35th Hale ‘Aina Awards: These 3 Original Winners Are Still Winning Decades Later
Each of these three restaurants was around before the first Hale ‘Aina Awards were presented. Each won on the first ballot. And each is here today, and still racking up honors. How do they do it?
Hy’s. Michel’s. Kim Chee 2. Which of these long-established Honolulu restaurants is not like the others?
From left: Server Ernie Juliusburger, who has worked at Hy’s for 42 years; Panter; and assistant server Kirby Chun, who has worked there for 35 years.
The correct answer, of course, is—none, at least when it comes to Hale ‘Aina history. This trio holds the distinction of being the only first-place winners in the very first Hale ‘Aina awards, more than 30 years ago, who are still winners today.
In 1985 there were 14 winners in 14 categories and “nearly 300 different restaurants listed as someone’s overall favorite place to eat,” wrote contributing editor John Heckathorn in that first story. The 520 ballots mailed in included 340 from O‘ahu, 43 from California and 33 from the Neighbor Islands. The Third Floor at the Hawaiian Regent Hotel, which won for Restaurant of the Year, was old school, boasting of its devotion to the formal pageantry of Escoffier-style cuisine. But it opened and closed every meal with touches that might please Instagram-happy diners today: an amuse-bouche of duck liver pâté served with naan, and ice cream bonbons “served with billows of smoke” from dry ice.
Today, there are more than 170 winners in 39 categories, and The Pig & The Lady is this year’s Best O‘ahu Restaurant. But the classic European grand hotel approach still wins them over, as we see in Hy’s Steak House (Best American in 1985, Gold for Best Service and Silver for Best Steak this year) and Michel’s at the Colony Surf (Best Sunday Brunch in 1985, Bronze for Most Romantic this year). At both you’ll see tableside service, flambé dishes and waiters in tuxedos.
But Hawai‘i also loves the ‘ohana-with-aloha approach of the Chun family’s Kim Chee 2, which won Gold this year for Best Overall Korean, and Best Korean in 1985. At the Kaimukī restaurant, regulars know Jimmy Chun and four of his children will serve them—and take just as much pride in their cooking, which includes, Chun says, making their mandoo by hand when bigger restaurants use machines.
Longevity runs in the blood at these places. Michel’s opened in 1962 (in 1985 there were two, both founded by Michel Martin, who won for Best French at Chez Michel). In 1970, Rod and Marilyn Gardiner opened a branch of the Hy’s Canadian steakhouse chain started by Hy Aisenstat. Rose and Henry Chun came over from South Korea and in 1977, along with six Chun siblings, opened the second of seven family-owned Kim Chee restaurants. “The recipes are the same,” says Jimmy Chun, their son, “but No. 2 wins the Hale ‘Ainas.”
Guest services manager Robert Panter started as a busboy assistant at Hy’s in 1976. “It will always be a people business,” he says.
It was clear Kim Chee 2 was special to Heckathorn, whom Chun got to know at 13 because his parents couldn’t speak English. “I translated. In later years we would close down the Hale ‘Ainas with cognac and cigars: Monte Cristos, Cohibos, Robustos.”
Good service is a hallmark of long-lasting restaurants, to judge from these survivors who are also thriving. Waiters at all three have long pedigrees. Guest services manager Robert Panter, 65, started out at Hy’s as a busboy assistant in 1976; by 1979 he was general manager: “I had already been working at a French restaurant at Puck’s Alley, doing a lot of flambés, carving duck tableside, working with a lot of European waiters,” he says. Kim Chee 2’s Chun, 46, began working in his father and mother’s restaurant when he was 5. At Michel’s, waiter Jason Kakinami, 62, began bussing breakfast, lunch and the hotel’s room service in 1976. “I was a surfer, at Ala Moana, and I worked at Loki’s Lū‘au; I worked the pit, the hot coals. Loki’s lost their lease and I needed a job.”
By 1981, Kakinami was also a busser at night, and learning the tuxedo’d waiter’s trade under future stars, chef Paul Grutter and sous chef Gordon Hopkins. “It was very intense. We’d follow different waiters and train.” As a test, the chefs might call an apprentice to carve and serve a tableside chateaubriand for them at lunch without notice. “You only got one chance,” he says.
Waiters at Hy’s, Panter says, are part of the quality control chain. “You have to keep your eye on what the suppliers are sending you,” he says. “We give input if we have trouble trimming tableside, for instance if the New York has more vein at the end of the loin. That’s not ideal for serving.”
“YOU’VE GOT TO BE ORGANIZED AND EFFICIENT,” SAYS CHEF HARDY KINTSCHER, WHO ARRIVED AT MICHEL’S IN 2000.
Today, Panter says it’s not just the food that keeps them coming back. “Yes, we serve USDA prime exclusively, we have our kīawe broiler and you can see how the beautiful room works its magic on customers’ faces when they walk in. But I think it will always be a people business—having a personality that is conducive to chemistry with guests but also with co-workers.”
At Kim Chee 2, the smiling young men in T-shirts—and Chun’s daughter—treat the customers as family, too. And it’s clear from watching the booths fill up and the customers bantering with each other and the various Chuns that the feeling is reciprocal.
But aloha aside, the quality of the food is the main draw here, just as it is at Hy’s and Michel’s.
“We’re a local Korean restaurant,” says Chun. “We don’t do the 25 banchan; we do five. But we make our jun with rib eye while others use chuck steak or hamburger. You marinate it for a day or two, then when you batter it you let it sit in the egg for a while.” The “L.A. kalbi”—what he calls the thin-cut version, named for where it first gained a following—is moist but not sweet. “Marinades have gotten much sweeter over the years, but not here,” he says. The big-bone kalbi—tōng in Korean, he says—unfurls from a short rib. “You have to trim off the skin, cut off the fat, and for every three bones you cut off two,” to create the scroll effect. Marinated for two days so the flavor penetrates deep, the grade A meat has a different texture—more even, dense, a lot more juicy but without marbling.
Kim Chee 2’s Jimmy Chun, top center, began working in his parents’ restaurant when he was 5. Here, he’s surrounded by his kids, clockwise from left: Cali, Dylan, Nick, Faith and Leila.
Location helps all three restaurants. Kim Chee 2 is a Kaimukī institution with a coveted back entrance to the large public parking lot. Michel’s has Kaimana Beach and, often these days, a lolling monk seal for a floor show. The much-remarked-upon interior of Hy’s—which owes its clubby library look to Gardiner, who bought and shipped in pieces of the Baldwin mansion from Philadelphia—more than offsets the humdrum of Kūhiō Avenue. For Panter, personally, location is why he’s stayed for 42 years. “To live in Hawai‘i and work in the evenings is ideal.”
Both Hy’s and Michel’s also deliver showstopping presentations, finishing dishes tableside, often doused in blue flames: steak Diane, steak au poivre, crepes suzette, cherries jubilee. Nerves of steel are necessary, says Michel’s chef Hardy Kintscher, who trained in the grand hotels of Europe—and in NATO headquarters in Brussels.
The work is hard but rewarding. Kakinami, who’s newly retired, admits his back hurts from all the years of standing and carrying, but he’s proud that his two children heeded his advice to get their educations—and that he could pay for it. “My daughter is a registered nurse going for her M.D.,” he says. “My son got his degree in computer science. They’re both very successful. I thank God for that.”
Chun likes to linger over his memories of closing down the Hale ‘Aina dinners, the same way he lingered with Heckathorn. “I was in my 20s, this young pup with the big chefs and John, a snifter of cognac in my hand. I’m a rough sort of guy, and I had to dress nice. People would look at me and say, ‘Who’s this kid?’”
A once and future Hale ‘Aina winner is the answer.