Colin Nishida, Beloved Chef and Restaurateur, Leaves a Culinary Legacy
An entire community remembers the owner of Side Street Inn, who died this weekend.
COLIN NISHIDA LEANS OVER THE FRIED RICE STATION IN the 15,000-SQUARE-FOOT KITCHEN AT SIDE STREET INN ON DA STRIP.
Photo: Olivier Koning
The last time I saw Colin Nishida, chef-owner of Side Street Inn, was at the Hale ‘Aina Awards in September at The Royal Hawaiian.
The program, where we announced he was our 2018 Restaurateur of the Year, had long ended and guests were milling around the grounds of the historic hotel. I caught a glimpse of him, decked in lei and walking quickly toward the exit. He had spent most of the evening shaking hands and hugging friends, what he would always do at his restaurants on both Hopaka Street and Kapahulu Avenue. Now, he was leaving the event, quietly, without telling anyone, and alone.
But I saw him walking out with a smile.
That’s the way I want to remember him, the way I imagined he left us. Nishida passed away Sunday at his home in Kaimukī. He was just 61.
In a statement released Tuesday, wife Melissa and the Side Street Inn ‘ohana said, “Colin received many accolades during his four decades in the Honolulu restaurant industry, most recently being named the 2018 Restaurateur of the Year by HONOLULU Magazine for his steadfast commitment to providing the very best food, service and innovation.
“While we sincerely appreciate the many heartfelt condolences we have received, we ask that you respect the privacy of Colin’s staff, friends and family during this difficult time.”
COLIN NISHIDA AND THEN GIRLFRIEND, NOW WIFE MELISSA, CELEBRATING THE ORIGINAL SIDE STREET'S EXPANSION IN 2004.
PHOTO: COURTESY MEL NISHIDA
Nishida had never fully recovered from a severe case of diverticulitis he suffered in 2009. He spent four months in the hospital—three of them in a medically induced coma—and underwent surgery after surgery that only made him feel worse. After months of physical therapy and a healthy balance of perseverance and stubbornness, Nishida opened his second location, Side Street Inn on Da Strip. He seemed to have been getting better.
But anyone who knows Nishida, who’s been to Side Street in the past few months, knew he wasn’t the same. He had lost a lot of weight, he was moving slower, he wasn’t taking shots at the bar.
But he still had that glint in his eyes, a little kolohe, a little fire. He was still fighting.
When word spread on Monday—mostly on social media—that Nishida had quietly died at home, the tributes had a commonality: He had touched lives in a real, tangible way. His legacy goes way beyond his pork chops and fried rice. He will be remembered for his love of life and his generosity, for how much he wanted people to just kick back and have fun.
“Colin had a good life, he had fun and lived life to da max,” says chef and restaurateur Alan Wong, a longtime patron of Side Street Inn and friend of Nishida. “You could always count on him to be a part of the party. Colin made his contributions to the local food scene by cooking up local favorites to all that came. I am saddened and we will miss him, but am happy that he can finally get a good night’s sleep and rest well. We will miss Colin’s spirit.”
Nishida grew up in Moanalua and attended Farrington High School, working after school and on the weekends at a small lunch counter. From there he tended bar and opened a plate lunch place with his friend Robert Takemoto—a tiny spot that expanded into Side Street Inn. At first, Side Street was truly a bar, with just five items on the menu. The pork chops came later.
With no culinary training or kitchen experience, Nishida didn’t realize then that his experiments and recipes would catapult him to culinary fame. He even had a Rogue Ales beer—Side Street Inn Ale—dedicated to him and his pork chops.
“Colin was a legend whose legacy will live beyond his iconic pork chops,” says Brett Joyce, president of Rogue Ales whose father, Jack, founded the Oregon-based brewery and created the beer for Nishida. “Watching him share a Side Street Inn beer and a laugh with my dad was priceless. They were both battle-tested warriors and visionaries at the same time. If there was a culinary Honolulu Mount Rushmore, they’d probably be on it.”
It’s comforting to imagine Nishida sitting at a bar in heaven, drinking a beer with Jack Joyce (who died in 2014) and former HONOLULU editor and food critic John Heckathorn (who died in 2011). You know they’re having a great time.
ANTHONY BOURDAIN WITH NISHIDA.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF SIDE STREET INN
Here are more tributes from those in the culinary community who loved and respected the man who had a bar, then became an icon.
“It’s sad, it’s terrible. But, at the end of the day, Colin created something that will last, something that’s iconic. He built a place that was happy, a place where you go to enjoy each other’s company, enjoy the food, have a great time. He left us with something that’s very, very special. To me, I’m thankful for that … He was such a great presence and had such a big heart.”
Roy Yamaguchi, chef and restaurateur, Roy’s Restaurants, Eating House 1849, Roy’s Beach House
“Thank you very much for your friendship and all of the unforgettable moments you created and shared with us. Rest in peace.”
Chuck Furuya, master sommelier, Vino Italian Tapas & Wine Bar
“One of the first restaurants my hānai dad, Brooks Takenaka, took me to when I started visiting Hawaiʻi regularly almost 10 years ago was Side Street Inn. He introduced me to Colin and I remember two things from that meeting: first, what a kind, gentle demeanor Colin had. He was a warm and gracious host, I got a real sense of aloha. Second, how great the food was. We were at the Hopaka Street location, and while it’s a pretty old-school, low-key bar environment, I remember thinking how the family-style signature dishes like the fried rice and pork chops were so ʻono, really legendary in their own right, showcasing local flavor to someone (me) who at the time was unfamiliar with such cuisine. And that’s what Side Street Inn is. The menu is full of history, authenticity and a melting pot of flavors and dishes that represent modern Hawaiian grinds. Colin was the heartbeat of that hospitality and will be sorely missed by all.”
Lee Anne Wong, chef-partner, Koko Head Café
“Colin represented to me the pure essence of what being a chef and restaurateur is really all about. He never cared about the personal fame he achieved; he really just wanted to serve good food to people and make people happy. The rest was just a distraction to him. It was this dedication to the true meaning of what we do that led to his success. We can all learn from his humility why we do what we do. He will be missed terribly by everyone.”
Kevin Hanney, chef-owner, 12th Ave Grill
“My heart goes out to his family and staff. I don’t have too much to say as his legacy speaks for itself. He created such an iconic gathering place for chefs and industry with Side Street. Even when I worked for Nobu and when he would visit, he always wanted to go get a few beers and enjoy a dinner there. One thing does stand out in my thoughts though. Chef Nishida was always so generous with his time and personality. From the first time I met him, he always took the time to engage with us and make sure we were having a good time. Truly genuine in his hospitality and that always showed through in his food. He will be missed.”
Dave Newman, co-owner and veteran bartender, Pint + Jigger, Harry’s Hardware Emporium
“Side Street was a place for chefs and restaurant industry people to hang out after work, have some good comfort food and drinks. That is how I started going to Side Street. He was always so generous to everyone with whatever help anyone wanted as long as you have shots together with him. His aloha was always on his plate: ʻono, plenty and affordable. He will be missed.”
Hiroshi Fukui, chef and vice president of dining and facilities, Rainbow Drive-In
“When we opened Chef Mavro in ’98 and for many years after we used to go to Side Street about three times a week after service. Sometimes Colin would sit down with us and be amazed at how much food we ordered and how much food we could eat. We were not a good deal for the bar because we would drink two drinks but we would eat like we were four or five. Everything was so good. Fried won tons was the recipe of Colin’s mother. The pork chops, of course. The sizzling steak was great. Fried rice was amazing. Best Caesar salad in town. We would go sometimes with Donna’s PR client Don Ho and Haumea. Then we would drink more. We could go on and on. But well there are so many others who need room for their memories. RIP Colin.”
George Mavrothalassitis, chef and restaurateur, Chef Mavro
“Sad. What a legend.”
Sam Choy, chef and restaurateur
“We will miss our friend Colin Nishida who gave us so many memories. He was most gracious and always had our favorites ready ... dried ika, bone-in kalbi and wing zings. When Roy and I first met we had many late nights at the old Hopaka Street Side Street including Bishop Museum’s Mahalo reception for the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Awards Dinner, Roy’s birthday and our very first Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival meetings. Mahalo to Colin who gave us a special place that kept us coming to Side Street for years. You will be missed.”
Denise Yamaguchi, founder and CEO, Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival