Livestock Tavern: Modern American Comfort Food and Killer Cocktails
The owners of Lucky Belly serve nostalgia at a new downtown Honolulu restaurant.
The smoked prime rib.
Photos: Steve Czerniak
Dusty Grable will be the first to admit that he and Jesse Cruz don’t pack the most star power or creativity in Hawai‘i’s culinary scene. But whatever they do have is working and, with the recently opened Livestock Tavern and the already successful Lucky Belly, they’ve created two of Honolulu’s best dining experiences.
This is the era of fine dining gone casual. While the food has never been better or more accessible, the dining experience often lacks polish: It’s a little too loud, the service isn’t quite right, the seats are too close together. But not at Livestock Tavern. Like its sister restaurant, Lucky Belly, across the way, it’s the rare modern restaurant that actually feels comfortable. The first thing you’ll notice is that at a table for two, there’s plenty of room for elbows and plates—no shuffling and consolidating plates when a new one arrives.
The food, while not fancy or creative, is comforting—sandwiches and stews for lunch, prime rib and roast chicken for dinner. Whereas other successful chefs such as Andrew Le (The Pig and the Lady) and Mark Noguchi (Pili Group) take techniques learned at Chef Mavro and casualize them, Grable and Cruz come at it from the other direction. They take already comforting food like a bowl of ramen or hamburger and class it up a bit with fine glassware, white cloth napkins, thoughtful preparation and even more thoughtful service.
If a spoon drops in Livestock Tavern, someone will hear it. Even when it’s dropped in a crowded bar on First Friday. Somehow, the hostess will hear it from 30 feet away and, before we even have a chance to wonder if we need a new one, she presents us one nestled on white linen. (How could she even tell it was a spoon from that far?!)
As with Lucky Belly, the first time you walk into Livestock’s dining room, it’s hard to remember what existed there before. The spaces Grable and Cruz pick are not ones you’d expect to be nice inside. Amy’s Place was the definition of a dive bar—dark, dank and run-down. But the pair stripped away a ton of drywall and found great rooms underneath. Then they cut some windows to let in light so everyone could appreciate the details better. Who knew a dive bar could be so stylish and handsome? This new dining room is wrapped in distressed, floor-to-ceiling brick, the metal-and-wood chairs and tables softened with natural light during the day and warm tavern lights at night.
Grable and Cruz, a pair of thirtysome-year-olds, nailed the ambiance in a way that few restaurants in town, even those with much more money, do.
Then there’s the whole thing they’re planning to do with the seasons. The menu will change with the comings of fall, winter, spring and summer. Maybe it’s contrived, in a city where the temperature usually varies only 20 degrees and we have a yearlong growing season. But for a space that conveys nostalgia with colonial-era typeface menus, old-timey light fixtures, grandma-floral wallpaper and retro refrigerators—what’s more nostalgic than reflecting on the passage of time?
And maybe we’re kidding ourselves when we say Hawai‘i doesn’t have seasons. We do. Perhaps it’s as simple as acknowledging that summer is hot and the rainy season is cold and I don’t want to eat the same things then. When it’s cloudy and wet, I crave a warm bowl of soup noodles. When it’s summer, the last thing I want is a pot roast. It’s comforting to know where you are in time, the same reason that, while he may wear board shorts, we still welcome Santa’s arrival in front of Honolulu Hale every year.
At Livestock Tavern, we know it’s winter because it tastes like the holidays. The savory mushroom bread pudding is an inspired version of Thanksgiving stuffing—hen-of-the-woods and oyster mushrooms folded into a bread custard. The bar, too, marks time, serving warm, mulled wine with brandy, clove and cinnamon. It’s pure Christmas.
A stormy winter night warmed up with a bowl of bay scallops and grits. There was bone marrow in there, but you wouldn’t have known it if it hadn’t been called out on the menu. The marrow had given up its identity to the grits, which were rich and soft and soothing. Pickled and caramelized onions kept the dish from being a pile of mush.
The stews, though another seasonally appropriate menu item, were unfortunately not as ideal. The lamb stew tasted more like thick tomato soup. The beauty of a seasonal menu, though, is that a dish needn’t last longer than three months. The stews will have a chance to take a sabbatical and, perhaps, upon reflection, come back refreshed, renewed and ready to work.
But a restaurant that specializes in comfort must have constants. The burger at Livestock is one of them. Thank goodness for that. Because it is perfect. A soft, housemade bun that gives when you bite into it, and yet manages to hold everything together until the very end. The thick patty isn’t overpacked, frisee gives an edge of bitterness, and sautéed onions and Gruyere underscore the beefiness.
Left: The Tavern Chop, perhaps Honolulu’s best version of a chopped salad. Right: Grilled endive and anchovy salad.
Salads at Livestock are not on the menu for salads’ sake, as they are on most menus around town—a throwaway dish for the vegetarian or healthy eater in a party. Instead, they are thoughtful in terms of texture and taste. The Tavern Chop, a mix of heart of palm, bacon, bay shrimp, avocado, radicchio and—the attention to details!—fresh corn sliced off the cob, is Honolulu’s best example of a chopped salad.
Another salad of beauty: bitter endives combined with vinegary white anchovies, fresh pea shoots and a blood-orange dressing.
But what would a place called Livestock Tavern be without big hunks of meat? Here, they come as primal-looking lamb shanks and slabs of smoked prime rib. Prime rib is not one of those things you dress up, and Livestock Tavern understands this: It’s served simply, bathed in jus, with a gravy boat of horseradish cream. Okay, there’s a tiny bit of dressing up—red, white and blue potatoes the size of marbles, rolling around on the plate with braised carrots and celery root.
The only item that feels somewhat incongruous is the lunchtime lobster roll. A seafood shack staple in a place called Livestock Tavern? Maybe it’s a New England/Colonial America tie-in. Maybe it’s there as an iconic comfort food. Or maybe Grable and Cruz just wanted a good lobster roll, dammit. I have my doubts that anyone can make a perfect lobster roll in Hawai‘i—the lobster will never be good and fresh enough. And, at $18, as it is at Livestock? No way. But, if you insist on having one in Hawai‘i, get this one: large chunks of meat stuffed into a properly top-split roll, with a side of smoked, paprika-dusted chips. The problem is, the lobster just doesn’t hold up—it’s watery and slightly mushy instead of sweet and firm.
The Thomas Brown Affair cocktail, named after a regular.
Don’t forget drinks. You’re in a tavern, after all, a modern-day version of history’s alcoholic dens. And what a place for booze. The food is good at Livestock, but the cocktails are even better. From Here to Eternity—a drink of gin, Fernet Branca, lemon juice, Carpano Antica vermouth, spiced almond syrup and grapefruit bitters—how do all those ingredients work? But they do, and deliciously, for a citrusy cocktail with a dark, minty edge.
The attention paid to Livestock’s bar menu is evident in the drinks themselves as well as the names—fall’s cocktails borrow from Robert Frost poems (The Mending Wall, The Road Not Taken). Winter’s drinks take their names from classic 1950s and ’60s movies (or film adaptations)—like the aforementioned From Here to Eternity, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Graduate—with illicitly sexual themes. A deliberate nod to the original tavern’s overindulgences in sex and alcohol? Maybe I’m reading too much into it. But maybe not. This is, after all, coming from restaurateurs who excel in details.