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The King of Chinatown

How Dave Stewart revived an ailing neighborhood with booze and six simple rules.


(page 4 of 5)

After making a deal with the landlord, Stewart walked into a Hotel Street bar called Caspy’s Hawaiian and bought it. For $1.

“The guy was fed up,” recalls Stewart. “I gave him a dollar, because money had to change hands, and he handed me the keys. There was still liquor at the bar. I locked the door and called some friends. I couldn’t drink it all by myself.”

Stewart describes the décor of Caspy’s, which for decades had been one low-rent bar after another, as “sh-t layered upon sh-t.” He stripped it down to brick and concrete, filled it with black leather furniture and suddenly he had a place that appealed to an entirely different demographic than Du Vin, with its $10- and $15-dollar-a-glass wine list, its baked brie and moule frites.

Bar 35 stocked 150 kinds of beer. Then (Rule No. 2), Stewart needed food, something clean and simple.

He met with Italian chef Francesco Valentini. “What makes you think Italian guys know all about pizza?” Stewart asked him. “It’s Chinatown. How come I can’t have Chinese pizza? What’s more, I don’t want any knives, forks and plates.”

“Dave, he thinks he’s a challenge,” says Valentini. “But I’m Italian. I‘m back in two days with a menu.”

Thus was born Valentini Fusion Gourmet Pizza, including one with Chinese sausage and sweet chili sauce. On top of that, Valentini cut down standard wood pizza paddles so he could use them as serving trays. No knives, forks, plates. Mission accomplished.

“I stopped beating up on him,” says Stewart. “No point in it. I give him a good deal, and he takes care of everything.”

Stewart needed people, because Bar 35 was not the end. Stewart also took over the old rRed Elephant space, turning it into a performance/party room called The Venue (in charge of booking: Francesco Valentini). The rRed Elephant coffee lounge became a stylish bar called Bambu2.

Why 2? Along the way, he’d fallen into a partnership with his best friends, Al and Jane Sieverts. The Sieverts had had a long career in retail (Aca Joe, Canoe, Kunahs, Nautica and so forth). After shutting down their retail empire, which at one time comprised 11 stores, they redid the Row Bar at Restaurant Row as Bambu, Dave Stewart supplying the design and most of the labor, and ending up a minor partner.

The Sieverts are now partners in Bar 35, Bambu2 and The Venue as well.

The Sieverts were, of course, at the Bar 35 anniversary party. Al was putting the grilled bratwurst into slices of baguette.

“It’s hard to get any work out of Al,” says Stewart. “What I got out of the deal was Jane. Jane’s the brains.”

“Jane is definitely the brains,” echoes Al cheerfully.

Jane Sieverts does all the accounting for Stewart’s enterprises. “I’m ADHD,” says Stewart, rather proudly. “I won’t have anything to do with computers.”

“To me, accounting is just like a video game,” Jane tells me later. “I love to see those numbers fall into place.”

She’s one more reason Stewart can run four places. “Dave’s like Al,” she says. “They’re the creative types. I can’t do what they do. I go to the weekly meetings and put in my two cents. Dave always tells me to stick to my knitting.”

At the party, Jane is hanging out with Rick Ralston, once the Sieverts’ partner in a retail business, and chef Ronnie Nasuti of Tiki’s Bar and Grill, for which she also does the accounting.

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Honolulu Magazine April 2019
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