How Side Street Inn’s Colin Nishida Went From Bar Owner to Restaurateur of the Year
All Colin Nishida wanted to do was run a bar—and now he’s 2018 Restaurateur of the Year, with Hale ‘Aina Gold awards for Best Bar Food and Best Gourmet Comfort Food.
Photos: Aaron K. Yoshino
It’s just after 2 p.m. on Tuesday and the staff at Side Street Inn on Da Strip is busily getting ready to open for dinner. The wait staff is setting tables, the bartender is wiping glasses, the kitchen workers are at their stations, chopping, slicing, waiting.
It's strange to see the restaurant on Kapahulu Avenue so quiet, with bare tables and empty bar seats. But it’s not the void of customers I feel. It’s the fact that Colin Nishida, the beloved owner who’s always ordering shots for his friends or plating specials in the kitchen, isn’t here.
Truth is, Nishida, 61, isn’t at his restaurant as much these days. After spending four months in the hospital with a severe case of diverticulitis in 2009—three of those months in a medically induced coma—and undergoing surgeries that seem to make him only feel worse, the longtime workaholic has had to take it easy. Doctor’s orders.
“I stay at home and watch TV,” he says, sitting across from me in a booth and smiling and waving at workers. “It’s so boring.”
He might walk a little slower and drink far less, but he’s still that same guy, the one who would be prepping in the kitchen at the now-defunct Fort Street Grill in Downtown in the morning and enjoying a cold beer with his friends at the original Side Street Inn on Hopaka Street later that night.
“He’s just a down-to-earth, genuine guy,” says longtime friend Albert Tsuru, who was one of Nishida’s first customers when he opened Side Street Inn 25 years ago. (He now works as one of his managers at the Kapahulu location.) “He’s always willing to help everybody. He rarely says no. He’s a generous and good-hearted person.”
That generosity and sincerity have endeared people to Nishida, our Restaurateur of the Year. Sure, the deep-fried pork chops and fried rice served in substantial portions continue to lure customers—including visits from No Reservations host Anthony Bourdain and Man v. Food Nation’s Adam Richman as well as mentions in Saveur and Travel + Leisure—but the atmosphere Nishida has created in both of his restaurants is born from a genuine desire he has for people to have a good time.
“It’s almost like Cheers, where everybody knows everybody,” says James Beard Award-winning chef Alan Wong, who started eating at Side Street back in the ’90s. “It’s just a friendly atmosphere, easy, casual, comfortable, relaxing.”
FRIED RICE & KALBI: TWO OF THE RESTAURANT’S MOST POPULAR DISHES HAVE BEEN ON THE MENU FOR MORE THAN 20 YEARS.
SIDE STREET TO CENTER STAGE
Nishida grew up in Moanalua and attended Farrington High School, working after school and on the weekends at a small lunch counter. After graduation, he got a job tending bar at the Ala Moana Hotel, then at Oasis Nightclub in Kaimukī. With his friend, Robert Takemoto, Nishida opened up Take’s Restaurant, a tiny plate-lunch spot on a side street near Ala Moana Center.
In 1992, space opened up in that building on Hopaka Street and he and Takemoto decided to convert Take’s into a bar, calling it Side Street, the way they had been referring to their location.
In those days, Side Street was truly a bar, with just five items on the menu, including fried rice and a grilled-Spam-and-egg sandwich. The pork chops came later.
With no culinary training or kitchen experience, Nishida took to experimenting, coming up with dishes he thought tasted good. He didn’t realize then that his concoctions would catapult him to culinary fame. He even has a Rogue Ales beer dedicated to him and his pork chops; it’s called Side Street Inn Ale and bears an illustration of him on the bottle. (One of the Oregon-based brewery’s founders, Jack Joyce, spent four months in Hawai‘i and fell in love with the restaurant and, particularly, the chops.)
“I never like be known as a restaurant,” Nishida says, sitting in the expansive dining room on Kapahulu, as servers prep for the dinner crowd. “I just wanted to be known as a bar. Restaurants, you gotta think about service and food and stuff like that. But a bar, you just drink one beer, have a shot, we all good.”
Side Street’s late hours attracted restaurant industry workers, including notable local chefs Wong, Roy Yamaguchi and Russell Siu. When Emme Tomimbang took a group of them to visit their favorite restaurants for an episode of Emme’s Island Moments in 1998, Wong picked Side Street Inn and that was it. Overnight, Nishida says, Side Street went from backstreet bar to a secret hole-in-the-wall where even award-winning chefs dined. Lines formed. Parents brought their kids. Everyone wanted pork chops. Nishida instituted a two-drink minimum to remind customers that this was a bar first, not a restaurant. It didn’t last long.
And then he just gave in.
Today, the two restaurants go through 2,000 pounds of pork chops a week.
“I always tell Matt [Toya, the chef] who the [expletive] would think we’d sell pork chops,” Nishida says, shaking his head. “We just made them to fill the menu. We thought nobody was going to buy them. Then Alan Wong says these chops are good and boom.”
The two locations of Side Street Inn go through 2,000 pounds of pork chops a week.
The diverticulitis in 2009 nearly ended Nishida’s career—and his life. He suffered from severe abdominal pain, was severely dehydrated and his blood pressure spiked. When he was admitted to The Queen’s Medical Center, he went into septic shock and nearly died.
“We thought we were going to lose him,” Tsuru remembers. “It was scary.”
Nishida spent four months in the hospital and weeks in physical therapy. He had to learn to walk, to write, to talk again. Amazingly, just eight months after being discharged, he managed to open the $1.5 million Side Street Inn on Da Strip, designing everything, from the dining room décor to the menu, from his hospital bed.
It didn’t take long for Nishida to be back in the kitchen, working on daily specials and prepping for the dinner rush.
As laid-back as he may appear, Nishida is actually very particular, say his longtime staffers. He’s constantly wiping counters and exceedingly meticulous about plating. He also hates it when bussers and servers pinch the inside of glasses with their fingers to pick them up.
“He’s a stickler about that,” Tsuru says, laughing. “I remember he used to charge a $1 finger fine. He’s lax about some things, but everything has to be just so.”
The Kapahulu location is much more focused on the food than the original bar, with more than 60 items on the food menu. There are salads brimming with locally sourced veggies, crispy fried chicken gizzards, Manila clams paired with locally made Portuguese sausage, Chinese-style crispy roast pork, even escargot baked in mushroom cups with garlic butter and three cheeses.
After the pork chops, the restaurant’s fried rice is probably the next top seller, with bits of bacon, Portuguese sausage, char siu, peas, carrots and green onion. One plate can feed a family of four, easily, and the restaurant serves about 60 orders a night. There’s an entire six-burner station in the 1,500-square-foot kitchen devoted to just fried rice.
Wong, who used to patronize Side Street a couple of times a week and took his employees there for lunch last summer, describes it as the quintessential local restaurant.
“The flavors, the ingredients, the style, it’s very local,” says Wong, whose favorite dishes include the pork chops, fried rice and miso chicken. “[Nishida] is a really good cook who really understands local flavors.”
Whenever he stops by, Nishida will make one of Wong’s favorite pūpū: dried cuttlefish charred on the grill. Wong pulls off strips of it and dips it into a shoyu-mayo sauce.
“It’s so good,” Wong says, smiling, recalling the taste of the cuttlefish. “No like eat ’em because you get stink breath.”
So many people have memories like that of Nishida. Tsuru remembers drinking at Side Street every Sunday, at the same table (Table 28, or what the waitresses used to call the Devil’s Table), with Nishida and their friends buying shots for each other. Toya, who’s worked at Side Street for 15 years, jokes about a perk of the job being the free drinks Nishida would buy him all the time. Some remember all the charity events he catered, the free ice cream he would send out to the kids dining in the restaurant, the handshakes, his warm smile.
Nishida has one more surgery to go, and he’s hoping this will set things right. He misses being at the restaurant, surrounded by friends in a place that has brought him so much joy over the past 25 years. It was obvious at the Hale ‘Aina Awards gala in September, sitting at a table with his employees, many of whom he considers friends. Nishida only attended the event after one of them convinced him to come. He didn’t know he would be receiving the Restaurateur of the Year honor, but she did. Decked in lei, he walked on stage with a grin of a guy both embarrassed and delighted to be there.
“I just want to do what I like doing,” he says.
Side Street Inn, multiple locations, sidestreetinn.com