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What Does It Take to Win a Hale Aina?

There are more than 5,000 eateries in the state. What does it take to stand out from the crowd and win a Hale Aina Award? Here are a few inside stories.


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Roy at the display kitchen, Roy's Hawaii Kai.

Photo: Rae Huo

 It's 4:30, the late afternoon sunlight blasting through the plate-glass windows of Roy's Hawaii Kai.

Around a few tables cluster all 15 members of the wait staff. It's unusual for an average restaurant to bring the whole front-of-the-house staff in early. Typically, a few are paid to come in to set up. The rest arrive just a few minutes ahead of the customers.

Roy's—which won this year's Hale Aina Award for Restaurant of the Year, plus three other awards—is willing to pay its whole staff to come in early. It's pre-opening meeting is one reason it also won the gold Hale Aina award for best service.

Rainer Kumbroch, president of Roy’s Hawaii operations, stands up and points out that John Dominis, once the town’s top restaurant, just closed after 31 years. “Top restaurants do die,” he says.

Kumbroch repeats his mantra, which he knows that everyone—down to the junior waiters and the food runners—knows by heart. “Your most important responsibility? The customer. Your most important customer? The person who saved up to come here. Make sure the anniversary couple from Wahiawa, who passed by 2,500 restaurants to get here, leaves happy.”

Next to speak is Roy’s Hawaii Kai manager, Zameer Mallal. “It may rain tonight,” he says. “What do we do when it rains?”

Get the umbrellas, says the staff in unison.

“And if it pours?”

We run the customers to their cars.

Zameer recounts a Roy’s legend: A waiter a decade ago who leapt over a hedge to flag down a bus for a customer. “Nothing’s too much, ever.”

The hostess runs through tonight’s reservations. A veteran waitress reminds the staff that one of the regular guests hates to wait downstairs, wants to go directly to table No. 28, always drinks chardonnay, in a red-wine glass.

Then it’s wine-tasting time, a new Napa merlot on the list. “What might you recommend this wine with?” asks Mallal. The short ribs, someone suggests. “It would go perfectly,” he says.

After the wine, the waiters gather at the rim of the display kitchen. Chef Chris Gainer shows them the dishes he’s created for tonight.

This is, after all, Roy’s. There’s new, and often complex, food every evening, and the waiters are supposed to know the dishes in detail.

The seared shrimp special, for instance, comes with asparagus, in a sauce made with lobster, Nalo Farms shiso and Pernod. All on a purée of kabocha pumpkin. At the last minute, the pumpkin is mixed with beurre blanc.

“What’s in our beurre blanc?” asks Gainer. Without hesitation, a young waiter rattles off all seven ingredients: white wine, white wine vinegar, shallots, cream, butter, salt and white pepper. Even Gainer grins. His waiters are on it.

There are four new dishes in all, including a scallop and risotto dish that includes an egg cooked for two hours at exactly 59.5 degrees Centigrade.

Gainer’s still working on the presentation. He begins placing items on the risotto. “Don’t cover up the egg,” says a veteran waiter. Point taken, the chefs take care to make it look great.

Pictures of the dishes are snapped for Facebook; the waiters all get bites, enough to know what they’re talking about.

Suddenly, it’s 5:30. “There’s a line downstairs,” says Mallal. “Let’s hit it, people.”

Another night at the Restaurant of the Year begins.

A gyotaku school of fish by Naoki Hayashi graces the walls of the restaurant.

Photo: Courtesy of Naoki Hayashi

 What's It Take?

That's the kind of effort, thought and manpower it takes for Roy’s to become Restaurant of the Year, not to mention winning multiple Hale Ainas for Value, Service and even Dessert (Roy’s legendary chocolate soufflé cake may account for the latter).

Our readers, who vote for the Hale Ainas, don’t usually peek behind the scenes at a wait staff meeting—but they are sophisticated enough to know the results of that dedication when they see and taste them.

Seventy-five Hawai‘i restaurants won the most prestigious dining awards in the state, HONOLULU’s Hale Aina Awards, in more than 28 categories.

None of those awards came without effort. Here’s how a few of the winning restaurants did it.

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