Hawaii offers food experiences that exist nowhere else in the world, from dishes based on foods eaten by ancient Native Hawaiians to plate lunches in which you can see the history of Hawaii, from postwar-era holes-in-the-wall (where the only thing that’s changed is the prices) to fancy dining rooms that spawned the birth of Hawaii Regional Cuisine. Asian food dominates, thanks to the state’s demographics (as of 2012, Hawaii was the country’s only majority-Asian state, comprising 56.9% of the total population). On Oahu, the most promising places to eat are often found in the most unexpected places. For the adventurous, eating here is like a treasure hunt.
Thanks to an influx of Japanese tourists, Waikiki now has some of the best Japanese food outside of Japan. It also has some of Honolulu’s most luxurious dining rooms with ocean views—at a price.
Dining out at the Halekulani
Sure, dining in Waikiki’s high-end hotels is often an overpriced affair, but sometimes the occasion warrants everything that comes with it—including ocean views and upscale service. My pick for special events is the Halekulani ★★★. Here are my favorite ways to soak up the Halekulani’s rarefied restaurant experiences:
* The Sunday brunch buffet at Orchids is a must—it’s the best in Hawaii, with everything from a roast-suckling-pig carving station to a sashimi and poke bar. Leave room for the ice cream sundae bar, the Halekulani’s signature fluffy coconut cake, and lots of dainty desserts. (Note: Reserve a spot weeks in advance.) Love afternoon tea? Orchids also serves my favorite afternoon tea service on the island, with an array of sandwiches and sweets, as well as an excellent selection of premium teas.
* Come sunset, head to House Without a Key for a mai tai and the lovely hula of five former Miss Hawaiis, including the legendary Kanoe Miller.
* If the occasion calls for something more romantic and intimate, I go to L’Aperitif, the bar inside La Mer, where drinks are inspired by 19th-century French cocktail culture and each glass is accompanied by a delightful amuse bouche.
The Windward Coast
Note: These restaurants are located on the “Eastern Oahu & the Windward Coast” map.
The North Shore
Note: These restaurants are located on the “Oahu’s North Shore”.
The Shrimp Trucks
Shrimp farming took hold in Kahuku in the ’90s and, before long, the first shrimp truck set up, serving fresh shrimp from a lunch wagon window. Now you can smell the garlic cooking before you see all the trucks and shrimp shacks—at least five, by last count. Giovanni’s Original White Shrimp Truck, 56-505 Kamehameha Hwy. (808/293-1839), is the most popular—so popular that a makeshift food court with picnic tables, shade, and a handful of other businesses has sprung up around the beat-up old white truck scrawled with tourists’ signatures. Even though the shrimp are now imported and previously frozen, Giovanni’s knows how to cook them perfectly. Scampi style is my favorite—shell-on shrimp coated in lots of butter and garlic. Twelve bucks gets you a dozen, plus two scoops of rice. Head north from Giovanni’s about a mile, and you’ll hit Romy’s, 56-781 Kamehameha Hwy. (808/232-2202), a shrimp shack instead of a truck. Here the shrimp actually come from the farm behind it. Romy’s is my favorite for the sauce—tons of sautéed and fried garlic over a half-pound of head-on shrimp, plus a container of spicy soy sauce for dipping. The shrimp, however, are inconsistent—sometimes firm and sweet, sometimes mealy.
Going Local: Uniquely Hawaiian Eats
Talk to locals who move away from Hawaii, and these are the foods they miss. Everyone’s got their own go-to place and go-to dishes—people here could spend hours arguing over the best. Here are some of my favorites:
Poke—Ruby-red cubes of fresh ʻahi (tuna), tossed with limu (seaweed), kukui nut, and Hawaiian chili pepper: Ahi poke (pronounced "po-kay") doesn’t get better than the Hawaiian-style version at Ono Seafood ★★ or any variety at Maguro Bros ★★.
Saimin—An only-in-Hawaii mashup of Chinese-style noodles in a Japanese dashi broth. Join the regulars at the communal table at Palace Saimin, 1256 N. King St. (808/841-9983), where the interior is as simple as this bowl of noodles. Palace Saimin has been around since 1946, and it looks like it. (I mean that in the nicest way possible.)
Loco moco—Two sunny-side up eggs over a hamburger patty and rice, all doused in brown gravy. I love it at Liliha Bakery ★★.
Spam musubi—Ah yes, Spam. Hawaii eats more Spam per capita than any other state. A dubious distinction to some, but don’t knock it before you try it. Spam musubi (think of it as a giant sushi topped with Spam) is so ubiquitous you can find it at 7-Elevens and convenience stores (where it’s pretty good). But for an even finer product, Mana Bu, 1618 S. King St. (808/358-0287), is the tops. Get there early; the musubi, made fresh daily, are often sold out by 9am.
Hawaiian plate—Laulau (pork wrapped in taro leaves), kālua pig (shredded, roasted pork), poi (milled taro), and haupia (like coconut Jell-O): It’s Hawaiian lūʻau food, based on what native Hawaiians used to eat. Find it at Helena’s Hawaiian Food ★★ and Highway Inn ★★.
Malasadas—Hole-less doughnuts, rolled in sugar, by way of Portugal. Leonard’s Bakery, 933 Kapahulu Ave. (808/737-5571), opened in 1946 by the descendants of Portuguese contract laborers brought to work in Hawaii’s sugarcane fields. I love Leonard’s malasadas dusted with li hing mui powder (made from dried, sweet-tart plums).
Shave ice—Nothing cools better on a hot day than powdery-soft ice drenched in tropical fruit syrups. I go to Waiola Shave Ice, 3113 Mokihana St. (808/735-8886), for the nostalgia factor, but since you’ll probably need more than one shave ice while you’re in town, also hit up Uncle Clayʻs House of Pure Aloha, 820 W. Hind Dr. #116 (808/373-5111) and at Ala Moana Center, which offers a variety of homemade syrups from real fruit (a rarity).
See Honolulu—one restaurant at a time. Former Honolulu newspaper food critic Matthew Gray put together Hawaii Food Tours to give you a taste of Hawaii. He offers two tours, all with transportation from your Waikiki hotel in an air-conditioned van and all with running commentary on Hawaii’s history, culture, and architecture. The Hole-in-the-Wall Tour, a lunch tour from 9am to 2pm ($139 per person), includes stops at Honolulu institutions, a noodle factory, and a behind-the-scenes look at Chinatown. You’ll sample some only-in-Hawaii treats. For details and booking, go to www.hawaiifoodtours.com or call 808/926-FOOD.
The sun is setting, the tiki torches are lit, the pig is taken from the imu (an oven in the earth), the pu (conch) sounds—it’s luau time! Few experiences say “Hawaii” to visitors as the luau. In ancient times, the luau was called aha aina (aha means means gathering and aina, land); these were celebrations with family and friends to mark important occasions, such as a victory at war or a baby surviving its first year. Luau are still a part of life in Hawaii; in particular, the legacy of the baby’s first luau lives on.
For visitors, luau are a way to experience a feast of food and entertainment, Hawaiian style. The luau at the Royal Hawaiian, 2259 Kalakaua Ave. (www.royal-hawaiian.com; 888/808-4668), is the priciest of all the options, but it’s the only beachfront one in Waikiki and it offers the best food, an open bar, and quality entertainment. It takes place every Monday from 5:30 to 9pm and costs $179 for adults, $101 for children 5 to 12.
About an hour outside of Waikiki on the Leeward coast, Paradise Cove Luau, 92-1089 Alii Nui Dr., Kapolei (www.paradisecovehawaii.com; 808/842-5911), is a popular option. It has a lovely setting, perfect for sunset photos, and the evening starts with arts and crafts and activities for kids. As for the buffet, you’ll find better food at the Hawaiian restaurants listed on the site. Waikiki bus pickup and return is included in the package prices: Paradise Cove’s luau is nightly at 6pm and costs $85 to $156 for adults, $75 to $137 for teens 13 to 18, $65 to $123 for children 4 to 12, and free for children 3 and under.
Fix & Freeze Dinners
If you are staying in a condo or other accommodations with kitchen facilities, there is an alternative to eating out every night or slaving over a stove during your vacation, and its name is Dream Dinners. Dream Dinners, Niu Valley Shopping Center, 549 Halemaumau St. (tel. 808/373-1221; www.dreamdinners.com), is a "meal assembly kitchen," where you gather all the ingredients for your own heat-and-serve meals, using the recipes and prepared ingredients they provide. After signing up online and booking an appointment, you go through an assembly line choosing various fixings for your entrees. You can freeze or just refrigerate the meals and serve a gourmet dinner for a fraction of the cost of eating out. As of this writing, entrees (which included chicken with honey, garlic, and orange; lemon fish filets; arroz con pollo; lasagna; steakhouse sirloin; and risotto primavera) ranged in price from $5 to $7 per serving. The downsides of this great money-saver are that it's only best for groups or families (you choose 3-6 servings per dinner), it's located in Niu Valley (away from most visitor accommodations), and you need at least 1 to 2 hours to do your "shopping."
Room Service from 50 Different Restaurants
You are not limited to the room service menu in your hotel room; Room Service in Paradise (tel. 808/941-DINE [941-3463]; www.941-dine.com) delivers almost a dozen different cuisines (from American/Pacific Rim to Italian to sandwiches and burgers) from oodles of restaurants to your hotel room. All you do is select a restaurant and order what you want (read the online menus or pick up one of the magazines in various Waikiki locations). You are charged for the food, a $7.25 to $8.25 delivery charge in Waikiki (more in outlying areas), and a tip for the driver. Both lunch and dinner are available; call in advance, and your food will be delivered whenever you want. Best of all, you can pay with your credit card.