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Thirty Years at the Table

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


(page 2 of 4)

Belon Oysters, Caviar and Canned Vegetable Soup

In the early ’80s, my avocation turned into my profession. I was recruited by HONOLULU Magazine to write on restaurants. I’d always hoped that the ability to write might come in handy some day. I’d never anticipated it would result in someone paying me to go out to dinner.

It’s hard to imagine in these food-obsessed times, when entire cable channels are devoted to cooking, that, back in ’80s, no one else in the Islands was writing seriously about dining. That was fortunate, because it allowed me to receive my education in public without undue embarrassment.

The dining scene in Hawaii at that time was confusing, not to mention schizophrenic.

On the one hand, I would find myself interviewing Spence Weaver, who was clearly inebriated at 10 in the morning. Weaver began his Honolulu restaurant career in 1939 with a hot dog cart called Swankie Frankie. By the ’80s, his company, Spencecliff, had 27 Oahu restaurants serving 3.6 million meals a year.

A 1970s menu from Coco’s, once one of Honolulu’s most popular coffee shops.

Spencecliff’s iconic restaurant was Coco’s, which perched like a flying saucer at the junction of Kalakaua Avenue and Kapiolani Boulevard, where the Hard Rock Café now resides. Coco’s served Vienna Sausage with breakfast and the soup of the day was often vegetable out of the can. It was not good, but lots of people ate there, from morning to late at night.

On the other end of the spectrum, in 1986 I flew to Maui for a special dinner at Raffles, the top dining room at the Stouffer Wailea (which became a Renaissance hotel and is due to be demolished in September). At the time, the Stouffer was a luxury property, the only hotel in Wailea. Outside at night, it was spooky. There were no other lights in any direction.

The dinner that night, I wrote, was the most fun I’d ever had with my clothes on. That may have been an exaggeration, but it was certainly the most fun I’d ever had in a Sears rental tux.

The food was Old School—real turtle soup, truffles in galantine, white rose-petal salad, veal with zucchini flowers, Charlotte Russe. It began with ice tables (literally, tables hewn from massive blocks of ice) full of Belon oysters imported from Normandy and tins of caviar, with real blini. It ended with brandy and Cuban cigars, which were, yes, illegal as well as immoral.

It was not the last of such dinners. The hotels were proving their European chops. The hottest restaurant opening in all those years was La Mer at the Halekulani. The consulting chef from France came up with pigeon salad in lamb’s lettuce, nage of prawns with chervil, cheese courses. I remember being shocked that dinner for two, including wine with each course, cost $162. (Of course, if you put that into 2007 dollars, it was $300, which might still raise my eyebrows, though not as much.)

La Mer kicked up the competition in all the dining rooms in Waikiki. The Hilton hired a team away from the Hyatt’s silver-domed-entrées restaurant Bagwells 2424 and started the Bali Room.

The town was in a race to get more sophisticated. People were ordering wine by the bottle. I remember a Honolulu professional woman explaining to me gravely, “If I want white, I say CHAR DON AY. If I want red, I say CAH BURR NAY.”

A number of Asian restaurants went upscale. The old King Tsin on King Street had tablecloths and waiters in ties. Keo filled his Kapahulu Avenue Thai restaurant with orchids and art. Suntory opened a stunning Japanese restaurant in the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center. Kyo-ya built a concrete palace on Kalakaua.

A 1987 ad touted Halekulani’s La Mer, still one of Hawaii’s finest restaurants.

But there was clearly something amiss. Restaurants were looking for the next new thing. They felt it coming, but had no idea what it was. The conventional wisdom was somehow that everyone wanted less.

Less restaurant—no more heavy, dark, formal dining rooms. All new restaurants sported pastels, blonde woods, etched glass.

Even established restaurants freaked out. Rivaling Spencecliff in those years was a chain called Jolly Roger, which had the Yum Yum Tree restaurants and a pleasant upscale eatery at Kahala Mall called The Spindrifter. The chain ripped out all the black Naugahyde booths and deemphasized the prime rib and steaks. I remember thinking the bright, new, floral Spindrifter, with plenty of salads on the menu, ought to be called Grandma’s Kitchen. The location is now, of course, buried beneath a Barnes & Noble.


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