How Olive Tree Café Serves Fresh, Simple Mediterranean Food
The Olive Tree Café celebrates its 20th anniversary this month.
2015 Hale ‘Aina Awards: Best Mediterranean, Gold — Olive Tree Café
IN 1984, HONOLULU MAGAZINE ESTABLISHED ITS HALE ‘AINA AWARDS AS THE ISLANDS’ FIRST LOCAL RESTAURANT AWARDS. OVER THE PAST 30 YEARS, THE HALE 'AINA AWARDS ARE THE MOST PRIZED DINING AWARDS IN THE ISLANDS. CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE.
Fish souvlaki at Olive Tree Café; Savas Mojarrad, owner of Olive Tree Café and an upcoming Mānoa restaurant and bakery, and aspiring organic farmer.
Photo: Olivier Koning
“That is more confidential than anything else,” says Olive Tree Café’s Savas Mojarrad when I ask him his age. “People think I am about 60. Nobody knows my age. I have a friend—Maurice Grasso (former owner of La Gelateria)—for his 80th birthday, he had a big celebration. I said, ‘Stupid Italian, you don’t announce your age when you’re that old. What kind of chance do you have to meet a woman after this?’”
What we do know about Mojarrad: He’s spent four decades in the Honolulu restaurant industry; is celebrating Olive Tree’s 20th anniversary this month; has taken up organic farming in Kāne‘ohe; built a complete restaurant to serve Spanish and Moroccan food in Mānoa, but has been delaying the opening for three years and counting; and has a bakery on the drawing board.
“I don’t believe in stress,” says the restaurateur.
How Mojarrad succeeds in one of the most stressful businesses around:
“Don’t get into partnerships, especially in restaurants,” he says. “It usually doesn’t work. If partnership was good, God himself would have taken a partner.”
About 40 years ago, Mojarrad arrived in Hawai‘i and started The Mad Greek. He and a business partner converted a carpet warehouse on Cooke Street and Ala Moana Boulevard into a Greek nightclub and restaurant. It was a family-friendly place with live Greek bands, Greek dancing and a Greek menu. “It was very successful,” Mojarrad says. But after three-and-a-half years, his partner decided a move to Waikīkī would make more money. Mojarrad didn’t agree, The Mad Greek moved anyway, and the partnership soured. He lost his investment. “After that, I stayed away from partnership,” he says.
“If you see a short menu, you know that [the customers] are smart and the restaurant is smart.”
The Olive Tree’s menu is essentially five items of similar preparations: souvlaki (fish, lamb and chicken), lamb patty and falafel. It’s a streamlined menu, with fresh ingredients and everything cooked to order. “I’m so fanatic about the raw material,” Mojarrad says. The chicken is organic, the lamb from New Zealand, and the fish he usually buys from fishermen who come directly to the restaurant with their catch.
“A tremendous stress exists in the restaurant business,” Mojarrad says. “It’s the only business that combines service and production. And you don’t have very much time in between. You can sell a car on the lot after six months, but once you make a steak, it has to be on someone’s plate within minutes.” That’s why The Olive Tree is set up the way it is: short, simple and self service. Daily specials add a little variety: lamb shanks every Wednesday, stuffed eggplant on Thursdays. All of it “takes away tremendous stress from the staff,” Mojarrad says.
And if people ever tire of the unchanging menu, you wouldn’t know it. Even 20 years later, every night at Olive Tree recreates an Athens sidewalk café in the middle of an otherwise desolate Kāhala parking lot—lively with music and people, from moms to first dates and open bottles of wine all around.
“Slow opening, not grand opening.”
Slow as in really slow. Eleven years ago, Mojarrad bought a space in Mānoa, on the corner of East Mānoa Road and Lowrey Avenue. Over the next nine years, he built it into “possibly the most beautiful restaurant in Hawai‘i,” he says. He tore apart the interior, keeping just the columns and rebuilt around them for a Moorish feel, with handmade Moroccan tiles and a wooden-beamed ceiling. He’s planning a menu of Spanish, Moroccan and Greek food. Who knows how many more years you’ll have to wait to eat there, though. He finished it two years ago, Department of Health certification and all. It’s ready to go. But Mojarrad’s not. Because, right now, he’s really into his farm, and opening the new restaurant “would give me stress,” he says.
Ever since a stint in the Peace Corps (in Afghanistan and Iran), Mojarrad says he “dreamed to get a place and make it self contained, with its own water, produce my own electricity, grow my own food. When I found this farm, with two streams, I thought it was perfect.” He bought the two-and-a-half-acre property four years ago and is clearing the jungle—it was neglected for nine years—to make way for okra, eggplant, greens and “the kind of weird stuff that usually comes from the Mainland” for his restaurant.
So you’ll have to wait (and wait) before you hear about the Mānoa restaurant opening. As for the bakery—the space is there (right next to the Mānoa spot)—but there are no imminent plans. Mojarrad does things on his own timetable, which, like his age, he’d prefer to keep to himself.
Olive Tree Café, 4614 Kīlauea Ave., 737-0303
To find out which other restaurants won awards in the Best Mediterranean category, click here.