Déjà Food: A Look Back at Past Hale ʻAina Awards and Winners
As HONOLULU Magazine prepares to celebrate its 37th Hale ʻAina Awards, we flipped through our files for a look at some of our past Hale ʻAina winners.
On June 14, 2021, HONOLULU Magazine will honor the winners of our 37th Annual Hale ‘Aina awards. For most of the thousand foodies who have joined us in the past for our usually sold-out Hale ‘Aina event at The Royal Hawaiian, a Luxury Resort Collection, it’s all about indulging in a night of dining (and wining) with bites and sips of the best food our local restaurants have to offer.
It’s a long way from the inaugural celebration of O‘ahu’s first local restaurant awards program, which was a potluck in an office lobby. Since the first ballot went out in 1984, the winners have been selected by our readers. Here’s how it’s evolved over the years.
The first Hale ʻAina Awards was made up of 14 categories. The Third Floor at the Hawaiian Regent Hotel took home the first Restaurant of the Year award. A formal dine-in restaurant with continental dishes such as duck à l’orange and beef Wellington, The Third Floor served “the kind of food you would get at a good restaurant in any Mainland city,” says HONOLULU. Hy’s Steakhouse won for Best American Food. Local favorite ʻOno Hawaiian Foods, which shut its doors after 57 years in 2017, brought home the Best Hawaiian Food award, while Michel’s at the Colony Surf won for Best Sunday Brunch. When phoning winners of the first awards, HONOLULU dining editor John Heckathorn had some explaining to do. “The chef at John Dominis concluded the call by asking, ʻWhat is this again? The ʻĀina Haina Awards?’” wrote Heckathorn. An administrative assistant even had to tally the results on a huge sheet of paper taped to the office wall.
Rather than categorize restaurants by their cuisine, price range, type, etc., HONOLULU decided to name the top 20 restaurants in the state, overall. Readers voted for their favorites once again, but a couple of restaurants tried stuffing the ballot box. One restaurant even bought nearly 200 copies of the magazine to fill out the ballots inserted inside. Online voting didn’t begin until for decades.
Michel’s at the Colony Surf won the top spot for the third time in five years. But get this: Second place was awarded to a chef, Keo Sananikone, whom HONOLULU said put Thai food on the map. Sananikone ruled a restaurant empire at the time, with three restaurants all named after him: Keo’s Thai Cuisine, Keo’s at Ward Centre and Keo’s Bar & Grill. Rounding out the top three was Longhi’s in Lahaina, Maui. Longhi’s sold $7 million worth of meals in 1988, making it the 40th top grossing restaurant in the U.S.
3660 On The Rise won Restaurant of the Year, despite only being open for a year. The only other restaurant at the time to manage a rare win like this: Roy’s Restaurant, when it was named a Top 20 Restaurant in 1990. Speaking of Roy’s, the fine-dining restaurant won for Most Interesting Menu, with dishes such as pan-roasted salmon over a salad of gizzard confit and sweetbread in a zinfandel sauce. To prevent big-name restaurants from taking over the ballot—and give small ethnic eateries a chance to break into the lineup—HONOLULU returned to categorizing restaurants (Best Chinese, Best Seafood and so on).
Distinguished chef Alan Wong won Restaurant of the Year for the third time. (The restaurant first won in 1996 and then again in 1997.) Chefs D.K. Kodama of DK Restaurants and Hiroshi Fukui of L’Uraku are also named rising stars in the 1999 issue. The two, along with sommelier Chuck Furuya, would go on to open Hiroshi Eurasion Tapas in 2004. In 1999, nonprofit Hale ʻAina ʻOhana was dedicated to supporting the development of culinary programs in the Islands, and a Hale ʻAina cookbook filled with recipes from Hale ʻAina chefs was sold.
Roy’s Hawaiʻi Kai won Restaurant of the Year. Roy Yamaguchi, along with chef Jurg Munch of Lahaina Inn and Paul’s Lahaina Grill, chef Roberto Los Banos of Bali By The Sea and chef George Mavrothalassitis of Chef Mavro shared their secrets of home cooking in that year’s Hale ʻAina cookbook. Readers could cook up chef favorites, such as Yamaguchi’s baby-back band practice ribs and Los Banos’ lechon with somen noodles and chili-pepper-water dressing.
Both old school and new school restaurants made up that year’s list of 92 winners. Alan Wong won Restaurant of the Year, and Michel’s at the Colony Surf won Most Romantic Restaurant and Best Ambiance. New eateries also got in the mix, such as the Merriman’s in Kapalua, which won Best New Neighbor Island Restaurant, and Tangö Contemporary Café, which took home Best New Oʻahu Restaurant.
HONOLULU awarded the John Heckathorn Dining Excellence Award, after HONOLULU’s dining editor in the 1980s and associate editor and editor from 1993 to 2005. Heckathorn chronicled and critiqued the rise of Hawaiʻi Regional Cuisine. He died in 2011. Other award highlights include Monkeypod Kitchen winning Best New Restaurant, V Lounge winning Best Hole in the Wall and Real a Gastropub winning the first-ever Best Beer Program Award.
As of the 2018 awards, Roy Yamaguchi has won a total of 128 Hale ʻAina Awards, more than any other chef. His Hawaiʻi Kai location also holds the record for the most awarded restaurant—70, to be exact. Another chef that always seems to be on the winners list: Alan Wong. Wong has won 71 Hale ʻAina Awards total, placing him right behind Yamaguchi for most decorated chef. The two chefs are tied at seven for Restaurant of the Year awards.