Liquor Licenses in Honolulu

License to Pour: A lot of time and effort went into the wine you drink with dinner. Welcome to the ins and outs of getting a liquor license in Honolulu.

Going out for a nice dinner, pairing your meal with a fine wine, is one of life’s simple pleasures. As a restaurant patron, when it comes to alcohol, it usually doesn’t get more complicated than deciding which cabernet sauvignon goes best with the grilled lamb chops. But for owners, getting permission to pour you a glass of that cab is an arduous process, involving stacks of paperwork, public hearings and hefty filing fees. Sometimes lawyers even get involved.


The Honolulu Liquor Commission has two functions, licensing and enforcement. Once an establishment has a license, it may expect an unannounced visit, making sure the owners are following the rules.

  • The commission has 11 enforcement investigators.
  • Investigators work with UH School of Public Health students to conduct sting operations on underage drinking.
  • The most common complaints made to the commission’s hotline: noise, followed by underage drinking, and arguments in parking lots.

There are 15 major types of licenses, says Greg Nishioka, the Honolulu Liquor Commission administrator, depending on the type of establishment. For example, Chinatown bars have licenses allowing them to serve alcohol until 2 a.m. Some Waikiki establishments and strip clubs with cabaret licenses can serve until 4 a.m. Hotels have their own liquor license class, as do dinner and booze cruises, and caterers. Ditto retail establishments that sell beer and wine, such as The Wine Stop or HASR. See how it can get complicated?

For a new restaurant, the easiest, cheapest route to a liquor license is to acquire an existing license by taking over a space previously occupied by a licensed restaurant or bar owner. But a transfer is not always guaranteed, and in any case, it’s a lot of paperwork, says Serena Hashimoto, owner of Downbeat Diner on Hotel Street. She successfully transferred a license in January of 2011, when she and Josh Hancock opened Downbeat in the former Miss Siam Bistro space.

Hashimoto says a lot of people told her to hire an attorney to handle all the paperwork. “Frankly, we didn’t have the money, so I decided to do it myself. I was told it wasn’t possible. I had a lot of people tell me horror stories.”

Turns out, it was possible without a lawyer, and Hashimoto found the commission pleasant enough to work with, paperwork and all. “It’s a very detail-oriented process,” she says. “I had to go to like six different offices to get everything.”

In all, Hashimoto says it cost a “couple thousand dollars,” for that piece of paper allowing Downbeat bartenders to serve alcohol. But she says she’d encourage other owners to do it themselves. Given the high number of noise complaints for the area, Hashimoto says she and her colleagues sometimes deal more with hostile neighborhood residents than the commission itself. “I haven’t found them to be unfair,” she says.

For new restaurant owners who can’t transfer an existing license, a more challenging path awaits. That’s what Dusty Grable, co-owner of the recently opened Lucky Belly (next to Downbeat) went through this summer. He, too, was warned of the liquor commission’s difficulties, and, urged to get a lawyer. But he too, ignored the stories and skipped the legal fees.

“What really worked to our advantage was that we were open,” he says. “We want to be part of the community.” Grable says he and his partner Jesse Cruz went the Chinatown Neighborhood Board meetings, to introduce themselves.  It’s not required for new applicants to visit their local neighborhood board, but it can certainly help, says Nishioka. The hearings in front of the liquor commission are open to the community and thus, open to public opposition. “It went extremely smooth,” he says.

It also helped that Lucky Belly is a “restaurant, first and foremost,” says Grable. Given that the small neighborhood is already chock-full of plain old bars, the fact that it serves food made a difference to the surrounding community.

Grable adds The Manifest owner Brandon Reid was similarly well received since his bar doubles as a coffee shop during the day. Grable may have survived unscathed, but his wallet is now $6,000 lighter. “It’s not cheap, but it’s well worth it,” he says. “We’ll specialize in sake, we want it to be approachable for everyone.”

Getting Licensed

In order to get a liquor license, restaurant and bar owners have to have money, patience and a knack for document filing. There are different types of licenses, but the process is about the same. Here are the major steps for new applicants:

1) Fill out the application, and pay a $250 filing fee. A temporary license, good for 120 days, costs $275.

2) Submit the following paperwork: financial statements, criminal background clearances for owners and stockholders ($20 per person), a zoning clearance ($50), a floor plan, a copy of the lease agreement, a tax map, a liquor liability insurance certificate and more.

3) Give your local neighborhood board written notice (via certified mail) of your intention to get licensed. New applicants must also notify, via mail, all registered voters within a 500-foot radius of the bar or restaurant.

4) Fork over $2,000 to The Honolulu Star-Advertiser to publish notice of your public hearing before the commission. (The newspaper more than doubled this ad rate in 2010, from $700.)

5) Attend two Liquor Commission hearings. The second is open to the public; giving people an opportunity to oppose the proposed license.

6) Renew your license every year.