Fisherman’s Wharf is Gone, But the Memories Still Remain
The historic Fisherman’s Wharf is remembered by one of its longest-serving waitresses.
Photos: Courtesy of Yamada Family
In November 2014, bulldozers crushed what was left of Fisherman’s Wharf Restaurant, but not the memories of longtime waitress Maria Yamada and so many others who fondly recall the iconic Honolulu eatery.
“It was a nice big restaurant, a beautiful restaurant, and popular,” Yamada says. “When I first started working there, they used to have a line to the parking lot of people waiting to come in and eat.”
Maria Yamada with the statue of the captain (once stolen by pranksters).
Yamada, now 85, started work in 1952 when the ship-shaped restaurant fronting Kewalo Basin was in its heyday. It was a gem in the Spencecliff Restaurant chain that defined much of Honolulu dining at the time.
She spent 54 years as a waitress there. She remembers memorable food: “The cioppino was out of this world.” Celebrity patrons included Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner and Red Skelton; as well as lunch and dinner regulars who asked for her year in and year out.
Yamada still speaks with the lilt of her native Italy, even though she moved to Hawai‘i in 1947 to marry Mori Yamada, whom she met while he served in World War II with the storied 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
The job helped support their young family. “In seven years, I was able to put a down payment on this brand-new house.”
When she worked at the airport’s Sky Room restaurant, tips came in a dime or 15 cents at a time, usually totaling $5 in a day. At Fisherman’s Wharf, “the first day I started, I think I went home with $40.”
She worked a split shift, serving lunch, catching the bus home and returning for dinner: “Hard work, hard work, but good money.”
The restaurant was so popular that the crew catered for Gov. John Burns when President Lyndon B. Johnson went to dinner at Washington Place. Their whole team was warned to tell no one, so Yamada wondered if their families would even believe their tale. “The president said: ‘Tell you what, you can prove it to them,’” Yamada says. “He took his felt pen from his pocket and he put his name on my forehead.” A news photographer snapped a shot and the photo appeared around the world.
Gov. John Burns and wife Beatrice, after President Johnson autographed Yamada’s forehead.
As years passed, the restaurant changed owners and Yamada retired in 2006. The restaurant closed a couple of years later.
The state Office of Hawaiian Affairs plans to redevelop the area to help Hawaiian beneficiaries in a yet-to-be-defined project. The demolition project called for salvaging two restaurant signs that graced the roof of the building as well as a free-standing restaurant sign to incorporate them into the future redevelopment. No word yet on the rest of the vision.
Did you know? The kids’ menu was in the shape of a diver’s mask and young customers could pick a prize from the treasure chest.