2019 Hale ‘Aina Award Winners: Lahaina Grill Wins Gold for Maui’s Best Restaurant
We talk with owner Jurg Munch about the restaurant’s history of success.
the osso buco, inspired by Munch’s grandmother
photo: courtesy of lahaina grill
Lahaina Grill, open since 1990, is like a time capsule, with its impeccable formal white linen service and original dishes like the Maui onion and sesame-crusted ‘ahi. The restaurant won its first Hale ‘Aina award in 1994 and has been a winner every year since. Longtime employees oversee the restaurant—Debbi Fagan, the general manager, has been with the restaurant since it opened, and chef Arnulfo “Arnie” Gonzalez started as a dishwasher 26 years ago and now runs the kitchen.
Jurg Munch bought Lahaina Grill in 1999 from chef/owner David Paul Johnson and Johnson’s business partner Rick Ralston (of Crazy Shirts fame). Munch began cooking at age 16 in Switzerland and went from a 30-seat restaurant there to, at age 21, becoming sous chef at the Excelsior Hotel in Hong Kong, helping the executive chef oversee eight restaurants and 150 cooks. We chatted with him about Lahaina Grill, what’s changed and one disastrous morning.
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HONOLULU Magazine: How did you end up on Maui?
Jurg Munch: I met my wife in Hong Kong and my wife said, “Let’s go to Maui and get married,” and we decided to do that and never left.
HM: How did you end up buying Lahaina Grill?
JM: I found out that the restaurant was for sale. So, I decided to have dinner there and take a look. I immediately fell in love with the restaurant, with the quality and the service and everything. I was very excited and figured I could take it over and take it to the next level. [Since then], we almost doubled the volume of the business.
HM: Has the menu changed much since you took it over?
JM: I was able to incorporate some of the dishes I fell in love with during my travels and also my heritage. One of the signature dishes is our osso buco, inspired by my Italian grandma. We also have meatballs on the menu, which everybody first said, “You’re crazy to put meatballs on the menu in Hawai‘i.” And now it’s one of the better-selling dishes on the menu. [There’s also] Arnie’s chile relleno interpretation, a blue corn panko-crusted chile relleno filled with tiger prawns and diver scallops.
We don’t change the menu too much because a lot of guests keep coming back for the same dishes. But we have specials that we offer on a nightly basis.
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HM: Any disasters at the restaurant?
JM: In this business, there’s always an element of surprise. The other day we had a fire sprinkler set off an hour before we opened the door—it was like Niagara Falls in the restaurant, water everywhere. We were scrambling to clean it all up, but we opened the doors an hour later—nobody noticed a thing.
HM: If you weren’t a chef, what do you think you would be doing?
JM: It’s in my blood. I enjoy cooking. I enjoy hosting guests. I think I’ll be doing this for a long time to come here.
Read more stories by Martha Cheng