25 Years of Hale Aina
HONOLULU Magazine’s Restaurant Awards have grown—along with the restaurants themselves.
The Hale Aina Awards. The name now has resonance. Hale Aina plaques line the walls of Hawaii’s best restaurants. The award-winning chefs find themselves on television each year, building anticipation for the award ceremony itself.
This year, 1,000 people dressed up and attended the awards at the Sheraton ballroom. They feasted on jumbo scallops with roasted garlic chili cream, beef Wellington with morels and port Madeira demiglace, even Texas wild boar ragu with kabocha pappardelle, washed down with lychee martinis and fine wines.
Everyone seems to know that HONOLULU Magazine’s restaurant awards denote the best in Island culinary achievement—and the best party. It wasn’t always that way.
Twenty five years ago—to the day, as I write this—I made calls to the restaurants who had won the first Hale Aina Awards. I had to explain everything. That the magazine had included a ballot in its annual Restaurant Guide, asking readers for their favorite restaurants in 14 categories, from French food to fast food.
I skipped over the fact that we’d tallied the results, in pencil, on a huge sheet of paper taped to the wall of our administrative assistant’s office, an arduous job. She didn’t get a computer until the next year. I just told the restaurants that they’d won. And that, by the way, Hale Aina meant eating place in Hawaiian. I was met by a lot of polite incomprehension. The chef at John Dominis concluded the call by asking, “What is this again? The Aina Haina Awards?”
At Matteo’s, which won Best Italian Restaurant, the staff kept transferring my call. I ended up talking to Joyce the bookkeeper, who said it was a pretty good restaurant, though she didn’t much care for Italian food. I used the quote.
We also called a few readers, whose ballots we picked at random, to reward them with a $50 dining gift certificate ($100 in today’s dollars). I had to call a Waialae Iki housewife named Helga twice. She hung up on me the first time, she said, because she thought I was a burglar checking to see if anyone was home.
Things have gotten easier. Restaurants now anticipate the calls. The problem 25 years ago wasn’t just that the Hale Aina Awards were new. They were unprecedented. A few restaurants had gotten awards from Mainland travel interests. But no one had ever thought to ask people who lived here what the best restaurants were.
Readers responded enthusiastically, decorating their ballots with stars and exclamation points, filling the margins with comments.
The first Restaurant of the Year winner was The Third Floor at the Hawaiian Regent (now a Marriott hotel). Chefs were not stars in those days. The chef at The Third Floor was Swiss and largely anonymous. Our coverage focused on Siegfried Poesch instead. Siggy, as everyone called him, dressed nattily, worked the restaurant’s front door, knew everyone, ran the staff with German precision. It was his restaurant, not the chef’s.
The Third Floor never repeated as Restaurant of the Year, but even after a change in ownership forced a name change to The Secret, it still won a Hale Aina Award in one category or another for the next decade.
It was the kind of restaurant that always won in the early days—formal, well-run, with an oversize leather-bound menu of Continental specialties, such as Duck a l’Orange and Beef Wellington, the kind of food you would get at a good restaurant in any Mainland city. The Hawaii culinary world had not yet come into its own.
Into the ’90s, Restaurant of the Year honors went to similar restaurants: Bali by the Sea, the old Kahala Hilton’s Maile Room (twice) and Michel’s at the Colony Surf (three times).
In one of its last write-ups, Michel’s actually mentioned how its new young chef, Gordon Hopkins, was updating its 30-year-old menu. Hopkins soon left Michel’s to cook side-by-side with a radical young chef named Roy Yamaguchi, in that traditional graveyard of restaurants, Hawaii Kai. (Good move: He’s now corporate chef of the Roy’s empire nationwide.)
When nearly new Roy’s won a Hale Aina in 1990, it surprised a lot of people. But times—and restaurants—were changing. Many of the other restaurants on the 1990 list now read like a roster of the dearly departed: Black Orchid, Castagnola’s, Compadres, Golden Dragon, Horatio’s, the Maile Room, Pacific Broiler, The Secret, Swiss Inn, Trattoria.
Hawaii people welcomed Hawaii food—served up by innovative chefs with display kitchens and casual dining rooms. When Yamaguchi finally won Restaurant of the Year honors in 1995, he said, “I guess we’ve finally become mainstream.”
He was right. Over the next few years, the Hale Ainas recorded the triumphal march of the Hawaii regional chefs across the state.
In 1996, Alan Wong, who had ironically never won a Hale Aina award for his celebrated work at Canoe House on the Big Island, stunned everyone by winning Best New Restaurant and Restaurant of the Year for his King Street restaurant.
Wong had helped invent Hawaii regional cuisine—and he’s remained its reigning master. In 13½ years since opening on King Street, he’s won Restaurant of the Year 10 times, a streak of victories interrupted only by Roy’s (twice) and Hoku’s (twice, once under Oliver Altherr, the second time under current chef Wayne Hirabayashi).
But the triumph wasn’t just Wong’s. Watching the awards, you could see the spread of Hawaii regional cuisine chefs to all the major islands.
In 1998, Yamaguchi won five Hale Aina awards, one for each island on which he had a restaurant, plus one for his wine list. Jean-Marie Josselin, who’d pioneered Hawaii regional flavors on Kauai and then expanded to Maui and Oahu, won four. Sam Choy got three, one on the Big Island and two on Oahu. Peter Merriman (Merriman’s, Hula Grill) and Russell Siu (3660, Kakaako Kitchen) got two each. George Mavrothalassitis, before returning to Oahu, won one for his work at the Four Seasons Maui.
Some of these restaurant empires have contracted or faded away entirely. But Wong, Yamaguchi, Merriman, Siu and Mavro are still names to be reckoned with on the Hale Aina list, having been transmuted by time from innovators into classics.
Some older great names have stayed on the list over the decades as well. Michel’s at the Colony Surf wins this year for most romantic restaurant and best ambiance—perhaps in some minds the same thing.
Others of this year’s winners are new—to keep the list and our palates fresh: Tango, Lanai City Grille, Mala Wailea, Beachhouse in the Westin Moana Surfrider, the new Sansei in Waikoloa and the new Merriman’s in Kapalua.
The Hale Aina list is, and should be, ever changing. One way we’ve tried to ensure this is to revise the categories from time to time.
When we began, we broke down the ballot by the cuisines popular at the time: French, Chinese, Italian, American and so forth. When the winners began to repeat we came up with a strategy that I thought was brilliant in its simplicity (I may have been the only one).
We’d ask people to name their favorite restaurants, especially the ones they ate at all the time and not just on special occasions. We’d take the top 20 vote-getters and give them Hale Aina Awards, ranking them from No. 1 to 20.
This brought on the list restaurants that were overlooked by more conventional categories—Tahitian Lanai, Swiss Inn, Alfred’s, Singha Thai. It also made winners of a few inexpensive restaurants, such as Yum Yum Tree, at the time a popular chain.
The restaurants hated it, because, if Yum Tree Tree ranked ahead of The Secret, that implied it was a “better restaurant,” when, in fact, it was a totally different style operation.
We kept the Top 20 format for three years, but learned to list all the restaurants, except for Restaurant of the Year, in alphabetical order.
Harmony reigned, but we still felt restaurants were left out. We returned first to cuisine categories, then added geographic ones. As the restaurant scenes expanded on the Neighbor Islands, we expanded the awards to include multiple winners on Maui, Kauai and the Big Island, making the Hale Ainas truly statewide.
And we kept working on categories that we felt would be overlooked, such as “little restaurants you love,” “best desserts,” “best bar” or “best new.”
We also learned that if asked for best restaurants, people would overlook Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian restaurants. But if we included those categories, the response was enthusiastic.
The 2009 list contains 92 winners (gold, silver, bronze and finalists) in 26 categories. That’s considerably up from the 14 winners we had 25 years ago—but in that generation, the number of noteworthy Island restaurants has increased exponentially.
I’m ready for an Island restaurant scene so large and exciting that we have 200 awards in 2034.
Or am I?
To me, the point of the Hale Ainas was the list in the magazine, which, as the years went on, would be picked up and reprinted extensively, especially in Japan. Once an entire Japanese video crew trailed me as I visited Alan Wong’s, that year’s, no surprise, Restaurant of the Year.
I sat there smiling, fork in hand, while Alan explained to me that I didn’t understand the sauce under his onaga at all. Then I went “Ummmm,” for the camera, a sentiment that apparently bypasses translation.
But flashback to January 1985, when new to the whole process, it occurred to us that awards needed an awards ceremony. We invited the restaurants to a Monday pau hana reception in our office lobby. We handed out certificates and served inexpensive Spanish cava in plastic cups, plus some little sandwiches.
We hadn’t counted on Sylvia Shimabukuro of Ono Hawaiian Foods, who arrived with platters of pipikaula and laulau.
The next year, we asked if each of the restaurants could bring a plate of food. They didn’t bring plates, they brought platters, with some of the best looking food that ever graced an oversize conference table.
One of the local TV stations had promised to come and shoot the party. We wanted them to shoot the table of food—intact. Which meant we had to keep the hungry guests away while we waited and waited, no easy task.
From there, things had to go uphill. In 1990, the magazine’s promotions director, Ed Cassidy, decided we were thinking too small. We needed to do the Hale Aina Awards as a fundraising gala. That first year, with Charo as emcee, was held in the scene shop of Hawaii Theatre for Youth.
It was not a successful venue—not air conditioned, and all the restaurants had grills and burners going. People wilted.
But you know that fundraising gala where you go from one food station to the next, gathering one small plate after another? It’s now much imitated, but the Hale Aina Awards was the first in Hawaii.
It was a huge hit, especially when we moved it to the parking lot of Diamond Head Theatre. We did the party in those years by ourselves. We’d sweat all day, erecting tents, carrying tables, setting up bars, then we’d clean up and don our tuxes. Or, one memorable year, white tails.
The tails were necessary because the awards ceremony became more and more elaborate. At Diamond Head, we staged them, complete with a chorus line in chef’s coats and tights, called the Chefettes.
Perhaps the entertainment reached its height the year we staged the Hale Ainas as a benefit for the Honolulu Symphony. There was the entire Symphony Pops orchestra, with special guest, the Tonight Show’s Doc Severinsen. A successful evening—musically. But, much as the magazine supported the arts in Honolulu, we realized there was one element missing.
The awards were meant to celebrate Hawaii’s unique culinary tradition. If there was one cause around which the restaurants would rally, it was the community college culinary schools where many of the chefs had gotten their start.
To give the awards a larger purpose, the magazine helped found the Hale Aina Ohana, a separate non profit run by an advisory board that reads like a Who’s Who of Hawaii’s food professionals.
The Ohana has raised more than $100,000 for culinary education across the state. (For more details on its good works, see “How to Make a Chef”.
The Hale Aina Awards gala is now thoroughly professional, with event planners working overtime to create a memorable evening. But the best part is that it now not only celebrates the restaurants that give us so much pleasure, but also assures that the profession will continue to grow and develop.
After all, in 1985, the awards were started to spotlight the contributions restaurants make to Hawaii, as a visitor destination, of course, but also an enjoyable place to live.
They’ve succeeded, on a scale that 25 years ago would have surprised all of us who made the small first steps.