafood specials that rival those of resort chefs. Ippy’s Hawaiian BBQ (808/886-8600) serves well-seasoned plate lunches with ribs, chicken, and fish, under the aegis of Food Network celebrity Philip “Ippy” Aiona. Aloha Wine Bar, inside Island Gourmet Markets, serves burgers, thin-crust pizzas, and sushi with good wine specials (808/886-3500).
Views of Anaehoomalu Bay, especially at sunset, never fail to please at the open-air Lava Lava Beach Club, which serves fresh American and island food. The eatery is located at the end of Kuualii Place in the Waikoloa Beach Resort (808/769-5282).
Chef Allen Hess, formerly of CanoeHouse, serves well-crafted, farm-to-table comfort food (that is, with plenty of housemade bacon) at Mai Grille (808/886-7600). It overlooks the Kings’ Golf Course.
The commercial port of Kawaihae also harbors several inexpensive, homespun eateries, including Kohala Burger and Taco, upstairs in the Kawaihae Shopping Center (808/880-1923). Juicy burgers are made with local grass-fed beef, while buns and tortillas (used for fresh fish tacos, burritos, and quesadillas) are housemade. The place is run by former resort chefs. The lunch wagon next to Da Fish House fish market has fresh fish plates but little seating.
For a light meal or snack, stop at Kohala Coffee Mill, 55-3412 Akoni Pule Hwy. (mauka side; 808/889-5577). It's best known for scoops of Tropical Dreams ice cream and well-crafted coffee drinks. In Kapaau, homey Minnie’s Ohana Lim Style, 54-3854 Akoni Pule Hwy. (mauka side, at Kamehameha Rd.), serves heaping portions of fresh fish, roast pork, Korean fried chicken, and local staples (808/889-5288).
Daunted by high-priced Kohala resort menus? Visit the inexpensive Hawaiian Style Café, 65-1290 Kawaihae Rd. (Hwy. 19, 1 block east of Opelo Rd.; 808/885-4925), which serves pancakes bigger than your head (try them with warm haupia, a coconut pudding), kalua pork hash, and other local favorites, along with burgers and sandwiches. The restaurant is very crowded on weekends. Big Island Brewhaus, 64-1066 Mamalahoa Hwy. (808/887-1717), features wide-ranging taps with an equally diverse, locally sourced menu of burgers, Mexican, and Mediterranean fare. There's a covered patio and smaller indoor dining area/bar. Locals also flock to Red Water Cafe, 65-1299 Kawaihae Rd., for expert sushi, Waimea-grown salads, seafood, steak, and live jazz (808/885-9299).
Tropical Dreams: Ice Cream Reveries
Founded in North Kohala in 1983, ultra-rich Tropical Dreams ice cream is sold all over the island now, but you’ll find the most flavors at the retail store next to its Waimea factory, 66-1250 Lalamilo Farm Rd. (off Hwy. 19; 888/888-8031). Try the Tahitian vanilla, lychee, or poha, or sorbets like dragonfruit, passion-guava, or white pineapple.
The Hamakua Coast
Although dinner options are growing in Honokaa, it still pays to plan ahead, since restaurants often close early. In Honokaa, Italian bistro Café Il Mondo, 45-3580 Mamane St. (808/775-7711), serves pizza, calzones, and, at dinner, homey entrees such as roast chicken and beef lasagna. Closer to Hwy. 19, the iconic, counter-service Tex Drive-In & Restaurant, 45-690 Pakalana St. (808/775-0598) is worth braving possible tour-bus crowds for the malasadas—large, chewy Portuguese sweet bread doughnut holes that are fried to order, dusted in sugar, and available with a filling, such as Bavarian cream, tropical jellies, or chocolate. Founded in 1969, Tex also serves breakfast, burgers, and Hawaiian plate lunches, but the malasadas are the real draw.
About 19 miles south, the Papaaloa Country Store & Cafe, 35-2032 Old Mamalahoa Hwy. (808/339-7614), offers wonderful browsing in the 1910 plantation-era store while you wait for a home-style breakfast, burger, or plate lunch; delicious tropical pastries await in the bakery. It’s a short detour off Hwy. 11.
The second largest city in Hawaii hosts a raft of unpretentious eateries. A prime example is Ken’s House of Pancakes, 1730 Kamehameha Ave., at the corner of Hwys. 19 and 11 (808/935-8711), which serves heaping helpings of local dishes, amazingly fluffy omelets, and American fare 24/7. The Hawaiian Style Café, 681 Manono St. (808/969-9265), is an outpost of the Waimea favorite. Food comes on paper plates at the venerable Café 100 (808/935-8683), 969 Kilauea Ave., but the price is right for more than 30 varieties of “loco moco” (meat, eggs, rice, and gravy) and other hearty fare. Miyo’s, 564 Hinano St. (808/935-8825), prides itself on “home-style” Japanese cooking, with locally sourced ingredients.
Make reservations for tiny Moon and Turtle, 51 Kalakaua St. (808/961-0599), where the fusion farm-to-table, shared-plate menu changes daily.
Options are limited here, so plan meals carefully and stock up on supplies in Kailua-Kona or Hilo.
Look for the Tuk-Tuk Thai Food truck at 19-3820 Old Volcano Rd. (808/936-4684) for hearty curries and noodle dishes. Tiny Ohelo Café, 19-4005 Haunani Rd. (808/339-7865), has a casual ambience but aims high with wood-fired pizzas, freshly caught seafood, pastas, and salads.
A Taste of Volcano Wines
Volcano Winery (808/967-7772) has been a unique pit stop for visitors since 1993, when it began selling traditional grape wines, honey wines, and grape wines blended with tropical fruits in a location near Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The owners have since planted pinot noir and cayuga white grapes and expanded into tea. Wine tastings, for ages 21 and up, are available. There’s a picnic area under cork and koa trees. The tasting room and store are located at 35 Pii Mauna Dr. in Volcano (just off Hwy. 11 near the 30-mile marker).
Driving from Kailua-Kona to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, it’s good to know about two places in Naalehu for a quick pick-me-up. The Punaluu Bake Shop (866/366-3501) is the busier tourist attraction, famed for its multihued varieties of sweet Portuguese bread now seen in stores across the islands; clean restrooms, a deli counter, and gift shop are also part of the appeal. Across the highway, off a small lane, lies Hana Hou Restaurant (808/929-9717), which boasts a bakery counter with equally tempting sweets (try the macnut pie or passionfruit bar) and a retro dining room serving simple but fresh and filling plate lunches, burgers, sandwiches, and quesadillas.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.