Kaimuki's 12th Ave Grill Goes Big

The biggest little neighborhood restaurant.


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Left: 12th Ave Grill’s pork belly confit, lacquered with Maui dark rum and pineapple. Right: The meatloaf melt, available at the bar an hour after opening and an hour before closing.
Photos: steve czerniak

 

It is ridiculous that this is a meal for two. I could be auditioning for Man vs. Food, facing down an eating challenge of two full racks of ribs, a bowl of baked beans, a casserole of creamed corn and a dish of coleslaw. And this is before the two thick slices of toffee chocolate cheesecake. This is 12th Ave Grill’s Sunday Supper. A meal for two? More like a meal for me and a paddling club.

But I’m not complaining, any more than I’d complain about too much food at Thanksgiving. I could eat this for days—the smoked ribs in barbecue sauce sharpened with a bit of pomegranate, coleslaw with shards of asparagus for character, creamed corn that still retains the sweetness and crunch of fresh corn. And baked beans!

I love baked beans, especially these, cloaked in molasses.

12th Ave Grill's Sunday Supper, a weekly-changing family-style feast. This week: fried chicken, biscuits and gravy.

The Sunday Supper, which changes weekly, is one of my favorite things about the new 12th Ave Grill. The restaurant has moved and expanded into a space more than twice its original size, but it is still one of the coziest and most comfortable dining experiences in Honolulu. And when the table is laid out like it is for Sunday specials, with plates of ribs or fried chicken or meatloaf plunked down in the middle, it feels like I have sat down to a family feast, where there is always too much food and everyone always takes home leftovers.

This is the new 12th Ave Grill, bigger and better.

For almost 10 years, 12th Ave Grill was squished into an unpromising alleyway in Kaimuki, the kind that, if you were in any other major city, you’d feel uncomfortable walking down. The restaurant faced C&C Pasta Factory’s dumpsters. Some of its other neighbors were Sconees Bakery, Duk Lee and Victoria Inn, a 30-year-old peas-and-carrots, rice-and-brown-gravy kind of place that served pudding in metal dishes. It would be almost a decade before a punk rocker would open his cheesecake shop around the corner, a former gelato truck would take over Covenant Bookstore and a craft beer bar would open a few blocks away.

The times, they are a changin’.

Chef/owner Kevin Hanney has been part of Kaimuki’s change. Three years ago, he took over the C&C Pasta Factory space and installed Salt, an upscale neighborhood bar with a charcuterie program.

And last year, he decided 12th Ave Grill would celebrate its 10th birthday where Victoria Inn used to be.

 
12th Ave Grill's new bar is much larger than the one in the restaurant's former location.
Photos: steve czerniak

 

It took almost a year to gut and retrofit the new restaurant, to install new plumbing and electrical wiring, to rip out the old kitchen, to ponder the future of the dumbwaiter, which used to shuttle food up to the banquet floor. In the end, all Hanney kept was a pair of etched-glass swinging doors, which now lead to the private dining room.

In the blank space, he installed the same wood table tops and similar banquette seating from 12th Ave Grill, updating the booths with black leather, instead of the “grandma-pattern,” as a Honolulu Advertiser food critic once called them. With the tall space, Hanney could’ve gone with an industrial, reclaimed-wood-and-concrete-floors look, but he just wanted the feel of the original.

And a real bar.

Previously, 12th Ave Grill’s bar was 10 seats around a counter facing the kitchen, where the bartender shared a space with the kitchen pass (where the food comes out). The new 12th Ave Grill has a real bar area now—a boon for both patrons and the bartenders. The wine list remains extensive, plus there are now seven beers (and one cider) on tap. The drink menu includes a matcha sour—a frothy mix of bourbon, egg white and green tea; and an apple-tini—not the green Jolly Rancher-flavored cocktail you might know, but a mix of apple brandy, apple juice and housemade apple bitters. The bartenders don’t make a big deal out of the details, but they are there for you to relish if you care to, such as the perfectly clear, large chunks of ice sunk into the whiskey drinks.

12th Ave Grill is that rare Honolulu restaurant that serves good food and good drink. Don’t drink? The bar mixes nonalcoholic drinks, too, such as a bright lemongrass tonic to balance out some of the heavy dishes.

There’s a special food menu for the bar, though only available for an hour after opening (5 to 6) and before closing (10 to 11). I go out of my way for it—for the juicy, fat burger; the meatloaf sandwich with Taleggio cheese; and twice-cooked duck wings that are the equivalent of duck bacon. All of it is under $10. At the bar—and for Sunday Supper—12th Ave Grill is at its best, unfussiest self.

The regular dinner menu is much the same as the original restaurant’s—meat heavy, hearty plates of short ribs, steaks, pork shank and pork chops. Hanney did not open a chophouse, as the “grill” in the name might suggest, but there’s as much meat on the menu as if he had. The vegetable accompaniments are more interesting than at a steakhouse, though, such as the tomato jam and a fennel watercress salad accompanying the beer-and-Tabasco-marinated skirt steak. I like to go light with the duck over pink peppercorn tagliatelle tangled with kabocha, tomatoes and a lemon ricotta sauce.

But there is no going light with the Sunday Supper. On another night, it’s fried chicken, that dish that seems to elude finer restaurants—I rarely find a specimen that’s better than what Cajun fried chicken chains and casual joints deliver. 12th Ave Grill, though, has it nailed. As we bite into the thin, crackling crust, the juices run out, almost burning us. There is half a chicken per order (minimum of two orders for Sunday Supper), plus a biscuit with Surinam cherry butter, a bowl of pork sausage gravy, mashed potatoes and green beans. The biscuits and gravy could be a meal in themselves. But we eat it all—with five people this time—and barely save any room for dessert, buttermilk chocolate cake with thick layers of fudgy frosting.

It’s homey and old-fashioned, perhaps not as old-fashioned as the pudding of Victoria Inn days, but a fitting finish to the biggest little neighborhood restaurant that makes us wish we could all come home to Kaimuki.

12th Ave Grill, 1120 12th Ave., 732-9469, 12thavegrill.com.
 

 

Jason Schoonover, 12th Ave Grill's executive chef, with chef/owner Kevin Hanney.
Photos: steve czerniak

Moving Pains

What happened in the year it took to move the old 12th Ave Grill into its new space.

Estimated time to open: Eight months

Time it actually took: One year

Opening date: Oct. 1, 2013

Original 12th Ave Grill space: 1,600 square feet

New space: 3,800 square feet

Why chef/owner Kevin Hanney moved: “Have I ever thought, what am I doing, is this the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life? Yes. Many times. I tell people [opening restaurants] is a disease. Once you get into it, you can’t stop. … I’ve got a young family, a young mortgage and retirement someday and the reality is that those two small places (12th Ave Grill and Salt) aren’t going to take care of everything. … If someone comes into this [Victoria Inn] spot and opens an American bistro, what’s that going to do to me up here? If there’s going to be an 800-pound gorilla in this neighborhood, I want it to be me. … I can open a business complementing my restaurants rather than competing.”

Cost for the original 12th Ave Grill: $150,000 to $175,000

  • Financing: credit cards and savings

  • Cost for the new 12th Ave Grill: $1 million: $750,000 for building improvements (plumbing, electrical, grease trap), the rest for fixtures, furniture, equipment and staff training

  • Financing: It’s complicated. There are seven entities involved: 65 percent of the investment is a loan from First Hawaiian Bank. The other six are individual investors or investor groups, with a minimum $50,000 investment each. “All of the investors are customers of the restaurant. Who else is going to believe in you more than your regulars?”


Things that went wrong along the way:

  • Breakdowns: His and his wife’s cars, and his computer. At least Hanney’s sanity is intact, as far as I can tell.

  • Between a rock and a hard place: Discovering blue rock underneath the space, an extra-hard rock that made installing underground utilities and a 1,000-gallon grease trap take 10 times as long as planned.

  • Shhh, namaste: Due to the yoga studio above, ceiling work could only be done in half-hour to two-hour increments when yoga classes were not in session.

  • All signs point to … Victoria Inn? The new 12th Ave Grill opened with the Victoria Inn sign, due to a sign permit snag.

  • Name game: Luke’s Cafe, originally the name Hanney chose for his breakfast spot in the old 12th Ave Grill space, could not be registered. It was too similar to existing businesses. The new name: Koko Head Cafe.

“I want to just get back to what I do, which is running restaurants, not running construction sites.”

Read More Stories by Martha Cheng

 

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