Traditional Hawaiian Restaurant Highway Inn Keeps Up With the 21st Century
Highway Inn’s third generation tries to figure out how to keep a seven-decade-old restaurant relevant.
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Photos: Steve Czerniak
Monica Toguchi didn’t think opening a second Highway Inn would be this hard. After all, the original Highway Inn in Waipahu had opened 67 years ago and had been running smoothly, thanks to a staff that had worked there for two decades or more, and loyal diners who filled the restaurant, lingering over beef stew and naau puaa, pig intestines cooked with luau leaves.
Monica, 41, is the third generation to run Highway Inn. Her grandparents opened it in 1947, based on Hawaiian food that Seiichi Toguchi learned in restaurants where he washed dishes, and American food that he picked up working in the mess halls in the Japanese internment camps during World War II.
Monica had been thinking about a town location for Highway Inn for a while, to grow the company and to introduce a new audience to her grandfather’s legacy. Late last year, she opened the new Highway Inn in Kakaako, and I love it even more than the original. It is contemporary without forgetting its roots. It serves the same Hawaiian food as the original, down to the naau puaa, while offering new dishes such as whole fried akule and poi (fish and poi, seemingly a no-brainer for a Hawaiian food restaurant and yet so rare) and modern nostalgic desserts including poi Twinkies and a pineapple upside-down cake with kiawe-bean flour.
The Pineapple upside down cake, made with kiawe-bean flour.
The original Highway Inn sits in a nondescript strip mall and is furnished with red vinyl-upholstered cafeteria chairs. The new restaurant is done up in a modern plantation style, with the exposed ceiling finished a dusty copper red, the color of Waipahu’s red dirt. The new Highway Inn proves that Hawaiian food can exist outside of a hole in the wall. Its food and atmosphere appeal across generations, evidenced by a dining room full of young artists alongside developers and politicians shaping the neighborhood.
The melding of old and new seems so seamless at the second Highway Inn. But Monica didn’t quite realize what a new restaurant and new audience (not to mention a new staff) would mean for Highway Inn. She had to ask herself: How do you make a seven-decade-old Hawaiian-food restaurant relevant in the new Kakaako while preserving its soul?
Here, Monica reflects on her years of running the family business and transitioning it into the 21st century:
Hawaiian-food restaurants are kind of stuck in time, but I like to describe ourselves as timeless. Hawaiian restaurants are significant to our identity, to the experience of living in Hawaii.
When we first opened Highway Inn in Kakaako, we weren’t prepared for the demand. We just kind of flipped our open switch on and figured we would catch people that were passing by. We didn’t even have furniture, just three benches. The phones were ringing off the hook for takeout orders and people were coming in. I had to kind of step back a bit. When things start to get out of your control, you have to step back and think: Who are you? What do you represent? What do you want to represent? And what we represent—at least for me—is a time when people actually connected with one another, when people actually took the time to tell a story. In Highway Inn Kakaako’s urban community, everyone is so used to rush, rush, rush, rush, rush—get my food in 10 minutes, out the door to my next meeting, cell phone, email, everybody is on the 21st-century data highway. But when you walk into Highway Inn, you should slow down. At least for the half an hour, 45 minutes, one hour, however long you spend with us.
In Waipahu, we have a much more diverse group of people—for a lot of them, maybe it’s their day off, they’re spending time with their family, maybe they’re running errands. But here, our lunch crowd is much more of an office crowd, people who are restricted in their time. Sometimes we have really big orders—a 30-plate takeout order, and all the orders and dine-in customers come in within one hour. You can only do so much!