2016 Hale ‘Aina Awards: Champions of Chinatown
Here’s how two of downtown’s hottest new restaurants sprang from the partnership of Jesse Cruz and Dusty Grable. Two self-described “nobodies” (just try to find them in this photo!). The saga of Lucky Belly and Livestock Tavern shows that heart. Friendship and paying your dues make for an unbeatable combination.
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Photo: Aaron Yoshino
Today there is a new theory in restaurant land. The old way, from New York’s Lower East Side and Kaka‘ako’s gentrification, relied on artists to take over down-and-out buildings, building lofts and buzz until the neighborhood changed; then the landlords would kick them out and convert the lofts into luxury condos.
The new theory doesn’t rely on artists but on artisanal food and drink. Instead of brave but lonely pioneers opening solo ventures, the new urban game-changers build clusters of restaurants and bars, like the five opened by the Cohn Group in the Gaslamp District and the 10 opened by Eric Hilton in the Black Broadway section of downtown Washington, D.C. In a recent article in The New York Times, Svetlana Legetic, webzine founder and event promoter, asked, “Why would you open eight bars that almost directly compete with each other? People thought they would cannibalize themselves, but the genius of it was that it created a destination.”
Among Honolulu’s scene changers are Cruz and Grable’s landlords, Christy and Juvie Vicari-Coito, who weathered Chinatown’s worst: In 1998 the city tried to seize the building where Livestock is today, citing 64 crack-cocaine purchases on the premises in three months. They fought the forfeiture and in 2009 backed Manifest down the block, which helped spark the Hotel Street turnaround.
Although much of Livestock’s menu changes with the seasons, the popular Tavern Burger remains all year round.
Photo: Steve czerniak
Lucky Belly bartender Joey Joyce mixes a cocktail.
Photo: Aaron Yoshino
Chinatown now is a Honolulu destination. “It’s got entertainment, it’s got fashion, it’s flat,” says Grable. “People can spend an entire day here. We need more places opening—losing Du Vin hurt. We need landlords like ours that help places continue and to excel. Places like The Pig & The Lady, Grondin, Little Village, which has been handling it for decades, J.J. Dolan’s—right now we’re gambling that, with the help of the entire neighborhood, we’ll get there.”
The pair isn’t fazed by Chinatown’s gritty side and people. “They’re part of the charm of Chinatown,” says Grable. “We are concerned about the comfort and safety of our guests. But the homeless, most are just down and out.”
They resisted opening a restaurant in Kailua, Hawai‘i Kai and Kāhala. “Those neighborhoods are going to dictate what you do, how you do it and whether you succeed. Chinatown allows us the flexibility of doing it our way. You don’t have to heed the will of the neighborhood. If The Pig & The Lady or Grondin had opened in Kailua, they would struggle.
“Only in Chinatown can places like this thrive.”
And, so, it really doesn’t come as a surprise to hear that the partners next plan to open The Tchin-Tchin! Bar a couple of doors down the block at 39 Hotel St. “It will be a Mediterranean wine bar serving Spanish, Portuguese, Moroccan, Greek and other cuisines,” says Grable. “We’ll have a full-bottle nitrogen preservation system so we can have up to 300 selections, which will allow us to offer 40 to 60 wines by the glass every day.”
Lobster shumai appetizer at Lucky Belly.
PHOTO: STEVE CZERNIAK
A new restaurant every 18 months seems a grueling pace, but keeping them within 100 yards of each other certainly helps. When asked about the future, Grable replied in an email, saying, “I don’t know if it’s worth mentioning, but we like to dream … [And] it is a dream of ours to have about five concepts here in Hawai‘i. Hopefully our team will grow and we will outgrow ourselves.
“We are so very fortunate,” he continued, “to have such an incredible team of passionate, talented and driven people. We hope that together we have provided an environment that nourishes their passions and allows them opportunities to grow. If we have too many cooks who are capable of being chefs, too many servers who want to bartend, too many leaders who want to manage, too many managers who want to own … [then] we hope to have the opportunity to open more venues for them to continue their growth.”
Which sounds like more good luck for the rest of us.