2020 Hale ‘Aina Award Winner: Rigo Named Best New Restaurant in Hawai‘i
Rigo, opened by Japanese restaurant group Huge, brings luxury and maximalism to the masses in the form of a Spanish Italian restaurant.
“This place was dark, it looked kind of sad,” says Atsushi Iwasa, general manager at Rigo. “We felt we should make something in here. Make this place more happy.” The space on Kapahulu Avenue had been boarded up and desolate for about a year after Genki Sushi departed in 2017. Rigo filled it with light and luxury, punching out walls and letting sunlight stream in through floor-to-ceiling windows, building chartreuse leather banquettes along the glass and tucking turquoise onyx tabletops into cozy corners. The opulence extends into the kitchen, with the flashy red-mosaic tiled Stefano Ferrara oven—handmade by a third-generation oven maker in Naples, Italy—and the decidedly more understated, but just as expensive, Josper charcoal oven and grill from Spain, likely the only one in the state. With it, Rigo’s chef, Masa Yoda, pairs different smoking chips with different proteins, such as the bold flavor of mesquite with lamb chops and the more delicate cherry wood for fish and scallops.
“Be a candle, or the night,” said another Yoda. Rigo chose light, and it was this same thinking that compelled Rigo to almost double its menu during a pandemic that hit less than a year after it opened. While other restaurants contracted, Rigo expanded its offerings and stayed open seven days a week, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
“A lot of places are minimizing menus,” says front manager Jimmy Otake. “We understand that. But we thought it would be better for the customers if they had more items and new items because they’ve been locked down, wanting to go out but couldn’t. We always think in the customer’s point of view, making decisions. That’s one of the company’s philosophies.” Japanese restaurant group Huge owns Rigo and about 30 restaurants, primarily in Tokyo. (In a Japan Today interview, Huge founder and CEO Yoshihiro Shinkawa says he came up with the restaurant group’s name after watching the surfing movie Big Wednesday. “I remember one character looking up at the big waves and calling them huge. It just stuck with me,” he said.) Its 10 company values, translated from Japanese, are printed out on a posterboard tacked near the kitchen. One of them is: “Do not hammer the nail that sticks out. STRETCH IT OUT!” And so, while Huge operates 11 Rigo restaurants in Tokyo, all 11 menus are unique. “Our CEO doesn’t want to make a chain,” Otake says. “People lose interest in chain restaurants. It doesn’t make you excited. That’s why he makes them all different so you have a different experience in each one.”
While each Rigo has a base menu of pizzas, pastas and tapas, such as the Spanish tortilla and marinara pizza with garlic, anchovy and oregano, Yoda creates his own dishes. This, combined with a restlessness during the pandemic, resulted in a slew of new items, including small plates of marinated eel in saor, a Venetian sweet and sour preparation; grilled sirloin with foie gras and braised daikon; a cicinielli pizza topped with fried, tiny fish.
But like Rigo’s interior—where you can brunch in the sunny open dining room, dine in the intimate wood-paneled lounge or gather in a former bank vault transformed into a moody private room that’s become more popular in pandemic days—there are dishes for all desires. Want Italian that leans traditional? Order a classic margherita pizza or a slightly spicy arrabbiata tomato sauce tangled with smoky mozzarella and fresh spaghetti from Onda Pasta, Honolulu’s own Roman pasta-maker. Want Italian-Japanese? There’s a chilled pasta with Hokkaido scallops and bok choy dressed in soy sauce and sesame oil, and a yellowtail crudo sparkling with shaved fennel and yuzu kosho. There are even Spanish flavors with Japanese touches, as in croquetas, fried balls of mashed potato and chorizo sprinkled with black sesame salt, but also Spanish played straight in the form of a comforting yet stunning Kaua‘i shrimp and seafood paella. And dishes that emerge from the charcoal oven don’t feel tied to any particular cuisine, marrying the almost universal love of grilled foods in the form of a pork chop, kissed with the scent of hickory chips, and meaty and juicy to its core.
When Huge opened its first restaurant in 2005, Italian food was popular in Japan, but Spanish practically nonexistent. Shinkawa, Huge’s CEO, decided to mix the two cuisines, like a celebrity shining her star power on an overlooked talent. It seemed to work, given how many Rigos are now in Tokyo—and so it made sense that for Huge’s first restaurant outside of Japan, it would export Rigo to Honolulu, a place with a Spanish restaurant landscape as barren as Tokyo’s once was. Huge purposely avoided Waikīkī because “we wanted to target the locals—being part of the community is the main part of opening a restaurant,” Otake says. And for all the talk of luxury, Rigo Honolulu leans affordable. Most dishes are under $20, and very few break $30. Its wine list offers intriguing wines by the glass for under $10 and bottles under $30. With its something-for-everything feel, Rigo is reflective of Huge as a company.
Since the first Rigo, Huge has opened a slew of other concepts, including Thai Vietnamese and modern Mexican, and even a distillery and coffee roaster, as well as New American restaurants serving fried chicken, deviled eggs and club sandwiches, alongside kefta meatballs, poke and salade nicoise. When perusing Huge’s menus, including Rigo’s, questions bubble up: Where do cuisines begin and end? Will their lines become obsolete, even, as globalization continues to accelerate, pandemic be damned? Culture, too, is ever shifting, even in a place as notoriously closed as Japan. Huge’s restaurants go against Japanese stereotypes of restraint, of limited choice, of generations devoting their lives to one craft. Huge suggests that Japan doesn’t just dream of sushi, but also of spectacle—Rigo Honolulu is spare compared to Huge’s other restaurants in Japan, which call to mind Vegas’ maximalism. At Rigoletto in Shibuya, Tokyo, an entire wine cellar is suspended from the ceiling; at Hacienda del Cielo, an undulating chandelier is modeled after a Mayan snake deity.
Even for his company’s philosophy, Shinkawa draws inspiration from American-style service: At Huge’s restaurants, servers look over a table from beginning to end, as opposed to the Japanese custom, where servers work the entire floor, not tied to tips nor any one table. Value No. 4—“Hospitality is being able to exchange eye contact, smiles, and hugs”—is taken from American restaurateur Danny Meyer’s playbook. The aforementioned value No. 7, the one about stretching out nails that stick out, goes against Japanese convention, but is ingrained into Huge. In recent decades, Japan has become famous for emulating cultural touchstones, everything from American jeans to Scotch whisky to French pastries, arguably surpassing the originals even. Now, it’s as if Huge is tackling something much more complex and abstract: American hospitality.
Born in Niigata, Shinkawa was raised in the food industry. He started working in his parents’ restaurant when he was a boy, joined Suntory when he was 18 and then Global Dining, one of Japan’s most famous restaurant groups. Its restaurant Gonpachi in Tokyo hosted President George W. Bush and was the model for the izakaya in Kill Bill, while its La Boheme in Los Angeles, opened in 1991, remains popular today. As Shinkawa rose from a busboy to COO, Otake says he became known as the “god of service.” After 22 years at Global Dining, he left to start Huge, instilling principles culled from his experiences working internationally.
Otake insists that Huge still embodies elements of Japanese culture, however. The company’s philosophy includes two phrases: hyakunen hinshitsu and machi no shisan, or “100 years of quality” and “asset to the city.” Rigo may be one of Honolulu’s newest and brightest restaurants in an ever-shifting landscape made even more volatile by the pandemic, but Otake says: “We don’t want to open restaurants for a short period of time and change locations. Like a papa-mama restaurant in your neighborhood and a restaurant that locals love, we want to be one of the elements to build a community, which in the long run becomes an asset to the community.” It’s perhaps this ideology that guides Rigo away from the gimmicky offerings of other new restaurants and toward fresh dishes rooted in old cuisines, a philosophy that extends to its interior design, which feels simultaneously novel and classic. Rigo satisfies our twin needs for excitement and also comfort—needs that will forever be with us. And, Huge hopes, Rigo will be, too.
885 Kapahulu Ave., (808) 35-9760, rigohawaii.com.