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Restaurant (Death) Row

Why do so many eateries here seem sentenced to fail?


Illustration: Jason Nobriga

You can’t say Restaurant Row hasn’t tried to live up to its name. But with one of its original anchor tenants, Sunset Grill, reincarnated as a CVS Care Plus Pharmacy this fall, this isn’t exactly a row of eateries.

Restaurant Row, also known as Waterfront Plaza, has appeared to be in trouble since it opened in 1988. Granted, the complex did have its glory days with such hot-spot hangouts as Black Orchid, Studebaker’s, Row Bar and Rose City Diner. But Aloha Tower, which opened in 1994, eclipsed the complex by attracting more locals and tourists.

In the late 1990s, Restaurant Row sank even further into trouble when developer Bruce Stark defaulted on $4 million in mortgage payments. After a juggling act of owners, the complex was acquired by the Shidler Group in 2004 for $72 million. Shidler has since managed it.

Restaurant Row has been dogged by a chronic problem—low foot traffic.  

“We know that Restaurant Row isn’t like Ala Moana. We don’t get as much traffic,” acknowledges D.K. Kodama, co-owner of both Hiroshi Eurasion Tapas and Vino Italian Tapas and Wine bar.

The Restaurant Row 9 Theatres first opened in 1995, boosting foot traffic for a while—but then the Dole Cannery and Ward multiplexes opened up nearby, and Restaurant Row’s theaters eventually became down-market, $1 movie houses. 

But Larry Taff, the managing partner of the Shidler Group, wants to ultimately see the theater space follow in the footsteps of Sunset Grill and become a business that better matches the more service-oriented direction in which the complex is going. “I think that it’s the black eye of the property,” he says.

Despite the slowly declining Restaurant Row 9 Theatres, the surrounding restaurants either do very well, or fail miserably.

Successes include Ruth’s Chris, Hiroshi and Vino.

But for Donato Loperfido, who opened Pasta Basta last spring, it’s a different story. “The fact of the matter is, people just don’t want to come out, I guess.”

“The reason I picked the location over here is because I said, ‘OK, I have a good name behind myself,” says Loperfido. “But now I wish I would have gone somewhere else because it’s not working out,” he admits. “In Waikiki I would have been packed all day long.”

Business is great at lunch, says Loperfido, adding that his regulars are court judges, federal employees and other Waterfront Plaza businesspeople.

But come for dinner, and you’ll find the area a lot more desolate. So much in fact, says Loperfido, that he had to close on Sunday and Monday nights.

“Sunday night at Restaurant Row is a ghost town,” says Loperfido.

Taff disagrees. “I don’t think there’s been any more turnover in restaurants here than anyplace else.”

But among smaller tenants like Loperfido, patrons have witnessed a revolving door of restaurants. Before Pasta Basta, the space hosted Yanni’s and, before that, Phillip Paolo’s Italian Restaurant, all in the course of four years.


Restaurant Row's dearly departed: 

Baci, Black Orchid, Blue Zebra, Boomerang's, Carnaval Las Palmas, Jose's Restaurante Mexicana Y Cantina, Kengo's Seafood, Manzo's Trattoria, Meritage Restaurant, Ocean Club, Phillip Paolo's Italian Restaurant, Rose City Diner, Studebaker's, Sunset Grill, World Cafe, Yanni's



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Honolulu Magazine May 2018
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