2013 Hale Aina Awards: When to eat where

Our readers named the best restaurants in the Islands. To help you navigate the wealth of great dining, we lead you through a year-long itinerary of Hale Aina eating: when to eat where.

Hy's Steak House (Best Restaurant for a Date Night, silver) proves that we find something utterly romantic about decades-old institutions, tuxedoed waiters and tableside service.

Photos by Olivier Koning

There are 142 Hale Aina award-winning restaurants.

Which means you’d have to eat at one almost every other day to try them all. It’s a daunting task. While you may not be able to cover them all, you can certainly try. Here’s a calendar year’s itinerary of Hale Aina eating: when to eat where. It’s time to get started … now.


The Yamazaki Sidecar at Nobu.


Happy 2013! The world didn’t end in 2012, which calls for a celebration, cocktail in hand. Ring in the new year with drinks from Nobu Waikiki (Best Cocktail, gold; Best Japanese Restaurant, gold). Sip a Sado Blossom—a light, refreshing mix of soju, yuzu, hibiscus, shiso, mint and housemade sorbet—in Nobu’s swank lounge, or pair a Yamazaki Sidecar, gently mixed Suntory 12-year whisky, orange liqueur and yuzu, with bar bites. In the lounge, the small plates might be crispy yuba tofu with uni, or steamed clams with pancetta and kale in a miso dashi broth.

On New Year’s Day, Nobu’s special menu includes ozoni soup, a traditional Japanese soup with mochi that is supposed to bring good luck. Does it work? Let’s just point out that the president ate here last year on New Year’s Day, while Mitt Romney did not.

Ozoni soup is well and good for tradition’s sake, but also indulge in Nobu’s contemporary Japanese plates: creamy, spicy crab; or lobster with wasabi pepper sauce. Salads at Nobu are some of Honolulu’s most innovative, such as ribbons of Big Island heart of palm, kissed with yuzu and jalapeño.

On the flip side, since the world didn’t end in 2012, it means you might have to replenish the retirement coffers. Every weekday, you can grab a three-course, prix fixe menu at The Grove (Best New Restaurant, silver) for just $17. It includes a soup or salad and a choice of such dishes as the adobo-braised pork ribs with mango chutney, or the Greek-marinated roasted chicken. While New Year’s resolutions for a healthier, better you are still intact, you can also opt for the whole-wheat spaghetti and Manila clams, leaving room, of course, for a vanilla-bean panna cotta. For those who choose to start off the New Year more wickedly, choose from the small plates menu, which includes deep-fried bites such as cheese-stuffed olives, chick pea fritters and arancini—fried, creamy risotto balls that ooze melted cheese. Or go all out and get the chicharron-topped pork belly. These bites are perfect enjoyed with a glass of wine in The Grove’s pleasant outside seating.

The Grove's braised beef short ribs


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You know what February means: romance, red roses, reservations … and don’t forget Lent. Which means every Friday is fish day. So where better to spend your Lenten Fridays than Nico’s at Pier 38 (Best Seafood, gold). This is the new Nico’s, expanded to almost three times the size of the old takeout counter. New is dinner service, which almost feels romantic with live music and the sparkling lights of the tugboats and industrial harbor. It may have moved across the street, but it’s still one of the closest restaurants to the fish auction, where Nico’s buys direct, unlike most restaurants, which go through a middleman. Nico’s furikake ahi is famous, though Nico Chaize shows his French roots with his catch-of-the-day specials, as with a pan-seared mahi with tomato ogo buerre blanc or opah blanketed with a crab and tomato-bisque sauce.

For those godless people whose only religion is romance, make a Valentine’s Day reservation at one of the best restaurants in the date-night category, where top finishers Michel’s at the Colony Surf (Best Restaurant for a Date Night, gold) and Hy’s Steak House (Best Restaurant for a Date Night, silver; Best Steak, silver) prove that we find something utterly romantic about decades-old institutions, tuxedoed waiters and tableside service. Slip into an oceanside table at Michel’s, where gold reigns in its ornate décor, down to the gold-rimmed plates. The menu is so classic as to be chic again: lobster bisque flamed tableside, Caesar salad tossed in front of you, a beef tenderloin Rossini (meaning it’s topped with foie gras). Desserts are a spectacle—such as an apple banana flambé to cast your date’s face in a lovely glow.

At Hy’s Steak House, the men can pretend they’re Don Draper and women can pretend they’re with Don Draper. Sink into a dark leather banquette and satisfy your carnal lust … for steak, that is. Here, the beef is USDA prime, and the fire fueled by kiawe. There’s no reason to stray from the steaks, whether a filet mignon or the Steak Neptune, a filet topped with shrimp and béarnaise. For two, you may want to lock eyes over the Chateaubriand, carved tableside.

The Chateaubriand, carved tableside at Hy's.

Photo by Olivier Koning

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A tako and sweet corn puree plate at Salt Kitchen and Tasting Bar.

Photos by Olivier Koning

Salt Kitchen and Tasting Bar (Best New Restaurant, gold) is 12th Ave Grill’s younger sister—more casual, a bit trendier, leaning a little heavier on the booze. She’s great fun to party with, while still keeping it classy. So if you’re looking to escape Guinness-soaked block parties, Irish car bombs and corned beef and cabbage, Salt may be just the place to feel festive. Last year, Salt upgraded St. Patrick’s Day classics to Guinness-braised lamb sliders and corned beef tongue, all in line with its year-round love of meat and nose-to-tail philosophy. As with the St. Patty’s Day specials, meat is the highlight here: whether for monthly whole animal feasts centered on Maui venison or Shinsato hog, or the charcuterie board of housemade terrines, sausages and cured meats from local cows and pigs. It might include cured meats like prosciutto as well as summer sausage, maple chicken liver pâté and a crispy round of fried headcheese.

In the year since it opened, the food at Salt has evolved. The smaller plates are more fearless—more risk taken with plates that require less commitment. There’s chicken-fried local rabbit in an oatmeal stout gravy and sweet carrot butter; a foie gras torchon accompanied by watermelon, lime curd, black sesame seed, garlic chips and bunuelos—cinnamon-dusted, fried, sweet dough. Chef Quinten Frye, by way of Mexico and Austin, has also been adding Mexican touches here and there: citrus mole on fish and charred corn dusted with chile and lime; fried oysters on mini-tostada rounds, topped with charred pineapple relish, like an oyster po’ boy who studied abroad in Mexico.


Mango ice cream on sticky rice at Bangkok Chef.


Mid-April, Thailand celebrates the traditional Thai New Year with the Songkran Festival. Naturally, then, it’s time to hit one of the Hale Aina Thai restaurants. Bangkok Chef (Best Thai, silver) surveys the curries and noodles of Thailand—from panang curry to pad thai—at prices that (almost) make you feel like you’re actually there. With no plates over $10, it’s also the perfect place to stop when you’re feeling the pinch of tax season. Finish lunch or dinner here with the house special dessert, mango ice cream on sticky rice sprinkled with toasted rice.

As long as we’re exploring Southeast Asian culture, did you know that Filipinos erected a statue to Lapu-Lapu, a hero for slaying Magellan? Maybe it’s unseemly to celebrate the Battle of Mactan (April 27), in which Magellan was killed, so just quietly make your way to Elena’s Restaurant (Best Filipino, gold). Filipino classics fill the menu: pork adobo, lechon kawali (crispy pork with tomatoes and onions), kare kare (oxtail with a peanut butter sauce), and dinuguan (pork in a blood sauce), which may be appropriate for the occasion. While the menu is mostly traditional, Elena’s also garners fame for its fried-rice omelets, such as one stuffed with pork adobo or the lechon fried rice swaddled in egg.




Tacos at Serg's Mexican Kitchen.

Photo by Olivier Koning

This one’s an obvious pairing: Cinco de Mayo and tacos. And where to get tacos? Serg’s Mexican Kitchen (Best Mexican, silver), where well-seasoned carne asada or pork doused in chile verde fill the corn tortillas, all topped with cotija cheese (rather than the yellow shredded stuff). Since Cinco de Mayo falls on a Sunday this year, you can get your Mexican on early; it’s the one day a week Serg’s offers breakfast. On the menu: huevos rancheros, or fried corn tortillas, black beans, eggs, and fresh salsa; and menudo, a traditional Mexican tripe stew, which purportedly fights hangovers. You’re going to need it.

Hopefully, you already knew to make reservations for Orchids’ Mother’s Day brunch last May. If not, then there’s always the waiting list … and let this serve as a reminder to make plans for next year. This could be the most coveted reservation in town, and, no wonder, since Orchids (Best Brunch, gold) arranges a spectacular spread, Mother’s Day or no. The cornucopia includes platters of poke, sashimi, a carving station of prime rib and suckling pig, and a grand dessert and pastry buffet that vies with the view in beauty. (The dessert table wins: You can’t eat the view.)


We clearly have seasons here: mango and lychee seasons, and then the rest of the dreary year. OK, so dreary is an overstatement, but still, the lychee and mango seasons are marvelous to behold, especially when they’re abundant, as they were last year. We can’t predict this year’s harvests, but if they’re good, head to 12th Ave Grill (Best O‘ahu Restaurant, bronze; Favorite Little Neighborhood Restaurant, gold; Best Gourmet Comfort Food, silver). 12th Ave Grill frequently incorporates seasonal ingredients, so, come mango season, you might see specials along the lines of a grilled cheese with duck prosciutto on rosemary-mango brioche, served with a bit of mango and pink peppercorn aioli, fresh mango and pickled mango slaw. Dessert, of course, is where mango shines, as with 12th Ave Grill’s striking mango mascarpone tart or mango upside-down cake. Most likely, these exact dishes won’t be offered this year, but count on mango guest starring in a few items, as well as other seasonal produce throughout the year, such as Big Island grapefruit, starfruit, mountain apple and lilikoi.

One of my favorite times to visit Maui is for the Maui Film Festival, where outdoor movies are done right—no floppy, inflatable screens here, nor too-soft, muddled sound. Before heading down for the festival, try Honu (Best New Restaurant, bronze), Mark Ellman’s newest restaurant that channels seafood shack chic. Seafood from all coasts—East, West, Hawaii—lands on the plates, such as a local fish sautéed with capers, lemon and butter and dusted with dill pollen; wok-fried salt and pepper Dungeness crab; and a lobster roll featuring Maine lobster salad stuffed into a Portuguese flax chia seed sweet bread. Quinoa, kale and even a vegan espresso chocolate mousse cake dot the menu, but this dose of West Coast hippie is counterbalanced with fried pig’s ears and crab mac and cheese. Honu’s menu is simultaneously hip, of the moment and yet comforting.

The lobster roll at Honu.

Photo by Ryan Siphers

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Here, Bastille Day doesn’t inspire heavy carousing anywhere near that of Cinco de Mayo. But then, it’s probably because Serg’s gas-station-turned-outdoor-takeout-counter and other mariachi-saturated Mexican eateries are more conducive to partying than, say, the polished ambience of Le Bistro (Restaurant of the Year, bronze; Favorite Little Neighborhood Restaurant, silver; Best French, gold; Chef’s Choice). Order such spot-on French classics as escargot, French onion soup and a perfect tarte tatin, with thin, caramelized apple slices fanned over flaky puff pastry. But it’s not just the classics here: Le Bistro also wows with blow-out meatfest dishes like the quartet of beef presented with a foie and beef slider, short rib, and a Wagyu filet; as well as its vegetarian counterpart, the off-the-menu vegetable tasting.

It wouldn’t be July, though, if we didn’t celebrate American independence and freedom fries. The original Roy’s (Restaurant of the Year, gold; Best O‘ahu Restaurant, gold; Best Service, silver; Best Pupu, silver) in Hawaii Kai offers a summer barbecue—last year featured a whole roast pig—against the backdrop of Maunalana Bay fireworks. Fireworks never get old, just like Roy’s classics such as its tender braised short ribs and a hot, oozing chocolate soufflé. A soufflé? That’s not American! It is now, France. It is now.

But chefs can’t keep cooking the same thing; nightly specials have kept Roy’s at the top of its game. They have included Wagyu Bolognese on gnocchi and shrimp scampi on roasted shimeji risotto, a nod perhaps to Giovanni of Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck (Best Food Truck, gold), recently spotted at Roy’s.

Among the Hale Aina awards Le Bistro won: Best French and Chef's Choice.

Photo by Linny Morris

See the full list of winners.



Fish souvlaki at Olive Tree Cafe.

Photos by Olivier Koning, Martha Cheng

To whet your appetite for the Greek Festival and Olive Tree’s loukoumathes, fried dough tossed with honey and nuts, stop by the Olive Tree Café (Best Greek, gold). Dine on fresh fish souvlaki, doused in tzatziki and wrapped in a warm pita, or perhaps the shawarma, a spicy ground lamb patty balanced with tahini. Yeagantes, a giant white bean salad, and tabbouleh are among the piquant starters. Add a bottle of wine (Olive Tree is BYOB), settle into the summer night air on the outside patio with Greek music playing, and pretend you’re at a Santorini café, not next to a parking lot. Make sure to finish with dessert—the orange-flower-water perfumed baklava, perhaps, or choose from recently expanded dessert offerings that have included a mascarpone tart and date and rum cake.

Warm August evenings, check. What about August mornings? Answer: breakfast at Longhi’s (Best Breakfast, bronze), with its open-air seating overlooking Ala Moana Beach Park. Order fresh-squeezed orange juice (founder Bob Longhi was adamant that all his restaurants serve fresh-squeezed OJ) and French toast or buttermilk pancakes and pour on (real) maple syrup. Those who prefer a more savory breakfast veer toward Longhi’s benedicts, such as the crab cake or lobster ones, which ditch hockey-puck English muffins for toasted, airy French bread slices.


French Toast at Longhi's.

Photo by Martha Cheng

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A chocolate purse made of phyllo for dessert.

Photos by Charla Photography

One of my favorite food festivals is Taste of the Hawaiian Range, in its 18th year in Waimea, Big Island, this year. Unlike other grazing events, this one feels more informal, maybe because of the number of cowboy hats and boots corralled into the Hilton Waikoloa Resort. Taste of the Hawaiian Range is a lively reminder that paniolo culture is alive and well in Hawaii, and you can taste it in the Hawaii-raised animals, from pig to deer.

While in Waimea for the weekend, a stop at Merriman’s Waimea (Best Big Island Restaurant, gold), is in order. Merriman’s empire now stretches across almost all the islands, but this restaurant is where it all began 25 years ago. Originals like the wok-charred ahi are still on the menu, though the kitchen culls some of the Big Island’s best ingredients in daily specials. In the past year, highlights included an ahi tartare with garlic blossoms and dandelion-infused oil; wok-charred onaga with Kauai shrimp ravioli, chili broccolini and a smoked tomato jus; and coffee-rubbed lamb over Waipio taro spaetzle, perked up with a poha mint chutney.

Thanks to Anthony Bourdain, everybody, including your Jewish grandmother living in Pennsylvania, knows about the fried pork chops at Side Street Inn (Best Value, gold; Best Restaurant for a Big Group, bronze; Best Gourmet Comfort Food, gold). Lesser known, but more awesome (who knew that was even possible?!), is the pork chop loco moco: the famous fried pork chops topped with egg (put an egg on it!) and gravy. It’s available for breakfast during NFL season, when Side Street Inn on Da Strip opens early to accommodate the rabid football fans and just as crazed, Bloody-Mary-guzzling breakfast eaters.


At Merriman's Waimea, find lamb chops.

PHOTOS BY charla photography

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House-cured ikura and uni nigiri at Sushi Sasabune.

Photos by Rae Huo, Alan Wong

Halloween used to be a really quiet time for Sushi Sasabune (Best Japanese, bronze), when you could easily snag a seat at the bar. Not so much now. Maybe people decided the Sushi Nazi was scarier than haunted houses? More likely, it’s an oasis to escape the zombies, witches, bad puns and assorted Halloween madness outside. Sushi Sasabune has spruced up its environs recently with faux maple trees that reflect the progression of seasons. What hasn’t changed: the jewels on the plate that command your attention. The orbs of house-cured ikura, not too salty, actually look like precious gems, and pristine cuts of fish—scallop dusted with yuzu kosho (a citrusy, peppery condiment); mackerel topped with translucent pickled seaweed—crown rice that holds together between your chopsticks, but disperses immediately in your mouth. In fact, there’s nothing scary at Sushi Sasabune, not even the sushi chef.


Predicting the seasons for seafood can be as difficult as predicting the weather, especially in this global-warming era. There’s a quota on bottom-fish (snappers such as opakapaka and onaga) and, in previous years, the fishery closed for a few months out of the year. Last year, the fishery stayed open, but, generally, the best bet for bottom-fish is winter—when the fish are biting and when bigger fish like ahi, mahi and swordfish don’t lure the fishermen away. So this is the time to catch the ginger-crusted onaga at Alan Wong’s (Restaurant of the Year, silver; Best Oahu restaurant, silver; Best Service, bronze; Best Dessert, gold). The delicate, flaky fish is crowned with oil-scalded ginger and scallion and set in a pool of miso sesame sauce.

Alan Wong's pineapple shave ice.


Absolutely save room for dessert. Alan Wong’s pineapple shave ice seemingly came out of nowhere. Then suddenly, it was everywhere on the food and wine circuit—its technique versatile, the end result beguiling, and you just couldn’t get enough of it.

It could have been this shave ice alone that cinched the Hale Aina gold for Alan Wong’s. Yes, shave ice. But this isn’t Waiola’s shave ice, as fine as that may be. In classic Alan Wong fashion, pastry chef Michelle Karr-Ueoka took our Island favorite and spun it for white-tablecloth fine dining. She freezes compressed pineapple marinated with vanilla bean and shaves it (by hand!) over haupia sorbet, tapioca and vanilla panna cotta. No sugar syrup and ice here, just straight up, pure pineapple.

The other desserts are just like that shave ice: upscale comfort desserts. Waialua chocolate “crunch bars” with milk chocolate macadamia nut crunch and bitterwsweet chocolate mousse are what Kit Kat bars dream of being when they grow up.






Ginseng chicken soup at Sorabol.

Photo by David Croxford

When winter, or as close to winter as we get in Hawaii, hits, cozy up to yakiniku and warming bowls of soup and stews at Sorabol (Best Korean, gold). Find comfort in soon dubu chi-ke, a spicy, soft tofu pot stew with clams, or take a cue from Korean cab drivers who come after their night shifts, rejuvenating over haejang gook, also known as hangover soup, a thick, spicy beef-based broth packed with veggies, clear noodles and egg. In the thick of flu season and holiday stress, take in the ginseng chicken soup, which arrives at the table still simmering—the smell of garlic, red dates and ginseng providing restorative aromatherapy.

And once again, it’s New Year’s Eve. Toast the year past and the year to come (and a new round of Hale Aina winners!) in The Study (Best Cocktail, silver), hidden behind a rotating bookshelf in The Modern. You won’t find books here, but, instead, cocktails named after classics, such as The Scarlet Letter or Wuthering Heights, a blend of spiced rum and orange curacao. Drink here and hope you make out better in the new year than the wretched protagonists of those novels.

Step behind the bookcase at The Modern into The Study.


See the full list of winners.