Hawai‘i’s Oldest Restaurants Are Still ‘Ono After All These Years
Every town has restaurants that have become more than just spots to get a meal. They are places where regulars grow up with the owners’ families and their grandchildren meet across the counter. They serve the ultimate old-school comfort foods that are woven into our childhoods. Here are some of those places that have been feeding us for more than 60 years.
Sekiya’s Restaurant & Delicatessen | Forty Niner | House Without A Key | Jane’s Fountain | Natsunoya Tea House | Palace Saimin | Tasty Chop Suey | La Mariana Sailing Club | Seaside Restaurant and Aqua Farm | Café 100 | Teshima Restaurant | Tasty Crust | Sam Sato | Manago Hotel | Tip Top Motel, Café & Bakery
Sekiya’s Restaurant & Delicatessen
Ask Faye Hara and her family what they do at Sekiya’s Restaurant and they’ll chuckle. “What don’t we do?” she and her son-in-law Trey Paresa say, almost simultaneously. Part of the third and fourth generations to run the restaurant across from Kaimukī High School, they do everything from payroll and filling orders to washing dishes. Even Paresa’s wife, Deanna Hara—the great-granddaughter of founders Taisuke and Katsuko Sekiya—can step away from her marketing and social media duties to fry up tempura. “She doesn’t like it,” mother Faye says with a laugh, “but she can.” Since the Sekiyas took over an okazuya in a single-story building on School Street then eventually bought the building on Kaimukī Avenue in 1955, their family has kept it running, from creating the house-made dashi for nabeyaki udon and saimin, to maintaining the dining room and the koi pond outside. The classic Japanese menu retains most of the originals—Faye says a longtime customer recently brought in a menu he found from Hawai‘i’s territorial days, “and it’s pretty much the same”—down to the oxtail soup recipe that came from a Chinese neighbor of one of the Sekiyas’ daughters, chicken sukiyaki, oyako donburi and a list of drinks from the soda fountain: vanilla and chocolate Cokes, and malt shakes. One of the biggest challenges is staying consistent as longtime businesses and vendors close. Meadow Gold stopped making the sherbet Sekiya’s used for Orange Freeze. Its aburaage vendor shuttered, forcing Sekiya’s to shrink its once extra-large cone sushi to fit the new, still large, wrappers. Still, they make as much as possible in-house the way it’s been done since the 1940s: marinating chicken thighs before enveloping them in an impossibly thin, crispy coating and rolling potato hash into balls and dunking them in fluffy tempura batter. And it’s a good thing. The loyal group of longtime Sekiya’s customers are quick to tell the folks there whenever something tastes different. “We have regulars who come in every day,” Paresa says. “Some of them only come in for a saimin and a mac-potato salad. It’s not only our family working for generations, our customers come in for generations.” —CY
~ 1947 ~
In 2006, people lined up at Forty Niner for what they thought would be a last saimin and cheeseburger deluxe, a chance to sit on the stools and eat at tables that had been there since brothers Richard and Henry Chagami returned from their tour with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and opened a restaurant. Richard retired that year and passed the historic building, and the recipes served in it, to new owner Wil Cordes III. “I knew there would be a lot of eyes on me,” Cordes says. “People have been bringing their families, three, four generations already. They were going to know the menu and taste of the food better than I did.” So, after a few months of much needed renovations—the kitchen had a single burner and no telephone—he reopened with Richard’s sister, Jennie Tsuchidana, still making the burgers, saimin dashi and all the original menu items. Before he passed in 2011, Richard would even stop by now and then: “He would just say, ‘taste good, taste good,’” Cordes says. Meanwhile, he and his wife, Karla, expanded the menu to breakfast with pancakes, waffles and French toast and rotating specials throughout the day. Longtime diners can now dig into the Forty Niner pancakes—which Cordes says were the first to feature haupia sauce and macadamia nuts—banana French toast, chilaquiles with eggs and garlic chicken while sitting on the eatery’s original stools. “Our restaurant was built with a saimin and a burger and that’s withstood the test of time,” Cordes says. “It hasn’t been always easy, but, man, it has been a blessing, with everything it has given me, given my family, the people I’ve met, the relationships I have, it’s a blessing.” —CY
98-110 Honomanu St., ‘Aiea, (808) 484-1940, @fortyninerhi
Photos: Aaron K. Yoshino
House Without a Key
• 1926 •
Tracking down the fabled story about the Halekūlani’s almost century-old restaurant and the book that first gained it worldwide fame is like reading a detective novel. A Chinese American detective novel. The House Without a Key, the very first Charlie Chan book, was released in 1925. The tie between author Earl Derr Biggers and the Waikīkī home that bore the same name is more nebulous. Some say Biggers was a guest at Arthur M. Brown’s house in the 1920s. Some claim that’s where he heard stories of, or even met, longtime Honolulu detective Chang Apana, who inspired his Chan character. Other accounts say he stayed somewhere else and only read about Apana’s cases in newspapers in Boston. Either way, when Clifford Kimball acquired Brown’s place with the wraparound lānai for the Halekūlani Hotel in 1926, it became the place for society weddings, parties and lū‘au. The original home was razed in 1948 and the new building included a rebuilt House Without a Key that offered sunset cocktails on the terrace and upscale continental fare. In 1957, diners could order a teriyaki tenderloin steak with white rice and multiple sides for $3, then finish with a whole baked pineapple “in flames.” The dishes and dining room have changed over time, most recently when the hotel closed for renovations during the pandemic. But when you step into the newly shaded bar or refurbished restaurant—both reopen this month—you’ll still be able to get a signature mai tai and a slice of coconut cake, an indulgent treat for the past 60 years. —CY
~ 1948 ~
Jane’s Fountain on Liliha Street, the jukebox still plays 45s, and a jumble of painted and letter-board menus track the dishes people have returned to for generations: saimin. House-made cheeseburgers. Bar-B-Q sticks and mac salad, Hawaiian chop steak, spareribs, beef curry. I found it this way eight years ago, after my sister mentioned that she liked the tofu salad, and then, curiosity piqued, I finally set foot inside. We grew up on the next block, but the only time Jane’s Fountain crept onto my radar was when my piano teacher entered her students in a contest for tickets to the Honolulu Symphony. I won, unwillingly. My mother dragged me to Blaisdell Concert Hall and tried to cheer me with the promise of a treat at Jane’s Fountain. I refused, we never went, and by the time I made my first visit, both the fountain and my mother were gone.
Jane’s Fountain is a vestige of Liliha’s heyday, when trolleys ran up the hill from King Street and businesses followed. The first L&L Drive-Inn opened down the block, the original Liliha Bakery was practically next door, and Young’s Fish Market shared the same building as Jane’s. And it’s been decades since there was a soda fountain there: You can see its ghost in the round imprints of counter stools running in a neat line along the floor, near an ancient Coca-Cola dispenser (“Refresh Yourself,” it says. “Have a Coke”) that holds pale gold pomelos for a Chinese altar above. Jane’s Fountain now is the domain of Karen Kan, who bought it from the Nakasone family in 2010, 62 years after the family opened it. For 10 years after she arrived from southern China, Kan waitressed and worked in the kitchen. She learned English when Jane Nakasone, who married into the family, ran next door to tend to her Jane’s Boutique dress shop, leaving Kan in charge to speak with customers. Kan’s menu additions were simple things like chicken katsu and shrimp canton with sweet-sour sauce. Everything else is as it was, including cheese sandwiches and corned beef with onion.
Kan knows my order now: pork squash stir-fry and steaming, shrimp-filled sari sari or chopped steak with tomatoes, mac salad swapped out for canned corn. Though a food snob the first time I walked in, I’ve come to love Jane’s Fountain for what it is—a no-frills place of feel-good memories and flavors, whether it’s saimin and a cheeseburger or what it was for my mom, a Coca-Cola float at the soda fountain, which I finally understand was the comfort she was offering me. —MT
1719 Liliha St., (808) 533-1238
Natsunoya Tea House
~ 1921 ~
At 100 years, the story of Natsunoya Tea House is like the clouds that flit across ‘Ālewa Heights—rich white tufts that fade into wisps. For decades the original wooden buildings have hosted wedding banquets, graduation parties and kanreki 60th birthday celebrations. There’s even a sushi bar tucked in the depths. In a previous generation Natsunoya drew visits from John Wayne and other A-list celebrities. Other teahouses—Kanraku by Kapālama Canal, Nu‘uanu Onsen on La‘imi Road, Rainbow Garden in Mō‘ili‘ili, Mochizuki Tea House on Kunawai Lane—once dotted hillsides where streams and springs flowed through Japanese neighborhoods, but now Natsunoya is the only local-style teahouse left. “It was a place where Japanese could come and cut loose, in a sense,” says third-generation owner Laurence Fujiwara Jr. “Some guests would take baths in the furo, put on yukata, have dinner, relax and talk story with their friends. And be themselves.”
In 1921, with Hawai‘i’s Japanese-speaking population growing, Fujiwara’s grandfather carved out a road up ‘Ālewa Heights, installed telephone poles and built a teahouse called Shunchoro. Eventually Shuichi Fujiwara would add tatami mat-lined cottages for private dinners, connected by pathways around koi ponds. The bath was where the sushi counter is now (it’s still called the furoba, or bathhouse). Natsunoya’s unlikely location can be attributed to its stunning view—it takes in nearly all of O‘ahu’s south shore, including Pearl Harbor. The Fujiwaras had a telescope through which they invited guests to admire the view, and unbeknown to the family, a Japanese spy posing as a consulate officer habitually trained it at the sprawling naval base. Not long after, during World War II, the Red Cross requisitioned the teahouse buildings. Afterward, with the future H-1 freeway set to run behind Foster Botanical Garden and right through the teahouse owned by Laurence Fujiwara Sr., Shuichi’s son, the younger Fujiwara moved his operation up the hill to Shunchoro and renamed it Natsunoya.
Laurence Fujiwara Jr. inherited all of it—legacy, buildings, staff, recipes—in 1996. A century ago, diners with more spartan palates ate grilled fish and nishime; today there’s tonkatsu, teriyaki chicken, spicy ‘ahi rolls and local-style tempura cocooned in thick, sweet batter. Lobster Thermidor, popular in Laurence Sr.’s day, survives on the banquet menu in salad form, kicked up with spice for a new generation. The sushi bar books up weeks in advance, and Happy Hearts Mochi, stuffed with haupia and peanut butter and dusted in coconut flakes, is in high demand. “You have to change with time,” Fujiwara says. “If not, you get eaten up and swallowed up and spit out. But we’re going to keep the tradition of it.”—MT
~ 1946 ~
Ramen is trendy, saimin is life: Whoever said that first, whether it was chef Mark Noguchi or chef Sheldon Simeon, may well have been talking about Palace Saimin. In business 75 years, it survived potential demise twice. The first was in 2009 when Setsuko Arakaki, a longtime waitress there who bought the place from founder Kame Ige in 1975, lost her husband, the unsung backbone of the operation. She struggled and concerned employees asked Arakaki’s daughter, Susan Nakagawa, to step in. “They needed help. We prayed about it, looked at what if we didn’t,” says Scott Nakagawa, Susan’s husband. “If we didn’t it would have brought a lot of sadness. So we went for it.”
Scott was a business consultant with a degree in architecture, Susan a teacher. They took over a saimin stand where not much had changed since before they were born. Seven tables sat in a two-story cinderblock walkup, Palace’s second location; the original site was at Beretania and Ke‘eaumoku streets, near the old Palace Theatre. A Coca-Cola letter-board menu listed saimin, wonton mein and udon, the noodles nestled in Ige’s original broth of pork bones and dried shrimp. Thick skewers of char-grilled beef dripped with old-school teriyaki sauce. Regulars came in through the screen door, made a beeline to the water fountain to fill their own cups, yelled their orders into the kitchen and sat down. It went against Scott’s instincts to not transform the place into a cool midcentury saimin house, to not leverage business opportunities. People came for the promise of tradition. So the Nakagawas painted the walls and standardized recipes and hours (Arakaki would open for lunch, close, then reopen at 8 p.m., unless she was tired or off to Las Vegas). Susan focused the same soft-spoken, personalized attention she used to give first-graders on customers and employees, and by early last year, Scott says, business had quadrupled.
The pandemic wiped out those gains. Business plummeted after O‘ahu’s first lockdown; the second brought Palace to its knees. Hardly anyone thought of saimin for takeout. Last September, the Nakagawas calculated how much longer they could stay open and still help furloughed employees, and mapped out the end. Then a local TV news team heard about their plight. The segment drew lines and a stream of takeout orders. Regulars came back and brought new customers. Nothing in Scott’s years of consulting prepared him for the epiphany that simple bowls of saimin really are life—a vital and vulnerable part of local life. When Palace’s takeout orders grew, customers collected and dropped off cardboard boxes (they still do). When the screen door fell off its hinges, a customer retrieved parts from his car and fixed it. “Customers say, ‘You got our order wrong? No problem,’” Scott says. “They care about us. They forgive.
“They leave so happy. You saw our place. There’s not much to it. But if it turns someone’s day happy, that’s an experience you want. It touches the heart of a small business.” —MT
1256 N. King St., (808) 841-9983
Tasty Chop Suey
— 1956 —
A sign has lit up the intersection of Gulick and Kalihi streets for almost half a century. The simple message tells diners exactly what they’ll find inside: Tasty Chop Suey. Hung Pui Wong sailed from China to Hawai‘i in 1939 and worked in restaurants, then as a cook with the 298th Infantry Regiment in World War II. He and his wife opened their own place on King Street and moved to the current spot in 1963 when people ordering wonton soup could watch workers wrap the dumplings at the table next to them. Today, you can still find piles of snow peas being cleaned on a tabletop next to the Pepsi refrigerator that replaced the glass bottle Coke vending machine that served customers through the ’80s. And owner Shirley Ho still sells steaming hot melamine bowls of wonton mein, sweet-and-sour spareribs and kau yuk, along with $3 bags of shrimp chips and rice cake in knotted plastic bags near the cash register. —CY
1606 Gulick Ave., (808) 841-3115
La Mariana Sailing Club
— 1957 —
For a restaurant built for a marina, it seems fitting that its fortune has often turned with the tide. Co-founder Annette La Mariana Nahinu arrived in the Islands with her new husband on a sailboat in the 1950s. A few years later, they leased 5,000 square feet of swampland near Ke‘ehi Lagoon and built a marina themselves. A young George Ariyoshi recalled seeing her at that time, “a young haole woman with a wheelbarrow pushing dirt and working so hard,” he told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 2008. La Mariana opened in 1957, was damaged in a tsunami three years later, then was forced out when the state canceled Nahinu’s lease in 1975. She moved the clubhouse, docks, and, she told newspapers, every blade of grass and tree she had planted—including an 18-foot-tall shower tree—just down the shoreline. After Nahinu died in 2008, the place she built survived a legal battle over ownership, another tsunami and a new threat to its state lease. Through it all, La Mariana’s restaurant remained blissfully in the ’50s. Diners sit in rattan chairs under fishing nets and floats illuminated by twinkling Christmas lights, ordering French onion soup and poke while sipping on cocktails with tiny parasols and spiked with rum. When the musicians aren’t crooning lounge tunes, they’re playing surf classics. By 2020, with longtime employee Judith Calma at the helm and a lease extension that stretches to 2040—as well as some Hollywood attention as the namesake of a tiki bar on Magnum P.I.—it should have been smoother sailing. But when the pandemic arrived, the restaurant decided to close for two weeks, which then stretched into more than 18 months. At last check, workers say they are hoping to reopen at the end of this year. We’re hoping so, too. —CY
50 Sand Island Access Road, (808) 841-2173, @lamarianasailingclub
Seaside Restaurant and Aqua Farm
Hilo, Hawai‘i Island
~ 1915 ~
When I visit Seaside, the ashes of Susumu and Ellen Nakagawa are in a glass cabinet near the entrance of the restaurant. “They’d been at the restaurant for so many years, I thought I’d put them in the place they love the most,” their son Colin says. “Hopefully their spirit is still helping in the restaurant.”
For decades, Susumu and Ellen kept Seaside small, just 20 to 40 people a night, serving the same chicken and mullet recipes from when the original Seaside Club opened in 1915. The Seaside Club was initially a private resort with a swimming pool for members and fishpond for the mullet. Susumu’s father, Seiichi Nakagawa, who worked as a cook there, took it over in 1926 and opened it to the public. The 1946 Hilo tsunami destroyed the original building; Seiichi and his wife, Matsuno, rebuilt across the street next to a larger 30-acre fishpond. For decades under the second generation, the menu stayed, for the most part, the same: American-style food including steak; Seaside Club’s chicken; and fish from the ponds, such as āholehole, fried, and mullet steamed in ti leaves with just rock salt, lemon and onion. But Susumu tinkered elsewhere: His friends from the Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team helped him build rock walls in the fishpond as holding pens for the fish he raised—at one point, the retired USDA entomologist cultivated seven different varieties including rainbow trout.
When Colin returned to Hilo from Seattle in 1983 to join the family business, he introduced Pacific Rim dishes and added dining rooms overlooking the water. Today, the aqua farm at Seaside Restaurant and Aqua Farm is less of a focus, falling to the wayside when Susumu could no longer physically manage it. But Colin continued to bring him to the ponds, to rest in the gazebos on the artificial islands, until the pandemic hit. (Susumu died last year of COVID-19, one of the casualties of the outbreak at the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home.) Colin also keeps his dad’s legacy alive by keeping some fish in the pond, so if you call in advance, you can still get the mullet, and the chicken too, prepared just like it was at the Seaside Club more than a century ago. —MC
1790 Kalaniana‘ole St., Hilo, Hawai‘i Island, (808) 935-8825, seasidehilo.square.site
Hilo, Hawai‘i Island
~ 1946 ~
Café 100 survived two tsunamis: the first in 1946, three months after Richard and Evelyn Miyashiro opened the original diner, and the second in 1960, three weeks after they moved into a newly built restaurant down the street. From his home behind the new Café 100, Richard watched the waves pulverize his dream restaurant, but bearing the brunt of the water’s force, it likely saved his and his family’s lives.
Rebuilding again, Richard went from a dine-in restaurant to the drive-in concept still in operation today. In the years since, Café 100, named in tribute to the 100th Infantry Battalion that Richard was part of, has become synonymous with the loco moco. Around 1962, Richard was one of the first to put an egg on a hamburger patty, rice and gravy, and today, the restaurant is even trademarked as “The Home of the Loco Moco.” Before the pandemic, Café 100 served 10,000 loco mocos a month—there are now 30 varieties, including the Kīlauea loco moco, mounded with chili (which Richard’s daughter, Gloria Kobayashi, thinks is better than Zippy’s), plus Lit’l Smokies, Spam, two eggs and potato-mac salad. Then there’s the Super Loco, loaded with two hamburger patties, Spam, Portuguese sausage, two eggs and potato-mac salad.
Now Mari Leung, part of the third generation, runs Café 100 while her husband, Timons, who works days at his family’s longtime Chinese restaurant, Sum Leung in Hilo, cooks at Café 100 at night. There may be many more loco mocos on the menu now, but with most prices $10 and under, Leung retains her grandparents’ philosophy of “fresh food at reasonable prices.” — MC
Kealakekua, Hawai‘i Island
~ 1929 ~
People wondered if Teshima Restaurant could exist without its namesake, Mary Shizuko Teshima. History didn’t bode well. In the ’70s, Teshima leased out the restaurant, aiming to retire. A few years later, she took the restaurant back—“It was just declining,” remembers her great-granddaughter Noelani Greene—and worked for another four decades. Even after she finally stepped away from the kitchen at the age of 105, she was never far away. She spent her last year in her home a few steps behind the restaurant before passing away in 2013.
People still come for favorites like the No. 3 Teishoku, a combination of sashimi, sukiyaki and the restaurant’s signature shrimp tempura in a lacy, delicate batter. A woman waiting in the pickup line says she has been coming here for 40 years and remembers “Grandma Teshima” always bringing her green tea ice cream and stopping to chat. Stories invariably include Teshima’s graciousness and generosity of attention. She sometimes entertained celebrities—James Stewart was a regular when he had a ranch in South Kona in the ’60s—but you didn’t have to be one for her to come to your table with a piece of maki sushi and a smile.
She did not coddle, however. “As children, she’s always scolding us,” Greene says. “‘Don’t do that, don’t do this, that’s not the way. Always wear your makeup. Never go out without lipstick. You’re not presentable.’”
Teshima grew up in her parents’ store in Honalo, and in 1929, with her husband’s family, she opened the F. Teshima General Merchandise Store. But “it was kinda boring,” she said in a Kona Historical Society interview. So, in a time without electricity or freezers, she began bringing in 100 pounds of ice from Hilo daily to make ice cream at night to sell the next day. (The ice house is still on the property.) Next, she installed a soda fountain and a U-shaped bar; then, during the war, she made hamburgers for homesick soldiers.
In 1957, she tore down the store and built a 200-plus-seat restaurant, bringing in a Japan-trained chef to create the menu that’s mostly in place now. Today, the chef helming the kitchen is Jose Ruiz, who started as a dishwasher about 40 years ago.
During the pandemic, Greene, who manages the restaurant and works part time as a dental hygienist, took advantage of the temporary closure to renovate the interior. She reupholstered the booths and replaced the floor, but otherwise tried not to change too much. “Legacy is a big thing,” Greene says. “I feel like if I don’t fulfill it or people say, ‘Oh, you’re not like your grandma, you’re changing everything,’ that really would break my heart.”—MC
79-7251 Hawai‘i Belt Road, Kealakekua, Hawai‘i Island, (808) 322-9140, cafe100.com
~ 1942 ~
It built generations of fans on a stack of fluffy dinner-plate-size pancakes. Wailuku landmark Tasty Crust has changed hands a few times: Joe Kozuki opened Tasty Crust bakery in the 1940s, just around the corner from Wailuku Sugar Mill. He sold it to George Kawamoto, whose sister created that secret hotcake recipe, then Mike and Patsy Takaoka took over in 1957 and ran it for decades. Now, a second and third generation of Takaokas are in charge. Son Curtis, his oldest daughter Tammy Roloos and youngest son Brandon Carvalho still serve saimin with won bok, red sweet-and-sour spareribs and those world famous hotcakes,”as it says on the 50-year-old sign. But it’s all about the people. “We’ve had customers come in, and as soon as the waitstaff see the guy pulling into the parking lot, they give him his coffee, they got the order in the kitchen, the newspaper. And the guy comes in, he just goes right to his seat,”” Curtis says. You form a relationship. “That’s the great part.””—CY
1770 Mill St., Wailuku, Maui, (808) 244-0845, @tastycrustmaui
~ 1933 ~
Maui mechanic and his wife, a manju recipe and a Chinese cook created the institution that keeps people lining up in Wailuku. Sam Sato left his plantation job at 19 to open a store in Spreckelsville Middle Village Three with mom Mite Sato and sisters, selling canned goods, ice cream and Mite’s flaky manju. The camp shut down in the mid ’60s and Sato and wife Gladys, known for her pastries, next opened in the sugar town of Pu‘unēnē in 1966; the cook there helped create Sato’s signature soupless dry noodle recipe. The sugar camps started closing in the ’70s, which meant another move, this time back to Wailuku and Sato’s current space in the Wailuku Millyard, where it marked its 50th anniversary. There, with photos of his family on the walls, Sato’s grandson Kirk Toma keeps things going as people line up for bowls of chewy noodles topped with char siu, bean sprouts and green onions with dashi on the side; teri burgers; and Mite’s lima bean or red bean manju. —CY
1750 Wili Pa Loop, Wailuku, Maui, (808) 244-7124
Captain Cook, Hawai‘i Island
– 1917 –
It was 7 a.m. and the pork chops had bewitched the woman all night. On a recent morning, she told the waitress at Manago Hotel that she had had them for dinner the previous night, and now, she wanted to order them again with eggs. They have that effect: In 2008, Gourmet magazine highlighted the Manago Hotel’s golden-fried pork chops in an article recognizing 20 legendary restaurants across America. The restaurant has now outlasted the magazine. Britney Manago, the fourth generation to run Manago Hotel, says at dinner, it’s one cook’s sole job to prepare the pork chops, which are fried in a dedicated cast iron pan made by Hilo Iron Works in the 1920s.
Manago Hotel got its start in 1917, when Kinzo Manago and his picture bride, Osame Nagata, borrowed $100 to buy a small house in South Kona. They slept in one room and in the other, made and sold udon, bread, jam and coffee. Soon, salesmen and taxi drivers traveling between Hilo and Kona were asking to spend the night, and the Managos added cots. The small home-turned-hotel expanded in 1929 with a second floor of rooms and the restaurant started serving full meals and sake. It survived the Depression, and during World War II, the Army contracted Manago Hotel to feed soldiers staying at Konawaena High School.
Decades later, the hotel feels quiet and untouched, a place where reservations are still recorded by hand on a set of clipboards. At the restaurant entrance is a porcelain hand sink that coffee farmers once used to wash the dirt off their hands.
No one seems to know when the udon was retired and the pork chops added, but based on locals’ memories, the menu is largely unchanged since the 1940s: a dozen items including liver and onions, hamburger steak, and small local fish such as ‘ōpelu or akule. Lehi, a local snapper, was a recent special, pan-fried simply in butter and accompanied by lemon wedges and tartar sauce. As with all entrées, it came with a large bowl heaped with rice and side dishes on little melamine plates, like Hawai‘i banchan: When I went, there was potato mac salad, steamed vegetables and a limu namasu that I now think should be a de facto condiment alongside shoyu.
Britney Manago grew up living below the kitchen, helping in the garden, restocking the candy and vending machines, and “eating the same thing over and over again—mahimahi and the pork chops.” She went to college in California, then homesickness drove her back to the family business. “This is the only thing I’ve ever really known that I’ve loved and wanted to always be a part of.” —MC
82-6155 Hawai‘i Belt Road, Captain Cook, Hawai‘i Island, (808) 323-2642, managohotel.com
Tip Top Motel, Café & Bakery
~ 1916 ~
When Jonathan Ota took over Tip Top Motel, Café and Bakery in 1989, he wanted to make just a few small changes. He attempted to switch the lighting fixtures. One of his longtime customers advised against it. He thought about trying a different coffee. But another customer, who drove 40 miles from Waimea to Līhu‘e every day for breakfast, said he would stop coming. The bakery his great-grandfather, Japanese immigrant Denjiro Ota, opened more than a century ago has survived two hurricanes, the Great Depression and the Great Recession, and an ongoing pandemic. But when it comes to his patrons, Ota laughs affectionately and says: “You gotta be careful when you change things.”
Since Denjiro left his job as a cook to open the first coffee shop in Līhu‘e, Tip Top has been run by Otas. First was his son, Mitchell, a chef who took over in 1925 at the original Tip Top Building and launched many of the restaurant’s signature recipes. Mitchell later moved the shop to its current location and expanded it to include a motel and bar. His son, Owen, helped out in between assignments with the Air National Guard. Then Owen’s son, Jonathan, took the reins.
Not all of the younger Ota’s updates were rejected by regulars. The accounting graduate from UH Mānoa streamlined and set a new direction for the business side. He opened a sushi bar. He eventually renovated every hotel room.
Yet, even after Hurricane ‘Iniki blew the rooftop off the hotel in 1992, rather than redesigning, Ota, the construction crews and the insurance company agreed to restore the café. And as Ota and his neighbors cleaned up debris, Tip Top’s chefs fired up the gas burners and cooked free food for the Air National Guard members who arrived to help, and anyone else who needed a hot meal.
A few things were lost to time. When the last baker retired, Ota decided to rent the bakery to outside vendors. And the macadamia nut cookie that the restaurant proudly claims as the first in Hawai‘i—Ota’s grandfather “was experimenting with walnuts, but they were too oily so he switched to macadamia nuts,” Ota says—is no longer on the menu.
But other items from the days when plantations and vast cane fields dominated the landscape remain and are cherished. Tip Top’s pancakes, for example, are from the original top-secret recipe and process of Ota’s grandfather, Mitchell. The only change is that it’s now available all day, because that’s what diners want.
“And these customers, they keep coming back,” Ota says. “They bring their kids, their grandkids. Some grow up and even have jobs here.”
Some say change is the only constant. But not always. —JN
3173 Akahi St., Līhu‘e, Kaua‘i, (808) 245-2333, tiptop-motel.com