Monday, December 10, 2012

Eating in Honolulu

I'm just back from Honolulu and thought I would share some thoughts about eating there, if you might be headed that way soon (for your sake, I hope so).

Eating in Honolulu can be a challenge particularly in Waikiki There are lots of tourist oriented spots and some are pretty marginal. There are also the chains, everything from Denny’s to KFC to the various sub shops. And of course, there are some nice, white table cloth places, most pretty pricey.

However, eating in Honolulu is also cultural experience. Honolulu, like the rest of Hawaii is culturally diverse: Native Hawaiians, Japanese, Chinese, Haole (people like me), the Portuguese and others. The good news is that diversity is reflected in the cuisine that is available.

Here are my thoughts for eating in Honolulu. This is by no means a comprehensive list, nor is it meant to be a list of the cheapest places to eat, though some are very inexpensive and all are reasonably priced. The cuisine is local, meaning these are places the locals eat, too.


You can get typical American style breakfasts (eggs, bacon, pancakes, etc.) most places but instead, why not a real taste of Hawaii, Loco Moco? There can be many variations of Loco Moco, but essentially it is white rice, topped with a hamburger patty, a fried egg and brown gravy. Yum. You can often get it with brown rice instead of white and Spam or Kalua Pork instead of Hamburger. And frankly there are even more variations you may run into in place of the hamburger.

You can get Loco Moco most anywhere (even McDonald’s in Honolulu has Loco Moco on the menu), but two you might want to seek out are Like Like Drive In and the Rainbow Drive in.

Like Like opened in1953 and though it is no longer a car-hop drive in, you will feel like you are back in the 50s when you eat there.

Rainbow is just a bit younger. It opened in 1961. In addition to Loco Moco, Rainbow also serves another Hawaiian classic, the Plate Lunch. Plate Lunch is actually similar to Loco Moco, but with Macaroni salad in addition to the rice and without the fried egg.

But for a real treat, get your coffee (Kona, of course) and stop by Leonard’s bakery for some Malasadas. Malasadas are Portuguese doughnuts – actually doughnuts without

the hole. You can get them plain (with sugar or with sugar and cinnamon) or filled with custard.

Take your coffee, Malasadas and maybe some orange juice and find a bench along the south end of Waikiki beach across from Kapiolani Park. There is a nice area near the War Memorial Natatorium – itself worth seeing. It can be very pleasant, away from the hotels along Kalakau just gazing at the Pacific and eating your Malasadas.

Leonard’s also had its start in the 50s, 1952 to be exact by Leonard and Margaret Rego, the grandchildren of Portuguese immigrants. Much of what we consider ‘local’ food, including Loco Moco and Plate lunch has a Portuguese influence combined with that of the other ethnic cultures to create uniquely Hawaiian dishes.


Your choice, one of two places right next door to one another:

Nico's on Pier 38. The fish is as fresh as it can be, provided by the local fishing fleet – on the very pier where the restaurant is located.

Nico's started as a hole-in-the-wall lunch counter by Jim Cook and Nico Chaize. Jim is the fisherman and Nico is the chef. To eat, you went to the counter, ordered your food, and hoped to find a place at one of the open air tables. I first ate at Nico's when it was still the funky take-out place and vowed I would always come back when in Honolulu.

The food was outstanding and that meant that Nico's popularity with locals continued to grow and that meant that Nico's had to grow. It now occupies a large space a few yards from the old place. It boasts lots of tables but more importantly the food is still outstanding.

You don't have to have the fish – there are lots of other items on the menu, including Loco Moco – but with fish hand-selected each morning at the Hawaii fish auction (also on Pier 38) it is difficult to opt for anything else. Lunch is served 10 AM to 4 PM.

“We honor the Uncles.” That is the slogan at Uncles, also on Pier 38.

The name of this restaurant and the slogan refer to “the brotherhood of hook and net – the long ago men who beat the sun up by hours to be heading out of the harbor  in pursuit of ahi, aku, and bottom fish.” Video of Japanese, Chinese, local Haole, Filipino and Hawaiian fisherman play on screens in the restaurant.

While there a lots of other items on the menu, it is fish that Uncles is all about. The restaurant is run by fish wholesaler Fresh Island Fish, right next door. That means that the fish literally comes off the boats, into Fresh Island Fish and then onto your plate.

Interestingly, Uncles is just a stone's throw from Nico's.

There is always a catch of the day and you can get it as fish and chips, or a fish sandwich. Fish in Fish and chips is done in a very nice Panko coating. In the sandwich, your choice is grilled, broiled or blackened Cajun style.

A specialty is the Ahi Poke Tower.


Chuck's Cellar.

The last place you would expect to enjoy a meal in the heart of Waikiki is Chuck's Cellar.

Located between the Ohana East and Sheraton Princess Kaiulani hotels, Chuck's Cellar is actually in a cellar underneath Roundtable Pizza. You will have to look for the door in the exterior wall.

There is nothing elegant or fancy about this place, but the food is outstanding, it is exceptionally, reasonably priced and the atmosphere is informal and comfortable. And not only do you go down the stairs to the restaurant you feel like you are going back in time. Chuck's is just like it was when it first opened in 1959.

There is a bar, with great bartenders, and nightly entertainment. Local musicians with an emphasis on piano, bass and drums, standards, light jazz, etc.

The menu is heavy on beef but there is fish, too. The prime rib, available every night is slow roasted 4 to 5 hours and is great. The steaks are all USDA Prime, aged and hand-cut on the premises and grilled over Lava Rock.

There is a nightly special, always Mahi Mahi paired with the chef's choice of Steak Diane, Hibachi Steak, or Prime Tips and mushrooms.

There is also always a catch of the day of locally caught fish.

Chuck Rolles, the Chuck of Chuck's Cellar came to Hawaii after graduating from Cornell Hotel and Restaurant school. With the success of the 'Cellar' he opened a second Chuck’s on Waikiki (this one actually has a view) and later to places in the Continental US. But the Cellar is still the best.

So have a 'real' martini – no little umbrellas in the drink - listen to some tinkling piano, order your entree from one of the extremely friendly and helpful wait staff (you won't be rushed, if you are looking for a leisurely eating experience) go to the soup and salad bar when you are ready, its included with the meal and the soups are made fresh, in-house daily. I am not a fan of salad bars, but I make an exception here. Enjoy.

Like Like Drive In
745 Keeaumoku St.
Honolulu, HI 96814

Rainbow Drive In
3308 Kanaina Ave
Honolulu, HI 96815

Leonard's Bakery
933 Kapahulu Ave
Honolulu, HI 96818

1133 Nimitz Hwy.
Honolulu, HI 96817

1135 Nimitz Hwy
Honolulu, HI 96817

Chuck's Cellar
150 Kaiulani Avenue
Honolulu, HI 96815

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