25 Years of Hale Aina
HONOLULU Magazine’s Restaurant Awards have grown—along with the restaurants themselves.
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But the triumph wasn’t just Wong’s. Watching the awards, you could see the spread of Hawaii regional cuisine chefs to all the major islands.
In 1998, Yamaguchi won five Hale Aina awards, one for each island on which he had a restaurant, plus one for his wine list. Jean-Marie Josselin, who’d pioneered Hawaii regional flavors on Kauai and then expanded to Maui and Oahu, won four. Sam Choy got three, one on the Big Island and two on Oahu. Peter Merriman (Merriman’s, Hula Grill) and Russell Siu (3660, Kakaako Kitchen) got two each. George Mavrothalassitis, before returning to Oahu, won one for his work at the Four Seasons Maui.
Some of these restaurant empires have contracted or faded away entirely. But Wong, Yamaguchi, Merriman, Siu and Mavro are still names to be reckoned with on the Hale Aina list, having been transmuted by time from innovators into classics.
Some older great names have stayed on the list over the decades as well. Michel’s at the Colony Surf wins this year for most romantic restaurant and best ambiance—perhaps in some minds the same thing.
Others of this year’s winners are new—to keep the list and our palates fresh: Tango, Lanai City Grille, Mala Wailea, Beachhouse in the Westin Moana Surfrider, the new Sansei in Waikoloa and the new Merriman’s in Kapalua.
The Hale Aina list is, and should be, ever changing. One way we’ve tried to ensure this is to revise the categories from time to time.
When we began, we broke down the ballot by the cuisines popular at the time: French, Chinese, Italian, American and so forth. When the winners began to repeat we came up with a strategy that I thought was brilliant in its simplicity (I may have been the only one).
We’d ask people to name their favorite restaurants, especially the ones they ate at all the time and not just on special occasions. We’d take the top 20 vote-getters and give them Hale Aina Awards, ranking them from No. 1 to 20.
This brought on the list restaurants that were overlooked by more conventional categories—Tahitian Lanai, Swiss Inn, Alfred’s, Singha Thai. It also made winners of a few inexpensive restaurants, such as Yum Yum Tree, at the time a popular chain.
The restaurants hated it, because, if Yum Tree Tree ranked ahead of The Secret, that implied it was a “better restaurant,” when, in fact, it was a totally different style operation.
We kept the Top 20 format for three years, but learned to list all the restaurants, except for Restaurant of the Year, in alphabetical order.
Harmony reigned, but we still felt restaurants were left out. We returned first to cuisine categories, then added geographic ones. As the restaurant scenes expanded on the Neighbor Islands, we expanded the awards to include multiple winners on Maui, Kauai and the Big Island, making the Hale Ainas truly statewide.
And we kept working on categories that we felt would be overlooked, such as “little restaurants you love,” “best desserts,” “best bar” or “best new.”
We also learned that if asked for best restaurants, people would overlook Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian restaurants. But if we included those categories, the response was enthusiastic.