Lee Anne Wong Dishes About the Overhaul of Her Pioneer Inn Grill and Bar on Maui
Papa‘aina at the Pioneer Inn keeps it simple with a nod to history.
It seems there’s nothing Lee Anne Wong can’t do. After competing on Bravo’s Top Chef, the New York-born chef moved to O‘ahu, opened award-winning brunch spot Koko Head Café in Kaimukī, moved to Maui with her new family to head up the restaurant at the historic Best Western Pioneer Inn in Lahaina and, during a pandemic, overhauled the concept entirely. Why? Why not.
You took over the historic Pioneer Inn in Lahaina. What attracted you to the restaurant?
The Pioneer Inn is Maui’s oldest hotel located at Lahaina Harbor in the historic district off Front Street. First of all, it has 120 years of history, which I found intriguing. Honestly, what really did it for me was its outdoor courtyard. I had been looking at several potential restaurant spaces on Maui for quite some time and I kept coming back to the Pioneer Inn; every time I walked into the courtyard, which at the time was not used by the restaurant … it just gave me a good feeling.
It looks like you changed the concept recently.
We went for a full concept change once we shut the hotel down for COVID back in late March. The name, Pioneer Inn Grill and Bar, was changed to Papa‘aina at the Pioneer Inn. (Papa ‘aina means “eating table.”) We spruced up the actual restaurant space and set up a takeout/coffee/bakery area. In trying to modernize and revamp the space to match the food, we’re keeping the details simple and fresh, with a nod to the history of the restaurant and hotel.
How is the vibe/culinary scene on Maui different from O‘ahu?
There’s a close to a million people on O‘ahu and only around 200,000 here. From a volume standpoint, there are simply [fewer] places to eat, and the food culture is not quite as diverse as O‘ahu. But it is ever-changing and progressive, with an incredible hui (team) of chefs here, young and old, who man everything from hotel operations to small independent spots and food trucks.
Read about how Wong is supporting local agriculture, juggling motherhood with being a restaurateur and what her guilty pleasure is in the full Q&A on hawaiimagazine.com.