2010 Hale Aina Awards

Our readers named the best restaurants in the Islands.


At The Pineapple Grill at Kapalua, chef Ryan Luckey likes to spotlight Pacific-inspired flavors.

Photo: Ryan Siphers


Congratulations to the winners of our 26th annual Hale Aina Awards, selected by the readers of HONOLULU Magazine. Our state’s hottest chefs, best restaurants, beloved neighborhood favorites, top wine lists, most professional servers—you’ll find them all here. Bon appétit!

Each year since 1984, we’ve turned to the most discriminating food experts in town—our readers—and asked them to vote for their favorite restaurants and dining experiences in 25 categories. And vote they do, via a paper ballot enclosed within our August Restaurant Guide, or online at our Web site. (Each reader can, however, only vote one time.) The results become the Hale Aina Awards, the oldest and most prestigious restaurant awards in the state of Hawaii.

See the full list of Hale Aina Award winners.



Restaurant of the Year: Roy’s

While Roy’s flagship restaurant in Hawaii Kai has consistently won gold-medal-level Hale Ainas in many categories, this is the first time since 2004 that it’s taken home the honors for Restaurant of the Year. (It also won Restaurant of the Year in 2002 and 1995.) Roy’s in Hawaii Kai didn’t stop there, also claiming Hale Aina honors for Best Dessert, gold level; bronze-level awards for Best Place to Take Visitors, Best Outdoor Dining and Best Seafood; and becoming a finalist for Best Service, Best Value and Best Wine Program.

“People are looking to us to do great things in food and service and our job is not to meet that expectation, but to exceed it,” says founder Roy Yamaguchi. Chef Yamaguchi balances the Roy’s Classics, dishes that people would be crestfallen if he were to remove from his menu—baby back pork ribs, misoyaki butterfish, blackened ahi—with exciting new dishes for the regulars, the “guests we have who come in once a week, twice a week.”

Once seen as a radical young chef, Roy Yamaguchi (right) has become one of Hawaii’s most treasured culinary ambassadors. He’s seen at the multiple Hale Aina Award-winning Roy’s in Hawaii Kai, with executive chef Ronald Nasuti.

Photo: Olivier Koning

Yamaguchi was the first-ever Hawaii chef to win a James Beard Award, and he has also authored three cookbooks and appeared on six seasons of PBS’s show Hawaii Cooks with Roy Yamaguchi. But he’s modest, and when I ask him how many people work for him, he responds, “I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter.”

What does matter to him is the local farmer who has dropped by to deliver some green onions. Yamaguchi brightens and gives the guy a shaka. “He grows them, he delivers them himself. That’s what it’s all about!” 

There are now 34 Roy’s restaurants, six of them in Hawaii, but Yamaguchi obviously has a special place in his heart for the original location. “He’s here a lot,” says his executive chef, Ronald Nasuti. “He’s in the kitchen, trying new things. We want to keep our cuisine as cutting-edge as possible and, at the same time, always cater to the people of Hawaii.”

Nasuti has worked with Yamaguchi for 18 years, and says the best thing about the relationship is “creative license. We can do whatever we want as long as it’s within the confines of what he’s trying to achieve with the restaurant.” Nasuti is currently pushing his dessert staff to experiment with cannoli, for example. Still, he notes, “You can take any two cultures and slap the food together and call it fusion. We don’t do that. Everything has to be well thought out.” 

Yamaguchi says it’s been 21 years since he started Roy’s. “That’s one of the reasons I picked Hawaii Kai. I wanted it to be a community restaurant, part of something. We’ve seen children who came in here growing up; some are now married and have their own kids. They’re taking their parents for dinner here, instead of their parents taking them. It’s the greatest thing you can ever experience in a restaurant.”  


Best Maui Restaurant, Silver Award

Roy Yamaguchi has not only seen some of his customers grow up, he’s also heavily influenced an entire generation of Island chefs. One is rising star Ryan Luckey, who presides over the kitchen at the Pineapple Grill at Kapalua. Luckey says he was careful to leave some of the dishes of Pineapple Grill’s founding chef, Joey Macadangdang, on the menu. “He trained under Roy. You try to emulate them because they are such trailblazers for the state.”

Like his fellow regional chefs, Luckey relishes local, fresh ingredients. “Close communities need to support each other. My duty is to give back to the mom-and-pop farms, the guys who deliver in their own trucks. We live in a climate and area that produces such beautiful food. It’s a treat to get to create with those ingredients.”

Related Link: See the full list of Hale Aina Award winners.


The inviting entrance of Pineapple Grill at the Kapalua.

Photo: Courtesy of The Pineapple Grill

Like his fellow regional chefs, Luckey relishes local, fresh ingredients. “Close communities need to support each other. My duty is to give back to the mom-and-pop farms, the guys who deliver in their own trucks. We live in a climate and area thaproduces such beautiful food. It’s a treat to get to create with those ingredients.”

He sources from Surfing Goat Dairy, Fresh Island Herbs, Maui Cattle Co., Olowalu Farms and Kapalua Farms, an agricultural project developed by Maui Land & Pineapple. “We get eggs from maybe 500 yards away. They are right across the golf course,” explains Luckey.

If you’ve never been to the restaurant, the chef suggests the short ribs or wasabi-pea-crusted ahi. He also notes that the Pineapple Grill has just introduced some new bar-menu items, such as an Olowalu Tomato Margherita Flatbread, with fresh mozzarella and local basil; and a Mezze Plate, with local vegetables, pita bread and edamame hummus.

The restaurant has a Grille Menu, which includes some items off the lunch menu and some off the dinner menu and is served from 2:30 to 5 p.m.; if you’re looking for a late lunch, you’re in luck. Or should we say, Luckey?

Best New Restaurant, Gold Award

Hale Aina Award winner Azure took home the gold for Best New Restaurant.

Photo: Olivier Koning

Chef de cuisine Jon Matsubara calls Azure’s Hale Aina wins “a symbol of dedication and hard work. At the same time, I told the staff, ‘We are only as good as the last dinner we served.’ Consistency is just as important—we can’t rest on our laurels, we have to push ourselves.”

Chef Jon Matsubara sends some dishes out under domes, which, when lifted, release a little puff of kiawe "smoke."

Photo: Monte Costa

Azure also was a finalist in the Best Seafood category. “We are primarily a fresh-fish specialty restaurant. We are the only nighttime dinner option for our guests at the hotel and have to keep that in mind. We have popular selections, as well as the more modern tasting menu, so you can have the Hawaiian fresh-fish experience or go for something a bit more exciting and different.” 

Matsubara has created quite a buzz around town with his culinary curveballs, from his work at his previous restaurant, Stage, to the dishes he features at Azure, such as a mid-meal palate cleanser featuring Pop Rocks candy, or Wagyu beef served under a dome that dramatically releases keawe “smoke.”

“I have some regulars that have followed me over from Stage,” he says. “I know they are coming in and I’ll send out something more off-the-wall.”

What’s next for this kitchen magician? The antigriddle, which instantly freezes liquids, and can be used to create intriguing desserts, and carbonated fruit, another “exploding” intermezzo.

“You have to know your audience. It’s been an incredible year for Azure with the restaurant and the renovation of the hotel. I feel very lucky to be able to showcase my cooking there and maximize the opportunity.”

Related Link: See the full list of Hale Aina Award winners.



Director/sommelier Todd Ashline selects the wines served at Chef Mavro.

Photo: Linny Morris

Best Wine Program, Silver Award

James Beard award-winner George Mavrothalassitis changes up his menus seasonally, but no matter what he’s whipped up, it’s sure to dazzle the diners at Chef Mavro. It’s not unheard of for otherwise demure diners to erupt in a fork duel over the last bite of Manchego cheese croquette or truffled cauliflower purée. The restaurant is equally respected for its wine-pairing expertise, won a bronze for Best Service, and was a finalist for both Best Oahu Restaurant and Best Restaurant for Romance.

“We want our guests’ experience to be all-encompassing, from the moment they call for a reservation until they pull out of the parking lot,” says Todd Ashline, the restaurant’s director/sommelier. He says the restaurant has strived to be “discreet and seamless” with wine service, but that the wine stewards will gladly discuss the wine with interested diners.

The majority of patrons choose the wine pairings with the tasting menus, which are four, six or 11 courses. For some dishes, Ashline also selects a “sommelier rare wine selection,” with harder-to-find offerings such as a 2006 Marc Colin Saint Aubin. Yet he encourages people to swap items around to suit their tastes, rather than feeling locked in to the menu. “We’re a lot more flexible than people think—both with the menus and the wines.”


Cozy up at Dining Room at The Lodge at Koele, which features this macadamia-crusted Lanai venison loin, with parsnip puree.

Photo: Peter Vitalle, Courtesy of Four Seasons

Best Maui Restaurant, Finalist

Speaking of wine, coenophiles sing the praises of Dining Room, at The Four Seasons Resort Lanai, The Lodge at Koele. “The majority of wines we offer are American and French, but we also feature wines from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia,” says director of food and beverage Anthony Freda. “We have 20-plus wines by the glass.”

Beyond the wine, Freda strives for “an exceptional level of service, well-thought-out food and a special ambiance with a warm, country estate feel to it.” There is also game on the menu, such as a lava-rock seared venison, pheasant, and duck for two, carved tableside. In the future, keep your eye out for a new cuisine twist, with more of a French countryside menu. Freda also recommends planning ahead on dessert: The classic chocolate soufflé is much enjoyed by many patrons but must be ordered with dinner in order to allow time for its preparation.

Related Link: See the full list of Hale Aina Award winners.


Patrons expect—and receive—top-notch service at Lahaina Grill.

Photo: Courtesy Lahaina Grill

Best Service, Gold Award

Lahaina Grill has won best Maui Restaurant, Gold, 17 years in a row. This year, it also took home another gold, for Best Service.

“We are extremely honored and can’t thank our loyal customers and supporters enough for this,” says chef/owner Jurg Munch. His philosophy on restaurant service? “I tell our staff, ‘Treat everybody like you are entertaining guests in your own home.’ And then I empower them to be able to treat people that way.”

Another key to service excellence, Munch says, is the restaurant’s low staff turnover. “We have 52 employees and, on average, each one has been here for five years or more. Our chef has been here 18 years, our bartender, 15 years, a lot of the servers have been here for 14 to 16 years. The staff is our most valuable asset—and we treat them well.”

Many of the clientele are repeat customers who are very specific about which favorite server they would like to have at their table. “They might even change their plans and come in when the person they are requesting is working. Everyone becomes part of the family.”
Munch also holds daily meetings with his staff, going over customers’ requests, and has them send birthday or anniversary cards to clients. “Also, we stay in touch. We have a newsletter with 25,000 subscribers. We go through extraordinary efforts to make sure our customers feel they are having a special experience. For many, many guests, this is a once-in-a-lifetime visit to Hawaii. They may have saved for years and years for this. There’s no margin for error.”

Little Restaurant You Love, Bronze Award

Chef Mark Ellman created this signature dessert with broiled Island fruits, chocolate and caramel sauces.

Photo: Ryan Siphers

Mala Ocean Tavern is little, seating only 78 people, but more than makes up for it with an enormous menu. “I am constantly looking at other restaurant menus, and they are usually about half as long my menu,” laughs chef/owner Mark Ellman. “My kitchen always gives me the hairy eyeball because I come in with new ideas. But it’s good to keep the staff on their toes and also to provide new experiences for the customers. It’s hard to get bored at our place.”

Ellman is one of the original Hawaii Regional Cuisine chefs, and formerly ran Avalon Restaurant and Bar with his wife, Judy. He remains committed to locally produced food, noting, “It’s simple. You want to keep commerce within the community. Especially with the difficult economic times, the more we keep commerce within Hawaii, the faster we’ll get out of this mess. And, of course, it’s fresher, and if you have a problem, you can say, Hey…” That is what relationships are all about.”

For example, Ellman says, “We made a commitment about a year ago to do 100-percent Maui coffee. It’s more expensive, but in the long run it pays off, in terms of quality and helping our neighbors.”

Ellman points out that the restaurant also serves brunch on the weekends, saying, “We make a mean huevos rancheros and chilaquiles” [corn tortillas with eggs, salsa, sour cream and feta].

Mala was a finalist in the Best Outdoor Dining Category. “We’re part of the old Lahaina cannery, which was a pineapple cannery in the 1930s and ’40s, up to the 1980s.” The space maintained its industrial exterior, but “95 percent of our seats have an ocean view. About 40 people can sit right on the water, watching the resident sea turtles in the ocean. The tables on the rail are the most sought out and fought over and most tipped on. I tried to get this location for 15 years. It finally paid off.”


Related Link: See the full list of Hale Aina Award winners.