25 Years of Hale Aina
HONOLULU Magazine’s Restaurant Awards have grown—along with the restaurants themselves.
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The Hale Aina Awards. The name now has resonance. Hale Aina plaques line the walls of Hawaii’s best restaurants. The award-winning chefs find themselves on television each year, building anticipation for the award ceremony itself.
This year, 1,000 people dressed up and attended the awards at the Sheraton ballroom. They feasted on jumbo scallops with roasted garlic chili cream, beef Wellington with morels and port Madeira demiglace, even Texas wild boar ragu with kabocha pappardelle, washed down with lychee martinis and fine wines.
Everyone seems to know that HONOLULU Magazine’s restaurant awards denote the best in Island culinary achievement—and the best party. It wasn’t always that way.
Twenty five years ago—to the day, as I write this—I made calls to the restaurants who had won the first Hale Aina Awards. I had to explain everything. That the magazine had included a ballot in its annual Restaurant Guide, asking readers for their favorite restaurants in 14 categories, from French food to fast food.
I skipped over the fact that we’d tallied the results, in pencil, on a huge sheet of paper taped to the wall of our administrative assistant’s office, an arduous job. She didn’t get a computer until the next year. I just told the restaurants that they’d won. And that, by the way, Hale Aina meant eating place in Hawaiian. I was met by a lot of polite incomprehension. The chef at John Dominis concluded the call by asking, “What is this again? The Aina Haina Awards?”
At Matteo’s, which won Best Italian Restaurant, the staff kept transferring my call. I ended up talking to Joyce the bookkeeper, who said it was a pretty good restaurant, though she didn’t much care for Italian food. I used the quote.
We also called a few readers, whose ballots we picked at random, to reward them with a $50 dining gift certificate ($100 in today’s dollars). I had to call a Waialae Iki housewife named Helga twice. She hung up on me the first time, she said, because she thought I was a burglar checking to see if anyone was home.
Things have gotten easier. Restaurants now anticipate the calls. The problem 25 years ago wasn’t just that the Hale Aina Awards were new. They were unprecedented. A few restaurants had gotten awards from Mainland travel interests. But no one had ever thought to ask people who lived here what the best restaurants were.
Readers responded enthusiastically, decorating their ballots with stars and exclamation points, filling the margins with comments.