O, Baby!


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If you're looking for a quick after-work drink, The O Lounge probably isn't your best bet. Chances are you'll stop in at this inviting night spot for pau hana and wind up staying the night.

Owner Liz Watanabe opened The O Lounge in October at the old China House restaurant site on Kapi'olani Boulevard. From the looks of it, she's ready to take on some of Honolulu's swankiest lounges-think "Skyline" at the Sheraton's Hanohano Room or "Wonderlounge" at the W Hotel.

"I wanted it to be very Asian, very serene, almost like a zen rock garden," Watanabe says. "I wanted people to come in here and be like, 'Ahhh,' and be able to relax and mingle. We're here to provide them with a form of entertainment that they won't find anywhere else."

Photo:Karin Kovalsky

The first thing customers notice about O is its warehouse-like size-it's hard to imagine how such a large venue could ever get too crowded. But the club still manages to offer all the luxuries of an intimate party. Local feng shui master Clarence Lau helped design the interior-unfinished floors, black lacquered tables, Asian-print pillows in scattered seating areas, hanging lanterns, two bars, a center stage and a DJ booth, with plenty of room left to boogie.

Cheongsam-clad servers (many of them professional models, Watanabe tells us) are especially attentive, whether you want a $3 martini on special or a $210 bottle of Cristal. The club offers a püpü menu that could substitute for dinner-tomato carpaccio, hoisin-glazed beef back ribs, New Zealand oysters, even rib eye steak.

The crowd varies with the day of the week. We dropped by on a Wednesday, when local duo Edgewater rocked out for an audience that included Kimo Kahoano, Carole Kai and founding Kalapana member DJ Pratt. Artist Groove Network Fridays and DFX Saturdays command larger crowds, up to 700 people a night. Those two nights, O stops serving alcohol at 2 a.m., but offers a complete breakfast menu till 4 a.m., allowing customers extra time to mellow out or fuel up before they hit the road. The club also provides free taxi service for those who've indulged too much over the course of the night.

At a spot as enticing as The O Lounge, that's quite possible.

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It's not exactly news to kama'a-ina that Hawai'i and Las Vegas have become joined at the hip. But apparently, it's an odd enough diaspora that even Mainland media is taking note. This from "Vegas Becoming Hawai'i's 'Ninth Island,'" from the Nov. 23, 2004, The Miami Herald, by Associated Press reporter Ken Ritter.

Steven Lum, a Las Vegas real estate businessman, estimates there were a few hundred Hawaiians among the 600,000 people living in southern Nevada when he arrived in 1986.

Since then, about 25,000 people have swapped Hawaiian driver's licenses for Nevada licenses, according to Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles records. Today, Nevada has 2.3 million residents.

From 1995 to 2000, some 12,079 people moved from Hawai'i to Nevada, according to the U.S. Census, outstripping the combined number of 10,597 residents on La-na'i and Moloka'i.

"In Vegas, you have a higher standard of living," Lum said. "In Hawai'i, the quality of life is better. It depends on what the person wants."

Melissa Nahooikaika's family chose opportunity. When the 18-year-old and her parents were looking to move before she entered high school, they put Kona and the Big Island behind them and put down roots in southern Nevada. Her dad found work building houses in one of the fastest-growing areas in the nation.

"The price of living was really high there," Nahooikaika recalled as she stepped from a Jeep Cherokee with "Hawaiian by Blood" stenciled on the rear window.

Curious about how Mainlanders are accepting Island culinary exports such as L&L Drive-Inn? Here's a glimpse from "Forget Atkins and say aloha to Hawai'i's beloved L&L," by Kathryn Robinson, from the Oct. 8, 2004, issue of The Seattle Times. Robinson visited one on Highway 99, in Lynwood, Wash., and was quite taken with-any guesses?-Spam.

Suspend all you thought you knew about cuisine, dear reader, for when you enter the color-splashed world of L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, you have entered a distinct subculture in which sushi rolls come the size of your fist and Spam belongs in everything. …

This isn't just fast food-it's vast food, served up in Styrofoam. …

But lest you think that L&L's food might be beneath your standard- just drop in for dinner. You'll see for yourself that breading doesn't automatically mean greasy …, that macaroni salad can be a creamy delight, that fast food can be freshly cooked with good ingredients, and, yes, that Spam is the perfect smoky foil for a seaweed wrap.

It's the ubiquitous teriyaki joint with a more interesting menu ….

The culinarily adventurous have to go to L&L if only to glimpse Spam in its native habitat. In musubi-a large sushi roll-you get a large brick of the stuff, flavored with barbecue sauce, and wrapped in nori with rice.

I'm not sure what made this so good-the smoky flavor of the pink faux-meat with the slightly bitter nori, perhaps-but the result was perplexingly addictive.

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