The Do-Overs: 53 by the Sea and Lucky Belly
In which two decades-old restaurants give way to new ones. One is an outright replacement of the old John Dominis, the other took over a long-time Chinese greasy spoon.
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53 by the Sea
53 Ahui St., 536-5353, 53bythesea.com.
Appetizers: $8 (green papaya salad) to $30 (seafood showcase)
Entrées: $18 (spaghetti Bolognese) to $42 (Maine lobster linguine)
The old John Dominis, that 31-year-old institution, is completely gone. The mid-century modern building cantilevered over the water—razed. In its place: a gleaming, hulking $16-million palace. Or, more accurately, a wedding venue, occupying the entire second floor, and, at ground level, a restaurant: 53 by the Sea. But call it the new John Dominis to be safe, because otherwise people might not know what you’re talking about, so nondescript is the name, so out of the way is the restaurant. Its two closest neighbors are the surfers at Kewalo’s and the UH research station next door, which looks even darker and more abandoned next to the new building.
This new John Dominis is overly dramatic—12-foot-tall double doors swing open as you approach. You’re greeted with a grand staircase of white stone and intricate ironwork: a stage for hundreds of future brides and grooms.
Ocean Investments, the Japanese company behind 53 by the Sea, composed a page-long treatise on the architectural details: the design inspired by buildings of Hawai‘i’s Territorial period, the use of cut and cast stone, the incorporation of the naupaka flower in the motif. But rather than coming off as authentic or beautiful, it looks imposing and cheesy, not unlike Las Vegas’ castles and palaces and one-stop wedding chapels. I know many people who disagree, but it is easy to confuse awe with beauty.
One step past the grand staircase and none of that matters. Floor-to-ceiling windows frame the view, from Waikiki to Diamond Head, a dynamic postcard of shifting ocean landscape and surfers exploding off the waves. It is breathtaking as the sun sets and all the buildings in the Honolulu skyline turn the color of the Royal Hawaiian and, even at night, when you would think there would be only blackness, the skyline lights up. This new place is surely romantic, but I wouldn’t know; each time I have come, I have spent more time gazing at the view (and the surfers) than at my date and companions.
This is the best view from any Honolulu restaurant. Perhaps you are closer to the water at Michel’s (incidentally, another restaurant by the Honolulu developer Andy Anderson, who owned John Dominis), but this sweeping landscape is infinitely more interesting.
Not so much the menu, which offers a little bit of everything for everyone—seafood, steak, pasta. Some of the dishes include exotic ingredients, such as bottarga on the calamari salad, but the product is disappointingly pedestrian—the bottarga reduced to a decorative sprinkle around the plate and the fried calamari cold. The best plates are handmade pasta: a tagliatelle with shrimp, garlicky pesto and bursts of roasted tomatoes; a satisfying fettucine laden with sausage and mushrooms. Frankly, the kitchen should jettison everything else from the menu and focus on this.
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