25 Years of Hale Aina
HONOLULU Magazine’s Restaurant Awards have grown—along with the restaurants themselves.
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The first Restaurant of the Year winner was The Third Floor at the Hawaiian Regent (now a Marriott hotel). Chefs were not stars in those days. The chef at The Third Floor was Swiss and largely anonymous. Our coverage focused on Siegfried Poesch instead. Siggy, as everyone called him, dressed nattily, worked the restaurant’s front door, knew everyone, ran the staff with German precision. It was his restaurant, not the chef’s.
The Third Floor never repeated as Restaurant of the Year, but even after a change in ownership forced a name change to The Secret, it still won a Hale Aina Award in one category or another for the next decade.
It was the kind of restaurant that always won in the early days—formal, well-run, with an oversize leather-bound menu of Continental specialties, such as Duck a l’Orange and Beef Wellington, the kind of food you would get at a good restaurant in any Mainland city. The Hawaii culinary world had not yet come into its own.
Into the ’90s, Restaurant of the Year honors went to similar restaurants: Bali by the Sea, the old Kahala Hilton’s Maile Room (twice) and Michel’s at the Colony Surf (three times).
In one of its last write-ups, Michel’s actually mentioned how its new young chef, Gordon Hopkins, was updating its 30-year-old menu. Hopkins soon left Michel’s to cook side-by-side with a radical young chef named Roy Yamaguchi, in that traditional graveyard of restaurants, Hawaii Kai. (Good move: He’s now corporate chef of the Roy’s empire nationwide.)
When nearly new Roy’s won a Hale Aina in 1990, it surprised a lot of people. But times—and restaurants—were changing. Many of the other restaurants on the 1990 list now read like a roster of the dearly departed: Black Orchid, Castagnola’s, Compadres, Golden Dragon, Horatio’s, the Maile Room, Pacific Broiler, The Secret, Swiss Inn, Trattoria.
Hawaii people welcomed Hawaii food—served up by innovative chefs with display kitchens and casual dining rooms. When Yamaguchi finally won Restaurant of the Year honors in 1995, he said, “I guess we’ve finally become mainstream.”
He was right. Over the next few years, the Hale Ainas recorded the triumphal march of the Hawaii regional chefs across the state.
In 1996, Alan Wong, who had ironically never won a Hale Aina award for his celebrated work at Canoe House on the Big Island, stunned everyone by winning Best New Restaurant and Restaurant of the Year for his King Street restaurant.
Wong had helped invent Hawaii regional cuisine—and he’s remained its reigning master. In 13½ years since opening on King Street, he’s won Restaurant of the Year 10 times, a streak of victories interrupted only by Roy’s (twice) and Hoku’s (twice, once under Oliver Altherr, the second time under current chef Wayne Hirabayashi).