The King of Chinatown
How Dave Stewart revived an ailing neighborhood with booze and six simple rules.
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Stewart Rule No. 3: “I don’t shut up when I think other people are wrong. That makes it hard to hold a job. When I get the urge to work, I have to work for myself.”
In Auckland, Dave and Mari started not one, but two businesses. Mari opened a jeans store in a fashionable shopping district. Dave, doing most of the work himself, turned an old house on Ponsonby Road into a two-story restaurant called Toad Hall, after Wind and the Willows. There were Wind and the Willows murals on the wall, and characteristic Stewart touches, old pieces he reclaimed, like two antique barber chairs at the ends of the party-room table.
“At the time, Ponsonby Road was essentially a slum,” says Stewart. Toad Hall was its first restaurant. Now, the Travel Channel calls Ponsonby a “hip downtown hood,” blocks upon blocks of restaurants, café, bars, clubs, boutiques and galleries.
Why not Nuuanu Avenue?
Of course, by the time Ponsonby Road had turned itself into Auckland’s restaurant row, the Stewarts were long gone. They’d sold both businesses, Stewart had built a yacht, and the two had set sail for Fiji, Tahiti, Hawaii and their ultimate destination, San Francisco. But, notes Mari, “Cruising turned out to be far more expensive than we thought.”
When the two landed in Honolulu Harbor in December 1979, they were broke. Back to work. But at what?
“I’d vowed never to go into the restaurant business again,” says Stewart.
Stewart Rule No. 4: “If you’ve got a restaurant, you don’t have a life. There are a million moving details—food, service, restrooms, décor. You have to take care of all of them. Otherwise, long term, you crash and burn.”
Instead, the focus was on Mari’s first love, retail. She began a 25-year run with Rafael, a woman’s fashion store, first in Ward Centre, then Ala Moana Center and Khala Mall. Stewart, who liked to build things, did the build-out on the Rafael shops.
“I tried a lot of things, trying to stay out of the restaurant business,” he says. “Yacht repair, contracting, nothing terribly successful.”
Next door to Rafael in Ward Centre, chef Glenn Chu and then-wife RoxSand opened RoxSand’s Pâtisserie. Stewart volunteered to help Chu build out a Moroccan restaurant, Hajibaba’s, near Kahala Mall. “At some point I figured if I was doing that much work, I might as well be a partner,” says Stewart. “The great thing about working with Glenn is I knew I wouldn’t have to deal with the food.”
From Hajibaba’s, it was Indigo, and the frustration that Nuuanu Avenue was not going to become Ponsonby Road.
So Stewart moved over a block to Bethel Street and opened Du Vin—which allowed travel writers to say the new Chinatown Arts & Culture District had trendy wine bars. One, anyway.
In 2005, a few months before Du Vin opened, I was walking up Bethel Street and encountered Dave Stewart at his happiest. He was horsing an 8-foot-long, 4-by-4 beam from his truck into the restaurant, and invited me in for a look. He’d just broken through the back wall into a long-neglected courtyard piled with decades of decaying trash. “I’ve got some old windows in my garage. I am going to put a false wall there and turn this into the courtyard of a French provincial town.” It seemed unlikely, but he managed it.
Stewart Rule No. 5: “It’s more fun to build them than run them.”
He wasn’t finished building. “I didn’t intend to become king of Chinatown, so stop saying that, it’s embarrassing,” he says. “You need synergy, and, if nobody else is opening more joints, you have to.”