How Did a Japanese Restaurant Group Invade Hawai‘i Cuisine Without Anyone Noticing?
While you were busy avoiding Waikīkī, Zetton was infiltrating the neighborhood.
This story originally ran in the November 2019 issue of HONOLULU Magazine with the title “Supper Heroes.” Current hours for dine-in and takeout: Zigu is open daily 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m. and 4–9:30 p.m.; Aloha Steak House is open daily 11 a.m.–2 p.m. and 4–8:30 p.m.; Heavenly Island Lifestyle is open daily 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Paris.Hawai‘i, Aloha Table, and Goofy Café & Dine are still closed on June 15.
While you were busy avoiding Waikīkī, Zetton was infiltrating the neighborhood. And when Zetton is done, it will look at the rest of the island. And beyond. The Tokyo-based restaurant group, named after the only monster to beat Ultraman, one of Japan’s most iconic superheroes, has six restaurants in Waikīkī and about 80 in its home country and South Korea. The best monsters, after all, want the world.
“We established a hundred-year plan,” says Andrew Haberer, general manager of Paris.Hawai‘i. “We will continue to expand … carrying the same concept, the same vision, the same drive.”
It all sounds a bit sinister, until you step into Zetton’s restaurants, which are homey and cheery with innocent names to match: Heavenly Island Lifestyle, Aloha Table, Goofy Café & Dine (as in right-foot forward surf stance), Paris.Hawai‘i, Zigu and Aloha Steak House. Heavenly and Goofy, with their bright boho vibes and benches for lounging, acai bowls, avocado toast and French toast, are the closest most of us will get to a friend’s beach house within walking distance of Queen’s and Bowls surf breaks (Goofy even has surf racks). “Beach & beef” is the slogan for Zetton’s newest restaurant, Aloha Steak House, as if you could cruise in right after a surf session for a steak served on a sizzling platter and cool off with watermelon soft serve, delivered in a green cone and sprinkled with chocolate chips, like a cartoon slice of watermelon.
Some of Zetton’s restaurants are in the small two-story holdouts tucked into the nooks and crannies of Waikīkī, where it feels that the days of anything old and original are numbered—where the International Market Place has been reconstructed as a luxury mall, where low-slung buildings make way for high-rise hotels. Four years ago, Zetton leased a house on Seaside Avenue that had been built in 1939. The original wood had been plastered over and garish orange walls surrounded its tenants, a nail salon and scooter rental shop. Zetton spent almost $2 million to restore the building’s original charm, while adding raw-edged, polished wooden bars fronting open kitchens. On the top floor, diners perch at Paris. Hawai‘i’s eight-seat counter and watch as chefs pour a clear tomato water over a poke of raw Big Island beef, ‘ahi and inamona (kukui nut), part of a tasting menu of elegant riffs on shave ice, garlic shrimp and poi. On the bottom floor, spilling into the open courtyard, the izakaya Zigu serves sake and local beers; potato salad with wedges of a smoked Waimānalo egg; gobo, mac nuts and mango cream cheese; and hunks of roasted tuna cheek. In Honolulu, both are the only concepts of their kind—a chef’s counter tasting menu and izakaya—to focus so much of their menus on local ingredients. It’s shocking to consider, given the number of tasting menus and izakaya here, but even those that showcase local items usually also feature foie gras, or lamb, or scallops, or chicken from elsewhere.
— Andrew Haberer, general manager of Paris.Hawai‘i
Is it possible that with the famous Japanese ability to imitate and even improve the cuisines of other cultures (including Scotch whisky, French pastries and Neapolitan pizza), that Zetton has created uniquely Hawai‘i restaurants better than those of restaurateurs born and raised here? Is it possible that the newcomers have identified what is best about Hawai‘i, the way visitors come to our home and see things that we hadn’t noticed or had taken for granted in our haste or inurement, and distilled it into their picture-perfect spots?
When I realized that so many of the places that I enjoy in Waikīkī are Zetton restaurants, serving local food through a Japanese lens, Makoto “Mild” Hasegawa, the company’s director of operations, asked me, “How do you feel about that?”
I don’t know, I replied.
Like the turning point in so many origin stories of superheroes and villains, Zetton’s Hawai‘i concepts began accidentally. Zetton started in Nagoya 25 years ago with a Nagoya-style café, serving dishes that included miso udon and fried spicy chicken wings. It expanded by adding izakaya, and then the company spread into new markets in Japan with Italian, French, Korean and Continental restaurants. Zetton originally wanted to add a Kona coffee café to its collection, but “the coffee business is not easy,” Hasegawa says. (The founder of Zetton, Kenichi Inamoto, was not available for an interview, for as Hasegawa says, he splits his time among Japan, Hawai‘i and “the world.”) “Our company, professional restaurant business. So, why don’t we start Hawaiian style restaurant? Then we have Hawai‘i coffee section. Deliver people in Japan the Hawai‘i experience.” The Hawai‘i experience included loco moco, poke and “Hawaiian cocktails” like mai tais and piña coladas. In 2005, Aloha Table Mu‘u Mu‘u Coffee & Cocktails opened in Nagoya. At the time, there weren’t many Hawai‘i-themed restaurants in Japan. Says Daisuke Kikuchi, vice president and chief operating officer of Zetton: “We thought it’s not going to be so popular. But, it got so popular! The success, oh my God!”
— Daisuke Kikuchi, VP and COO of Zetton
There are now 21 Aloha Tables in Japan. And in 2008—much like decades ago when California restaurateurs Donn Beach and Vic Bergeron brought Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s, with their mai tai and tiki drink culture, to their original source material—Aloha Table arrived in Waikīkī.
Above a garlic shrimp kiosk selling imported shrimp in Styrofoam clamshells, Aloha Table serves Kaua‘i-grown shrimp on real plates for $2 more. And here, a loco moco arrives as cute as an emoji—the sunny-side-up egg smooth and glossy, the molded rice and pool of gravy forming concentric circles. It’s one of my favorites ever. The gravy is mushroomy and meaty without being heavy, the hamburger patty lightly charred and flecked with pepper and onions. Everything is in flawless balance.
Keigo Yoshimoto, as corporate chef of Zetton’s Hawai‘i restaurants, is responsible for the menus at Aloha Table, Goofy, Heavenly and Aloha Steak House. He has worked in French restaurants in his hometown, Kumamoto, and in three-Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris. He came to Honolulu in 1997 and helped open Café Miro, and then was the chef for Petite Garlic in Waikīkī. When Zetton bought Petite Garlic to transform it into Aloha Table, Yoshimoto came with the deal. Of Zetton’s managers, he has been in Hawai‘i the longest, which makes him well-suited for creating renditions of beloved local dishes.
Paris.Hawai‘i and Zigu, which opened in 2018, each have their own chefs. (Almost all of Zetton Hawai‘i’s management and all the head chefs are Japan-born: “Japanese have good sensitive tongue and skill as well,” says Hasegawa.) Yuya Yamanaka, Paris.Hawai‘i’s chef, was only 25 when Zetton founder Inamoto wooed him, as the story goes. Inamoto found the Hokkaido native in Paris, where Yamanaka was the sous chef for Clown Bar, named by the influential French publication Le Fooding as France’s best bistro in 2015. (Clown Bar, headed by a Tokyo-born chef, has been part of a wave of acclaimed Paris restaurants led by Japanese chefs in recent years. The wave was so large that Le Fooding compiled a “Japaname Tour” of 40 such spots.) Inamoto lured Yamanaka away with the promise of a restaurant in Hawai‘i. For him, he created Paris.Hawai‘i. Yamanaka, whose Instagram feed alternates between loving photos of local ingredients and surf, changes his menu every few months: When we meet, he’s envisioning a taro gnocchi in Otsuji Farm turnip sauce and a coconut shrimp that contrasts black coconut charcoal against the translucent pink of Kaua‘i shrimp.
—Mild Hasegawa, Zetton’s director of operations
Down below, at Zigu, chef Masaki Nakayama oversees the kitchen. Originally from Yaizu City, a commercial fishing port, he has a knack for landing at places where people and ideas from around the world gather—from Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo to New York City to Honolulu. It was, ironically, in New York that he learned Japanese culinary traditions in their highest forms, from kaiseki at Fujisawa to sushi at Yasuda. But it was also in New York, through his time at Jewel Bako, that he says he was introduced to the Western culinary world—and chefs that include Ferran Adrià and Thomas Keller. He came to Honolulu independently of Zetton (“If you stay in one place, you cannot see what’s going on in the world,” he says), and when he saw that the company was looking for a chef for its first Japanese-style restaurant in Hawai‘i, he was in many ways the ideal candidate—a chef who could create a menu with everything from a tamagoyaki to local vegetable sushi to kale udon.
Zetton isn’t the only Japanese restaurant group in Waikīkī. Others include Transit General Office, with about 70 concepts in Japan, which brought Bills, an Australian café, to Honolulu (and is also taking The Pig & The Lady to Tokyo), and G. Lion, which encompasses 75 companies in the automotive and hospitality industries in the world, plus owns Hy’s Steak House and three restaurants in the Ritz-Carlton Waikīkī. But the Japanese juggernaut is WDI (World Dining Inspirations), with about 200 individual restaurants in 10 countries. Its first restaurant opened in 1972: a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Roppongi. Since then, it has introduced the Playboy Club, New York’s Aquavit and more to Tokyo. In 2006, it became partners in California Pizza Kitchen. WDI’s first overseas location was Tony Roma’s in Waikīkī in 1980, and its current holdings in Honolulu include Taormina, Gen Korean BBQ, Tim Ho Wan and Wolfgang’s Steakhouse. Kikuchi guesses that Wolfgang’s alone brings in more money than all of Zetton’s Hawai‘i restaurants combined.
And suddenly, Zetton looks like the underdog. Or perhaps, even the hero. For what sets Zetton apart from other Japanese conglomerates in Hawai‘i is that it is the largest group to produce only original concepts—it does not license other brands.
So at Heavenly, which has a healthy bent, the loco moco consists of local eggs and Big Island beef on 10-grain rice, and at Goofy, local fruits top acai bowls and sweet bread French toast. At Paris.Hawai‘i, Yamanaka’s soupy take on poi has the creaminess of bisque and the flavor of taro cakes at dim sum, while Zigu might be the only izakaya to use lū‘au leaves, served alongside braised pork belly. As I slice into a steak at Aloha Steak House, Zetton’s elevated-yet-casual version of the takeout steak plates pervasive in Honolulu, I glimpse a Zetton action figure high on a ledge, overlooking the booths. I think of the story that Hasegawa told me: “Ultraman, superhero, always fighting. Always Ultraman wins, saves the people. Only one time monster beats Ultraman. And that was Zetton. Unbelievable thing!” But in all that I’ve read and heard about the aliens who unleashed Zetton, I have not yet been able to answer: What was it that they really wanted?