Here’s What It’s Like Enjoying Drinks and Pūpū at the Chart House
Hawai‘i’s bars have reopened, so I’m back to day drinking in Waikīkī.
Photos: James Charisma
As satisfying as it has been these past few months to shelter in place at home, where I never have to get dressed and the drinks are the cheapest in town, the mayor’s announcement that restaurants and bars could reopen last month was welcome news. Not because I was eager to go out and catch the new coronavirus, but because if handled responsibly, these reopenings are a way to support local businesses and some semblance of a return to (a new) normal. It also means no longer having to act as my own heavy-handed bartender, which I know my liver would appreciate.
I’m a big fan of the Chart House, near the water’s edge on the Ala Moana side of Waikīkī. Here, one can guzzle beers or fruity tropical drinks, order from a menu that’s got everything from pork chops to lobster tails, and take in views of Ala Wai Harbor at sunset and fireworks on Friday. And there’s usually live music on most nights, too.
At least, you used to be able to enjoy all these things—before COVID-19. I was eager to return to see if the Chart House—or any of Honolulu’s old-school watering holes, really—were still serving drinks and plenty of aloha through mandatory face masks and from 6 feet away.
I stopped by on a recent Saturday and sat down at the bar. Both in the dining room and throughout the lounge, alternating seats were empty and marked with “reserved” signs to enforce social distancing. Between customers, hosts spritzed and wiped down tables with disinfectant. Plastic dividers have gone up between some of the booths in the back of the restaurant, and all the bartenders were wearing new matching uniforms: black shirt, black shorts and blue surgical mask.
Around town, some restaurants have begun swapping out physical menus for QR codes that you can scan to view on your phone. Not here. I flipped through the regular plastic menu to find all the usual drinks and the same happy hour specials. Well, mostly the same. Longtime bartender Eddie tells me that the Chart House isn’t currently offering crabcakes and the only salads they’ve got are a regular Caesar salad ($8 half, $15.50 full), and Joey’s arugula salad ($8.50 half, $15.75 full), with a mango white balsamic vinaigrette, candied pecans and shaved Parmesan.
“We can’t keep too much inventory on hand because not as many customers, yeah?” Eddie says, glancing around. Half the seats are empty but with 6-foot spacing guidelines, I guess this is the equivalent of a full house. The Chart House has low ceilings too, so no matter how many people are inside, it feels intimate. Which isn’t necessarily a great thing in the middle of a pandemic.
I drink quickly to maximize the deals before happy hour ends at 7 p.m. (it begins at 4:30 on Friday and 5 on Saturday), ordering a Miller Lite (domestic beers are $5.25), Longboard (most 16-ounce drafts are $7.25) and a robust margarita for $6.95. Right now, well drinks are just $5.75 and house wines are between $5.75 and $6.95. Eddie is able to serve me immediately because there are only two other people at the normally packed bar and I take advantage of his attentiveness to also score some pūpū: seared ‘ahi made “black and blue” with Cajun seasoning ($14 on Saturday, normally $21 for a full order or $11 for half), and a platter of nachos loaded with melted cheddar cheese, refried beans, guacamole and sour cream ($13). It dawns on me that I probably shouldn’t be going for too many foods that you have to eat hand-to-face, so I order a bowl of clam chowder ($7.50) next, plus a few of the biggest and briniest oyster shooters I’ve ever had in my life, swimming in ketchup and cocktail sauce ($7.50 for three).
Other places have been limiting diners to a set amount of time (90 minutes, for example) or only allowing credit cards (to cut down on handing cash back and forth), but this isn’t the case at Chart House. There are rules, like closing off certain tables and requiring that guests wear face masks when entering and exiting, though guests should be mindful of their own personal space, especially when getting up to go to the bathroom.
Everything seems to require a certain amount of flexibility during this time of COVID-19. There’s currently no live music at the Chart House but on some nights, there is a DJ. Call ahead to find out when—and to make a reservation for the dining room to guarantee a seat. The Chart House is only open Friday and Saturday; dining room hours are 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. The lounge is open from 4:30 to 11 p.m. on Friday and 5 to 11 p.m. on Saturday.
I ask if they’re still serving any Ola hard seltzer because it isn’t listed on the unfinished drink menu hanging above the bar. Eddie has to go to the back to check. They do, and a can of lemongrass or lemon-lime is still just $5. The Chart House, like most places, is understandably playing catch-up. There’s still plenty of aloha though: The servers are jovial, and one of the regulars—who is watching, in horror, an ESPN-sponsored hot dog eating contest on the bar’s TV—buys me a beer in an act of coronavirus solidarity. Meanwhile, Eddie strikes up a conversation in Japanese with a couple sitting at the end of the bar.
Spending time here is infinitely better than being home alone, which has more or less been my reality for the past few months. I don’t mind the masks or having to break out the hand sanitizer after flipping through the menu, but I know that being in a bar—or any enclosed space with strangers—may not be everyone’s proverbial cup of tea right now. I hung out for a few hours, at first mostly observing the couples at other tables who came to watch the sun go down and have an early dinner. I saw more of the regulars shuffle in as late-night happy hour began at 8:30 p.m. For the most part, besides everybody wearing masks and keeping their distance from one another, things felt almost normal again.
There’s a global pandemic raging. But, at a corner table last Saturday evening at the Chart House, it was also an elderly woman’s birthday, and her and a few of her fellow seniors celebrated by enjoying a chocolate lava cake ($14.50) topped with vanilla ice cream. The ladies at the table had their masks on to quietly sing “Happy Birthday” among themselves, but everyone in the restaurant immediately put their own masks on so they could sing along. Maybe everybody’s just happy to be part of something that we can share together. At least I know I am.