First Look: Gaslamp Hawai‘i

Kailua’s first speakeasy quietly opens inside a popular pub with inventive cocktails and live jazz. No secret password required.

Gaslamp in Kailua specializes in craft cocktails. From left, The Ewok, Wise & Noble and Smoked Manhattan.
Photos: Catherine Toth Fox


Josh VanEmmerik may not be old enough to remember the start of the modern-day speakeasy boom, which began with the opening of Milk & Honey in New York City on New Year’s Eve 1999—much less the original speakeasies during the Prohibition Era.


But the 24-year-old has figured out how to create one in his hometown of Kailua, complete with a hidden entrance, modernized classic cocktails and a throwback ambiance that has inspired patrons to dress in fringe and feathers.


Gaslamp, the neighborhood’s only speakeasy, quietly opened three weeks ago—as a speakeasy should—inside the Kailua Town Pub & Grill. The entrance is a phone booth off the bar, manned (at least on Saturday night) by a young blonde decked in a black flapper dress and a long string of pearls who only allows guests in with reservations and a valid ID.


“I wanted to bring something to Kailua that had this [speakeasy] edge and craft cocktails,” says VanEmmerik, a recent graduate of the University of San Diego’s business school. “This is what we’re all about.”


The bar inside the dimly lit speakeasy.


One of the three chandeliers that adorn the bar in Gaslamp. VanEmmerik says he wanted every detail of the speakeasy to matter.


Maybe contrary to the mysteriousness of a traditional speakeasy, Gaslamp has a social media presence, albeit a small one. There are only four reviews on Yelp (so far) and just 10 photos on Instagram. I don’t even think the people who were sitting at the bar in the pub on Saturday night knew what was behind the booth door.


It’s a very small space—615 square feet total—that’s completely surrounded by either the pub or Oeno Winemaking next door. (In fact, this space used to be Oeno’s storage room.) Amazingly, it seats 38 people, with only half of the bar reserved for walk-ins. Reservations are highly, highly recommended—required for large parties—and seats book up days, sometimes weeks, in advance.


That’s now—and the word isn’t even out yet!


“We’re really, really busy,” VanEmmerik says. “And we haven’t done any advertising. It’s just been word-of-mouth.”


The ambiance is immediately appealing, with exposed brick, leather booth seats, shelves of hard-cover books VanEmmerik found at library book sales and online. (“My goal is to read some of them this year,” VanEmmerik says, laughing.) Over the bar hang three gorgeous chandeliers he found at a Czechoslovakian antique shop online. A saxophonist plays jazz from a loft space above the bar. (He has to climb a ladder to get up there.)


And there are rules here, listed in the menu. No screaming into cell phones. No Jager bombs—or bombs of any sort. No leaving with mementos from the bar. Love one another.


“I love speakeasies,” says VanEmmerik, who named his place after the historic Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego, where he attended college. “I love the secrecy, the exclusivity, the cocktails and, of course, the live jazz.”


Gaslamp boasts more than a dozen signature cocktails and 16 hard-to-find craft beers on tap. (You won’t find Heineken here.) There’s even a communal cocktail called the Boozy Carry-On ($59) to be shared by four.


Crafted by mixologist Clark Dean, the drinks are inventive takes on classic cocktails, along with some brand-new combinations. I enjoyed the Road to Morocco ($14), a twist on a Pimm’s Cup with sloe gin, Chareau (an aloe vera liqueur), strawberry, mint, ginger, lime, cherry bitters and Bundaberg ginger beer. It’s a festive cocktail, bright and easy to drink. The Buddha’s Kiss ($15) is one of the more popular cocktails here, with Japanese whisky, Joto Yuzu sake, honeydew, shiso, jasmine and Hawaiian honey. It’s another tasty cocktail that’s light and refreshing.


The Wise & Noble cocktail features Herradura Blanco tequila, Cocchi Aperitivo Americano, Suze bitters, mango, lime, lemon verbena and a turmeric tincture.


Gaslamp has a few tequila-based cocktails—my favorite—including The Ewok ($13) with el Jimador, hibiscus, pineapple, lime, mint, ginger, tiki bitters and candied ginger; and the spicy Stallion ($14), with Cazadores Reposada, aperol, Dolin Blanc Vermouth, guava, lemongrass, kaffir lime and Thai chilies.


Looking for something Instagrammable? Order the Exotic Love Affair ($16), served in a ceramic skull with the eerie effect of dry ice. The combination of Plantation Pineapple Rum, Amaro Montenegro, pineapple, guava, house-made macadamia nut orgeat, lime and tiki bitters made this drink taste like an adult version of POG. Which is a good thing.


For food, the speakeasy has four substantial plates: a board of artisan cheese and cured meats ($19), a trio of prime-cut filet mignon sliced and served on rosemary-garlic baguettes ($16), a four-cheese flatbread ($14), and a tasty bruschetta quarto ($9). Gaslamp shares the kitchen with the pub—it helps that VanEmmerik’s mom, Debbie, owns the restaurant—which allows for more seating space in the bar.


Not on the menu but served at the bar, the burrata salad features fresh burrata, baby arugula, heirloom tomatoes, a balsamic gastric and a Champagne vinaigrette.


The artisan cheese and cured meats board has a house selection of Charcuterie and cheeses, including brie topped with a rosemary-blueberry compote.


Sliced filet mignon is topped with a house-made blue-cheese butter sauce, served on rosemary-garlic baguettes and garnished with capers and shallots.


By 7 p.m. about a dozen people, wearing suspenders, fringed dresses and satin gloves stretches to elbows, walked in, perfectly comfortable in this setting but likely odd in the bustling pub outside. They had been here before, initially drawn by the Prohibition Era ambiance and returning for the drinks. Which is exactly what VanEmmerik wants.


“We want to continue to create an excitement about this place,” he says.


26 Ho‘olai St., entrance inside Kailua Town Pub & Grill, open 6 p.m. to late on Wednesdays through Sundays, reservation highly recommended, (808) 483-0564,