The Honolulu Rush
When a restaurant opens in this town, it better be ready to rock
reviewers are supposed to wait, not show up at a new restaurant within a few nights
It's a fairness thing. The restaurant is supposed to get time to work out the bugs. Only then are you allowed to review it.
There's only one problem: Nobody in Honolulu, at least nobody else, ever waits. Any new restaurant of note gets mobbed immediately.
It's not just restaurants, of course. When you live on an island, you get desperate for novelty. Almost anything new in town gets the Honolulu Rush. Honolulu may be the only city in America where a Kmart opening set off traffic jams.
But the Honolulu Rush is worse for restaurants. Eating out is prime entertainment in Honolulu, and somewhere new is always welcome. God forbid a restaurant should raise the curtain on a kitchen that's not ready. If you don't remember, on Halloween night in 1987, Dolly Parton opened a restaurant in Hawai'i Kai called Dockside Plantation. Parton was there, as well as a number of people dressed like her for the opening costume party. For months, it was hard to get a reservation, as starstruck Honolulu rushed to eat at Dolly's.
The food was terrible.
So terrible that Dolly finally hired a real chef (Gordon Hopkins, who was so good he eventually ended up as Roy's corporate chef). She threw a luncheon, where, all smiles and hair and country charm, she took a picture with each and every guest. Too late. The Honolulu Rush had come … and gone.
There's a lesson here. You can't open a high-profile restaurant in this town without being ready for the Honolulu Rush. The Bistro, for instance, refused to open for a year.
Then, suddenly, we got three restaurants which opened very hot. The much anticipated Cheesecake Factory in the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center, action star Jackie Chan's Jackie's Kitchen in Ala Moana Center, and the first O'ahu outlet of the Kona Brewing Co. in Koko Marina.
I could have waited, but why? Everyone else would go. So I went early, if for no other reason than to see how each was coping with the Honolulu Rush.
For the Cheesecake Factory, the Honolulu Rush was no big t'ing. During the practice lunches, attended by almost everyone in Honolulu who could wangle an invitation, the new staff at the Waikïkï location showed a few signs of strain. But by the time the restaurant officially opened, it seemed ready to cope with long lines of people willing to wait an hour for a table. Apparently, this was business as usual for the 73-unit chain.
Cheesecake Factory has its own niche in the American restaurant industry. It's an upscale casual dining restaurant, a step up from chains like Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Applebee's, Chili's. But it's not just upscale, Cheesecake Factory is also high-volume.
Here are some numbers. The average check at a Cheesecake Factory isn't large, just $15.78 per person. But an average Cheesecake Factory restaurant serves so many people in a year that it grosses $11 million. Let's put that in perspective. A good chain restaurant, say a Chili's in a good location, grosses about $2 million a year. If a restaurant of any kind grosses $4 to $5 million, it's an unqualified success. Cheesecake Factory restaurants do twice that. No location has missed yet.
Why? First, the name's brilliant. Cheesecake is almost everyone's favorite dessert; according to the industry magazine Restaurants And Institutions, the cream cheese-sugar-eggs-vanilla combo is on more than half the menus in America. And anyplace called a factory is unlikely to be fussy, pretentious or expensive.
Second, a Cheesecake Factory has a 19-page menu with more than 200 items. Want pasta? Chinese food? Thai lettuce wraps? Fried chicken? Teriyaki steak? Burger? Pizza? A chicken taco? Breakfast? Whatever you like, Cheesecake Factory's got it. This makes it one of the few restaurants that's veto proof. No one can say, Let's not go there, I don't feel like this or that tonight.
It's a chicken-and-egg situation. The extensive menu attracts the high volume of patrons, and only a restaurant that attracts a high volume of customers can possibly afford to carry that many items. The huge menu also provides a variety of price points, from a $24.95 filet mignon to a $6.95 grilled cheese sandwich.
Finally, however, Cheesecake Factory's successful for an obvious reason: It's better than you'd expect for the price you pay.
The food's not bad, with some real surprises. The appetizer menu has everything from spicy little deep-fried popcorn shrimp (watch out, they're addictive) to the best artichoke that I've ever been served in a restaurant. The choke is cooked first, then split and grilled in olive oil, served with a garlic dip. It's soft, and as artichokes go, remarkably easy to eat. It's also tastes great. I've had grilled baby artichokes, this one has all the flavor and much more to eat.
The entrees go on for pages. We tried a sampling. The Chinese-style orange chicken piles a mountain of real chicken pieces atop white rice. The chicken Madeira is entirely different, sautéed chicken breast topped with mozzarella sauced with fresh mushrooms and served with a mashed potatoes.
While we're not talking slam bang wow flavors, these dishes were not lowest common denominator, chain food. The sweet-sour had some spice, the Madeira sauce may well have contained real Madeira.
Even the burger is worth eating, served on a baguette with fries and a side of grilled onions.
The entrees are contemporary American restaurant portions, which means nobody can finish them. Don't try, save room for the cheesecake. Since there are 40 varieties on the menu, it's hard to resist ordering a slice for everyone at the table.
Cheesecakes range from plain to chocolate peanut butter cookie-dough. If you're stumped, let me suggest the dulce le leche, a light caramel based on a popular South American treat made by reducing condensed milk. It's a flavor that seems made for cheesecake.
Our check for four people, two appetizers, four entrees, four cheesecakes, two glasses of wine, some sundry sodas, was $143 with tip. It's possible to eat inexpensively at Cheesecake Factory; just split entrees and desserts.
Jackie's Kitchen, if you've evaded the PR blitz, is action film star Jackie Chan's first American restaurant. Chan has restaurants throughout Asia, a mixture of concepts. He started three Jackie's Kitchens serving Hong Kong-style food in Japan. They were not a success, shutting down after a year.
So the Jackie's Kitchen concept is nowhere near as polished as the Cheesecake Factory's. When I arrived the second night, the waiter had to keep apologizing. It seemed everything we ordered the kitchen was out of.
It got really comical when I tried to order a glass of wine from the little table-tent wine list. The Valley of the Moon pinot blanc? The waiter rushed back a few minutes later: No, sorry sir, there isn't any. The Murphy-Goode chardonnay? Another trip to the bar, another sorry sir. "Wouldn't it be simpler to tell me which wines you do have?" I asked the waiter. They won't tell me, sir.
I finally got up, and walked to the bar, where I could actually see what they had.
We ordered four appetizers. Some pot stickers, unfortunately cold, filled with 'ahi. Some little crab-cream cheese puffs (called wontons on the menu) with a terrific hot-sweet chili sauce. Some sweet but tasty hoisin barbecue ribs, and a chicken-and-canned-mushroom lettuce wrap with the kickiest sweet and sour sauce I have encountered in a while.
The food at Jackie Chan's borders on conventional Chinese food, which is a mistake, since there's great Chinese food, all over the Island, and it's cheaper. When I tasted the wokked string beans, I suggested to the waiter that the chef go to Little Village on Smith Street and steal their wonderful spicy, garlicky string bean recipe. The waiter assured me the chef would do so the minute he got a chance.
He's not likely to get a chance. He's getting The Honolulu Rush. By the time we left, there were long lines of people waiting for a table.
But, you know, there was something I liked about Jackie's. First, the meal, despite the waiter's profuse apologies, was not really a disaster. Plus, I liked the place much more than I anticipated, especially for a restaurant where the entryway is a gift shop, selling Jackie Chan tchotchkes. The design is all cheerful earth tones and custom light fixtures, plus plasma screens everywhere showing promos for Chan's movies.
The fun part of the restaurant seemed to be the bar, so I returned a few nights later with my friend the martini maven. At Jackie's bar, the bartenders throw bottles in the air and catch them behind their backs. They whipped up a drink that was 18-inches high and two colors, requiring two different blenders and multiple bottles of suspiciously-colored liqueurs. We confined ourselves to martinis-which our bartender poured with the glass balanced on his forehead.
You can get the whole menu at the bar. We had a basket of chicken shu mai topped with a cilantro-ginger pesto. And two entrees: lemongrass- crusted öpakapaka in Thai curry sauce and a filet mignon in a soy wasabi butter. There were some glitches, the dim sum and the fish course arrived a bit too cool. We had to send the steak back to get it sliced, püpü style, the way we ordered it. But the food was good, the martinis better, the whole experience enjoyable. The whole evening added up to $100, including dessert, tip, an evening's moderate drinking.
The Honolulu Rush was still on. People were waiting for tables, and people stood outside the windows just to watch the action at the bar. It made you feel like you were some place so fun that other people enjoyed just watching you enjoy yourself.
The best thing about Kona Brewing Co. is the beer. Well, let me correct myself. The best things on the menu at the Kona Brewing Co. are the nine microbrews. Probably, the best thing about the new Hawai'i Kai brew pub is that it took the roof and foundation of a very tired restaurant (most recently Akasaka, but I cannot even count the number of restaurants it has been), blew out the walls and put together a stylish concoction of exotic hardwoods, brew pub stainless steel and french doors that open the whole restaurant to the water.
They did a great job, but being out in the suburbs, I am not sure they anticipated the Honolulu Rush.
A week or so in, the place was slammed. The staff started apologizing even before you ordered. Midmeal, there was a big crash boom smash from the waiter's station in the back. The bus boy emerged bleeding, a towel around his thumb. When he returned suitably bandaged, we asked him if was OK. Yeah, he said, but the temporary shelf collapsed where he was stacking dishes. "We're not quite ready," he said.
The food was ready, but then again the kitchen is far from ambitious. When I ordered my sampler of beers-four 6-oz. glasses, for $6.50-I noticed the menu offered kettle chips. Oh wow, I thought, a restaurant that makes its own small-batch Hawai'i potato chips. So I ordered them and got … a bag of chips. The waiter didn't even open it for me. Like eating at Subway, except the 5-ounces of chips were $3.49.
Kona Brewing Co. isn't into food. A French dip sandwich on a dense, cold "focaccia roll" reminded me of the food at the old Woolworth's before it closed down its Honolulu operations. There was some reasonable Caesar Salad, a build-your-own pizza with ingredients like fresh spinach and andouille sausage. And some incredibly disappointing caprese, with a few slices of undistinguished tomato, a few of fresh mozzarella and lots of dry toast.
None of this seemed to matter. Kona Brewing Co. was packed, since Hawai'i Kai doesn't have a restaurant like this, better than fast food, but far from upscale casual dining. It's reasonably priced food for the unfussy; the beer and the setting were most pleasant.
Oh, and one more thing. They serve an ice cream float with beer for dessert. I had to risk one, choosing the liliko'i wheat ale because it sounded like it might go with vanilla ice cream. In retrospect, I might have gone with the dark porter, with its deep chocolate and coffee undertones. I am not sure I would ever order this again, but the sharp bite of the beer seemed to handle the sweet ice cream all right. Everything goes OK with beer.