Dining: Eat, Memory
Sometimes the newer the restaurants are, the more familiar they seem.
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I set out this month to catch up with newly opened restaurants. I often do, I feel it’s my duty.
Restaurants are, perhaps unfortunately, a fashion business. People are constantly asking me, Any new restaurants out there? As if the old ones no longer produced anything worth eating, and something new needed to open up, soon, before they starved.
However, a funny thing happened this month. I went to three new restaurants, all of which, deliberately or not, reminded me of restaurants where I’d eaten before. I set out to find the new and found, instead—how should I put this?—some updates.
The Ranch House
499 Kapahulu Ave. // Hee Hing Plaza // 737-4461 // Dinner nightly 5 to 9 p.m. // Major credit cards // ranchhousehawaii.com
Someone finally did a retro restaurant right.
With the advent of Hawaii Regional Cuisine came a trend toward bustling display kitchens. Still, there’s always been a cadre of diners who insisted they wanted the old restaurants back, you know, the kind of restaurant where the menu was covered in leather and the kitchen stayed quietly behind closed doors.
There’ve been a number of attempts to recreate those old-school, high-end restaurants in Honolulu, without a great deal of success. The legendary Bistro on Kapiolani was dazzlingly and expensively reborn in Century Center, and didn’t take hold.
The original Sergio’s had cozy, little, over-decorated dining rooms on a Waikiki side street, all watched over by the overdressed propriétaire. Sergio himself is long gone. Sergio’s the restaurant has been reborn—as a far more tasteful, serious, high-end eatery in the Hilton shops, but with hardly the same spirit.
It turns out that the retro restaurant Honolulu was hungry for was a Spencecliff. Starting in 1941, Spence and Cliff Weaver grew their chain to 28 restaurants on Oahu, prospering when people in Honolulu weren’t as fussy about food as they are now.
In the 1980s, as tastes changed and options multiplied, Spencecliff found itself in financial trouble. The chain was sold to a Japanese investor, who left his 24-year-old son in charge of the company.
Total disaster. Nowhere was that disaster more obvious than at one of the chain’s best loved restaurants, the Ranch House in Aina Haina.
In 1986, under the new ownership, the Ranch House was renovated. What started as a $1 million project turned into $3 million worth of imported European tiles, Italian marble, chrome and neon. When it was done, the Ranch House had been transformed into two theoretically trendy restaurants, Metro and Rockchild’s. People hated both. They closed in 1988.
Twenty-two years later, with the blessing of Chantal Weaver, Spence Weaver’s daughter, the Ranch House is back. Think of it as Ranch House 2.0.
We had to go. I used to eat at Ranch House 1.0 all the time with my wife—she wasn’t even my wife then, just my 20-something, hot new girlfriend. We could (barely) afford it, and, besides, there were hardly any other restaurants in East Honolulu. We ate prime rib and, if I remember correctly, caroused with carafes of pink wine.
To Ranch House 2.0, we dragged along our grad-school-age daughter, who was born too late, alas, ever to have sampled the original, though she once sat in a high chair at the glitzy, doomed Metro.
When we approached the new location, the old Sam Choy’s space on Kapahulu, my wife said, “It’s not the same. Where’s the wagon wheel outside?”
My daughter rolled her eyes. “Maybe inside, Mom.” Yes, inside were not only wagon wheels but horseshoes, saddles, saddle blankets, plus an assortment of memorabilia from the old restaurant.