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Thirty Years at the Table

A 30-year memoir of Honolulu restaurants, served in five courses.


(page 1 of 4)

Chicken Feet Soup

When good fortune brought me to Honolulu 30 years ago, I set out to eat in as many restaurants as I could. That was not a professional ambition or even a conscious goal. It was just what I liked to do.

The author and wife Barbara (who figured in many dining columns as his “local food consultant”) at a high-end banquet in the early ’80s. Note the Sears rental tux.

photo courtesy of John Heckathorn

I was blessed with my first real job, the kind with a salary—not a particularly large one. Back then, my kind of Honolulu restaurant had Formica tabletops, and a menu I often couldn’t understand.

You can’t figure out food in Hawaii overnight. I often found myself ordering things just to find out what they were.

One night, in a restaurant (now long gone) in the Chinese Cultural Plaza, I ordered the soup of the day. It came topped with bright red chicken feet. So as not to appear as fresh off the plane as I was, I decided to eat them. They weren’t bad at all, kind of bony, so all I had to do was suck off the nearly gelatinous flesh. The experience was liberating. If I could eat chicken feet, I could eat anything.

Early on, a group of feral Australians dragged me to the ramshackle Kuhio Grill, a bar by the University of Hawaii at Manoa. I was surprised when they had to tear it down a decade later. It looked like it would fall over if you breathed hard on it.

At Kuhio Grill, the Australians explained, you drank a lot of Foster’s and left a big pile of money on the table. If her tip looked big enough, the waitress would bring you food. You didn’t choose, she did, and she didn’t bother telling you what it was. That’s how I ate raw fish for the first time without realizing it, and then, emboldened by the Foster’s, voluntarily ate tako poke, even though it looked suspiciously like octopus.

Both of these things proved much better than chicken feet.

I discovered yakiniku, miso butterfish, kung pao shrimp, nigiri sushi—and was unhappy when sushi bars became trendy on the Mainland. I wanted them to stay my, and Honolulu’s, secret.

Occasionally, I would even eat haole food, some of it at restaurants I remember fondly. The Third Floor served an incredible abalone in cream sauce with mushrooms and tomatoes, a dish that got even better when legendary sommelier Richard Dean, now in San Francisco, convinced me to stop pairing it with chenin blanc and order chardonnay.

A vintage ad for now defunct restaurant The Third Floor.

I am not sure The Third Floor was really about food. It was, like most of the grand restaurants of the period, about dressing up and feeling special. (Look over there by the koi pond, Mary Tyler Moore!)

Martin Wyss’ Swiss Inn, however, was always about food—wienerschnitzel, rosti potatoes, osso buco, onaga with capers. Wyss himself cooked every dish. The food was so good and so reasonable, for years we tried to eat there once a week.

I miss a third restaurant—not because it was good, but because it seemed to typify the whole kitschy dining scene in those days.

Along the waterfront in Hawaii Kai was a restaurant that may in fact have been called The Waterfront. It’s now a Zippy’s. But decades ago, a waitress in an abbreviated Eskimo costume used to wander the dining room with a warmer basket, giving you all you could eat of not particularly good, originally frozen King crab legs, slathered with molten butter.

The restaurant served wine in carafes, filled from large boxes of wine in the back. You didn’t order wine by name—just red or white. Don’t laugh. Carafes were hip—and affordable, even in quantity.

In my 30 years in Hawaii, the Waterfront was the only restaurant that ever threatened to throw me out. One night, a group of friends and I were laughing and talking over dinner, when a severely pained looking manager suggested we were, ahem, bothering his other patrons. “By laughing?” asked my friend Chris. The manager made threatening huffs.

Hawaii Kai was quiet in those days. We probably weren’t talking loud enough to be heard over the table at Roy’s.

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