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How to Feel Like a Hawaiian Family: Tips on Dining, Plus our Favorite Places to Eat

While in Hawaii, you'll encounter many labels that embrace the fundamentals of Hawaiian Regional Cuisine and the sophistication, informality, and nostalgia it encompasses. Euro-Asian, Pacific Rim, Indo-Pacific, Pacific Edge, Euro-Pacific, fusion cuisine, Hapa cuisine -- by whatever name, Hawaiian Regional Cuisine has evolved as Hawaii's singular cooking style, which some say is this country's current gastronomic, as well as geographic, frontier. It highlights the fresh seafood and produce of Hawaii's rich waters and volcanic soil, the cultural traditions of Hawaii's ethnic groups, and the skills of well-trained chefs -- such as Peter Merriman (Merriman's on the Big Island and Hula Grill on Maui), Roy Yamaguchi (Roy's on Oahu, Maui, the Big Island, and Kauai), Alan Wong (Alan Wong's Restaurant and Pineapple Room, both on Oahu; and Hualalai Grille on the Big Island), and Beverly Gannon (Haliimaile General Store on Maui).

Fresh ingredients are foremost here. Farmers and fishermen work together to provide steady supplies of just-harvested seafood, seaweed, fern shoots, vine-ripened tomatoes, goat cheese, lamb, herbs, taro, gourmet lettuces, and countless harvests from land and sea. These ingredients wind up in myriad forms on ever-changing menus, prepared in Asian and Western culinary styles. Exotic fruits introduced by recent Southeast Asian emigrants -- such as sapodilla, soursop, and rambutan -- are beginning to appear regularly in Chinatown markets. Aquacultured seafood, from seaweed to salmon to lobster, is a staple on many menus. Additionally, fresh-fruit sauces (mango, litchi, papaya, pineapple, guava), ginger-sesame-wasabi flavorings, corn cakes with sake sauces, tamarind and fish sauces, coconut-chile accents, tropical-fruit vinaigrettes, and other local and newly arrived seasonings from Southeast Asia and the Pacific impart unique qualities to the preparations.

At the other end of the spectrum is the vast and endearing world of "local food." Reflecting a polyglot population of many styles and ethnicities, Hawaii's idiosyncratic dining scene is eminently inclusive. Consider Surfer Chic: Barefoot in the sand, in a swimsuit, you chow down on a plate lunch ordered from a lunch wagon, consisting of fried mahimahi, "two scoops rice," macaroni salad, and a few leaves of green, typically julienned cabbage. (Generally, teriyaki beef and shoyu chicken are options.)

Bento, another popular quick meal available throughout Hawaii, is a compact, boxed assortment of picnic fare usually consisting of neatly arranged sections of rice, pickled vegetables, and fried chicken, beef, or pork. Increasingly, however, the bento is becoming more health-conscious, as in macrobiotic bento lunches or vegetarian brown-rice bentos. A derivative of the modest lunch box for Japanese immigrants who once labored in the sugar and pineapple fields, bentos are dispensed everywhere, from department stores to corner delis and supermarkets.

To save a little money, look for the early-bird specials, around 5 or 6pm when restaurants are trying to lure in customers. You can save a bundle just by eating an hour earlier.

The Very Expensive category means a family of two adults and two kids are looking at a bill of $200 (yes, $200, and that's if mom and dad aren't big drinkers). In the Expensive category, the same family of four can expect to spend $150. In the Moderate category, the family of four is looking at a dinner bill of $75 to $100. In the Inexpensive category, a family of four can eat for less than $75.

Frommer's Best Dining Bets

Most Kid-Friendly Service: Hoku's (tel. 808/739-8780), is elegant without being stuffy, and creative without being overwrought. The fine-dining room of the Kahala Mandarin treats kids like princesses and princes in one of Oahu's best restaurants. On Maui, the kids will be graciously welcomed at David Paul's Lahaina Grill (tel. 808/667-5117), a gourmet eatery which offers a great kid's menu with a kid's soup or salad of the day, fried chicken strips ($10 with french fries), corn dog ($8 with fries) or mahi and shrimp ($12 with rice and veggies), as well as desserts (ice cream and chocolate cake).

Best Kids' Menu: Bev Gannon, one of the 12 original Hawaiian Regional Cuisine chefs, is raising the next generation of "foodies" at her gourmet haven in the pineapple fields of Maui at the Haliimaile General Store (tel. 808/572-2666). Kids eat just as well as their parents when ordering from the creative kids' menu. On Oahu, comfort food for keiki can be found at the Dixie Grille (tel. 808/596-8359), where the all-American menu features barbecued ribs, burgers, shrimp, salads, sandwiches, and the "star" of the bargain-priced kids' menu: finger-lickin' barbecued chicken.

Best Views: In Hawaii, views generally translate into "ocean views," and you can't get any closer to the ocean on the Big Island of Hawaii than Huggo's (tel. 808/329-1493) or Pahu i'a (tel. 808/325-8000) at the Hualalai Four Seasons Resort. It helps that both restaurants can hold your attention by their food alone without that distracting ocean view. On Kauai, The Beach House (tel. 808/742-1424), which sits right on a promontory with a 180-degree ocean view, also serves excellent cuisine.

Best Decor: The favorite decor from a kid's point of view has to be at Sam Choy's Breakfast, Lunch Crab & Big Aloha Brewery (tel. 808/545-7979), where an all-wood sampan (the centerpiece of the 11,000-sq.-ft. restaurant) commands attention. The kids can wash their hands in an oversize wok at the center of the room. Plus a 2,000-gallon live-crab tank lines the open kitchen with an assortment of crabs in season.

Best if You Have a Sitter: The romantic, elegant dining room at La Mer (tel. 808/923-2311) in Waikiki's Halekulani is the only AAA Five-Diamond restaurant in the state. Also on Oahu, another great "date-night" rendezvous is Chef Mavro Restaurant (tel. 808/944-4714), where wine pairings perfectly match the elegant cuisine of (James Beard-award-winner) chef George Mavrothalassitis. It's worth a drive to the North Shore for the romantic atmosphere and first-rate food of 21 Degrees North (tel. 800/203-3650), in the Turtle Bay Resort. On Maui, I'd suggest Vino (tel. 808/661-VINO), serving the best Italian food on Maui at an exquisite location overlooking the rolling hills of the Kapalua Golf Course. It is run by the team of D. K. Kodama, chef and owner of Sansei Seafood Restaurants and Sushi Bar ; and master sommelier Chuck Furuya. On Kauai, book Dondero's (tel. 808/742-1234) in the Kauai Hyatt Regency before you leave home to insure a starlight table overlooking the ocean.

Best Burgers: The winners of this highly competitive category are the juicy burgers at Oahu's Kua Aina (tel. 808/591-9133); and Lahaina's Cheeseburger in Paradise (tel. 808/661-4855) on Maui. On Kauai, it's a tie between Bubba Burger (tel. 808/823-0069) and Duane's Ono-Char Burger (tel. 808/822-9181).

Best Outdoor Setting: You can't beat the beachside location under the spreading tree at the Hau Tree Lanai (tel. 808/921-7066), at the New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel on the outskirts of Waikiki. On Kauai, the lush garden setting in the Poipu Resort area at Plantation Gardens (tel. 808/742-2216) beckons even the most jaded (seen-it-all) teenager.

Best Breakfast: In Waikiki, there's no question that the winner is the quirky, late-night and morning eatery Eggs 'n Things (tel. 808/949-0820), with huge, huge breakfasts and never-ending coffee refills. On the Big Island, the Coffee Shack (tel. 808/328-9555) overlooking Kealakekua Bay and coffee fields, is the place for the most ono (delicious) breakfast.

Best Brunch: Not only a winner in terms of best food, best display of food, and best variety of food, but also the winner of great views at brunch (Waikiki Beach) and best brunch decor is Orchids (tel. 808/923-2311) at the very plush Halekulani.

Best Milkshakes: Kids will love the giant milkshakes at Ken's House of Pancakes (tel. 808/935-8711) in Hilo on the Big Island, the only 24-hour restaurant on that island. On Kauai, the small roadside stand called Banana Joe's (tel. 808/828-1092) offers creamy smoothies made of just-picked tropical fruit.

Best Japanese: Pushing the envelope of Japanese food (and with a touch of Pacific Regional) is Kenichi Pacific (tel. 808/322-6400), in Kona on the Big Island. The appetizers menu is so tempting, your kids might just want to graze from one dish to the next. For more traditional Japanese food, also in Kona, try Izakaya Kai (tel. 808/329-2002).

Best Chinese: The kids will vote for Panda Cuisine (tel. 808/947-1688) on Oahu every time. Quick, easy, and moderately priced, this dim sum, Hong Kong-style restaurant is perfect for a family lunch.

Best Hawaiian Regional Cuisine: The masters of Hawaiian Regional Cuisine include Alan Wong's Restaurant (tel. 808/949-2526) on Oahu; Merriman's Market Café (tel. 808/886-1700) on the Big Island; and Roy's Restaurant (tel. 808/396-7697) on Oahu, Kauai, Maui, and the Big Island. Any of these great places will introduce you to the unique blends of Hawaii's fresh produce, fish, and meats in this well-loved cuisine.

Best Pizza: This is another hotly contested category with many great places to choose from. On the Big Island, head to Basil's Pizzeria (tel. 808/326-7836), where sauce is the thing. On Maui, my two favorite picks are Nicky's Pizza (tel. 808/667-0333) and Shaka Sandwich & Pizza (tel. 808/874-0331) for perfect crusts. And on Kauai, Brick Oven Pizza (tel. 808/332-8561) still makes pizza the old-fashioned way.

Best Pasta: There's great pasta in Hawaii, but the two standouts are C & C Pasta (tel. 808/732-5999) on Oahu and Pomodoro (tel. 808/332-5945) on Kauai.

Best Mexican: Norberto's El Café (tel. 808/822-3362) on Kauai has been serving lard-free Mexican for nearly a generation. In Waimea on the Big Island, the tiny Tako Taco Taquería (tel. 808/887-1717) pumps out healthy Mexican at wallet-pleasing prices. And on Maui, although Mañana Garage (tel. 808/873-0220) can't really be classified as "true" Mexican (in fact, it defies classification in any category), the eclectic cuisine here (not to mention the very oddball decor) will make your kids smile.

Best for Feeding Large Families: In terms of getting your money's worth of good food at bargain prices, head to the Olive Tree Café (tel. 808/737-0303) on Oahu to take out or eat at the outdoor tables. On Maui, two fabulous budget-price eateries for large families are AK's Café (tel. 808/244-8774) and Moana Bakery & Cafe (tel. 808/579-9999).

Best Fresh Fish: Mama's Fish House (tel. 808/579-8488) in Kuau on Maui is synonymous with excellent fish. (Even the kids get fresh fish on the keiki menu.) But that's not all; at the other end of Maui (and also on Oahu) in Kapalua and in Kihei, Sansei Seafood Restaurant (tel. 808/669-6286) has only the best fish, carefully prepared.

Best for Aspiring Gourmands: Take your budding "foodies" to the Big Island, where on the Kona side the Hualalai Club Grille by Alan Wong (tel. 808/325-8525) will serve them (from the kids' menu) the best in Hawaiian Regional Cuisine. In Hilo, Kaikodo (tel. 808/961-2558), offers an excellent Pacific Rim selection in elegant surroundings.

Best Ice Cream: At stores, restaurants, and ice cream parlors throughout the state, ask for Roselani Ice Cream (tel. 808/244-7951), Maui's only made-from-scratch, old- fashioned ice cream. On the Big Island, be sure to try Tropical Dreams Ice Cream (tel. 808/889-5577), another creamy taste treat.

Best Delivery: On Oahu, you are no longer limited by the room service menu in your hotel room. Room Service in Paradise (tel. 808/941-DINE; is the answer to a parent's prayers. They deliver almost a dozen different cuisines (from American/Pacific Rim to Italian to sandwiches and burgers) from 50 restaurants to your hotel room.

Best Takeout: On Oahu, great grinds can be had from Honolulu's Kaka'ako Kitchen (tel. 808/596-7488). From the other side of the island, Kailua's Good to Go (tel. 808/266-4646) offers healthy takeout food, perfect for the beach.

Best Diner: Maui has the best diners in the state. My two faves are CJ's Deli and Diner (tel. 808/667-0968) in Kaanapali for the best food in a retro atmosphere; and Peggy Sue's (tel. 808/875-8944) in Kihei for an upscale Maui-kinda diner the kids will love.

Best Shave Ice: Like surfing, shave ice is synonymous with Haleiwa, the North Shore Oahu town where Matsumoto Shave Ice (tel. 808/637-4827) -- and other neighboring establishments -- serve mounds of icy treats to long lines of thirsty takers. This tasty and refreshing cultural phenomenon is even better over ice cream and adzuki beans.

Best Plate Lunch: For seasoned plate lunchers who favor the traditional "two scoop rice" lunches weighted with carbohydrates and hefty meats, Zippy's (21 locations throughout Oahu; visit for the one nearest you) is a household word. On Maui, Aloha Mixed Plate (tel. 808/661-3322) lets you nosh on fabulous shoyu chicken at ocean's edge -- and with a mai tai, too. On Kauai, Pono Market (tel. 808/822-4581), Fish Express (tel. 808/245-9918), and Koloa Fish Market (tel. 808/742-6199) are at the top of the plate-lunch pyramid.

Best Noodles: Ramen, udon, saimin, pho, pasta, chow mein -- Hawaii is the epicenter of ethnic noodle stands and houses, with many recommendable and inexpensive choices. Jimbo's Restaurant (Oahu; tel. 808/947-2211), a neighborhood institution, is tops for freshly made udon with generous toppings and a homemade broth.

Best Tropical Fruit: Parents take note: Mangosteen, the queen of fruit in Indonesia, is the sensation at the Hilo Farmers Market on the Big Island. Mangosteen's elegant purple skin and soft, white, floral-flavored flesh (like lychee, but more custardlike than translucent) make this fruit a sure winner. It joins the ranks of rambutan, durian, sapote, sapodilla, and other exotic Asian newcomers. The mango is always a much-anticipated feature of late spring and summer. Hayden mangoes are universally loved for their plump, juicy flesh and brilliant skins. Papaya lovers, take note: Kahuku papayas -- firm, fleshy, dark orange, and so juicy they sometimes squirt -- are the ones to watch for on menus and in markets; check out the supermarkets and the roadside stands in Kahuku on Oahu. Sunrise papayas from Kapoho and Kauai are also top-notch. White, acid-free, extra sweet, and grown on Kauai and the Big Island, Sugarloaf pineapples are the new rage. Hilo is the town for lychees (also known as litchis) in summer, but Honolulu's Chinatown markets carry them, too. Decidedly Hawaiian are Ka'u oranges, grown in the volcanic soil of the southern Big Island and available in supermarkets and health-food stores. Don't be fooled by their brown, ugly skin -- they're juicy, thin-skinned, and sweet as honey.

Other Mighty Morsels: Poi biscotti from the Poi Company, available at supermarkets and gourmet outlets such as Hawaiian Regional Cuisine Marketplace (in Macy's in Ala Moana, Honolulu), is a new taste treat, the consummate accompaniment to another island phenomenon, Kona coffee. Highly esteemed coffee growers (all based on the Big Island, of course), include: Bears' Coffee (tel. 808/935-0708); Kona Blue Sky Coffee (tel. 877/322-1700 or 808/322-1700); Waimea Coffee Company (tel. 808/885-4472); Bad Ass Coffee Company (multiple locations), and Holualoa Kona Coffee Company (tel. 800/334-0348).

The buttery, chocolate-dipped shortbread cookies of Big Island Candies (Big Island; tel. 808/935-8890) are worth every calorie and every dollar. If you're going through Waimea, don't miss Cook's Discoveries (Big Island; tel. 808/885-3633), where superlatives never end -- the best cookies, preserves, vinegars, poi, and many other marvelous taste treats, as well as Hawaiian gift items. From Kauai, Hanapepe town's venerable Taro Ko Chips (tel. 808/335-5586 for the factory) are the crunchy snack neighbor islanders drive long miles to find, then cart home in hand-carried bundles.

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