Déjà Food: A Look Back at Past Hale ‘Aina Awards and Winners

As HONOLULU Magazine prepares to celebrate its 40th Hale ‘Aina Awards, we flipped through our files for a look at some of our past Hale ‘Aina winners.


It all started as an office lobby potluck.


In four decades, as its reputation and guest list outgrew the office, HONOLULU Magazine’s annual Hale ‘Aina Awards moved on to swanky hotel venues, such as The Royal Hawaiian and ‘Alohilani Resort. But the mission of the awards has remained unwavering: It is and always will be a celebration of restaurants with exquisite food, delectable drinks and the creative minds behind them. And since the very first awards were given in 1985, the winners have been chosen by you: our readers.


SEE ALSO: 2023 Hale ‘Aina Award Winners: The Best Restaurants in Hawai‘i


This year was no exception. After 15,000 votes were tallied, the winners were revealed at an exclusive ceremony at the Ritz-Carlton Residences, Waikīkī Beach’s Lau‘ula Park on June 9. You’ll find stories about some of these winners in the September issue of HONOLULU Magazine. And on Sept. 9, everyone’s invited to celebrate at the Hawai‘i State Art Museum, where you can indulge in some of the best food and drinks from our winners. 10% of ticket sales will be donated to the Hawai‘i Community Foundation’s Maui Strong Fund. Tickets are on sale at hnltix.com.


But for now, join us as we look back and reflect on how the Hale ‘Aina Awards have evolved.





Hale ‘Aina Awards 1985

The Third Floor restaurant at the Hawaiian Regent Hotel took home the first Restaurant of the Year Hale ‘Aina award. Photo: From the January 1985 issue of HONOLULU Magazine


It’s 1985, and then-HONOLULU dining editor, the late John Heckathorn, is busy making calls. “By the way, ‘Hale ‘Aina’ means ‘eating place’ in Hawaiian,” he repeats, mercifully only 14 times to the first batch of winners (this year, we had 42 categories and almost 130 winners). Afterward, he explains that HONOLULU Magazine included a ballot in its annual Restaurant Guide in 1984, asking readers for their favorite restaurants in 14 categories, from French to fast food.


When reminiscing about the ‘80s, Heckathorn wrote that the HONOLULU staff tallied the results in pencil on a massive sheet of paper taped on the wall of the administrative assistant’s office, who wouldn’t get a computer until the next year. There were 520 ballots that were mailed in, and nearly 300 different restaurants listed as someone’s overall favorite place to eat.


SEE ALSO: John, I Miss You Already


The staff at Matteo’s (which won Best Italian Restaurant that year) passes Heckathorn’s call around like a hot potato, until he finally is entrusted to Joyce, the bookkeeper, who says while she thought Matteo’s was a pretty good restaurant, she doesn’t much care for Italian food.


The Third Floor, a formal dine-in restaurant at the Hawaiian Regent Hotel (now known as the Waikīkī Beach Marriott Resort & Spa), took home the first Restaurant of the Year award, with timeless dishes such as duck à l‘orange and beef Wellington. Each meal started and finished with touches that might please Instagram-happy diners today, as contributing editor Don Wallace wrote in 2019, with items such as an amuse-bouche of duck liver pâté served with naan and ice cream bonbons with billows of smoke from dry ice.


In 1985, Hy’s Steakhouse won for Best American Food; in 2023, it won gold for Best Steak and was a finalist for Best Dessert. ʻOno Hawaiian Foods, which closed in 2017 after almost six decades of service, was awarded Best Hawaiian Food; in 2023, the award was given to Helena’s Hawaiian Food, which has been around since 1946. Michel’s at the Colony Surf won Best Sunday Brunch, and in 2023, it was chosen as Most Romantic, while Café Kaila won Best Brunch.





Colony Surf

Michel’s at the Colony Surf is one of the original Hale ‘Aina winners and has consistently placed for “Most Romantic.” Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino


Rather than categorize restaurants by their cuisine, price range, type, etc., HONOLULU decided to name the top 20 restaurants in the state overall. Readers voted for their favorites once again, but a couple of restaurants tried stuffing the ballot box. One restaurant even bought nearly 200 copies of the magazine to fill out the ballots inserted inside. Online voting didn’t begin for decades.


Michel’s at the Colony Surf won the top spot for the third time in five years. But get this—second place was awarded to a chef, Keo Sananikone, whom HONOLULU said put Thai food on the map. Sananikone ruled a restaurant empire at the time, with three restaurants all named after him: Keo’s Thai Cuisine, Keo’s at Ward Centre and Keo’s Bar & Grill. Rounding out the top three was Longhi’s in Lahaina, Maui, which sold $7 million worth of meals in 1988, making it the 40th top grossing restaurant in the U.S.


SEE ALSO: Why Michel’s at the Colony Surf is the Most Romantic Restaurant in Hawai‘i



3660 On The Rise won Restaurant of the Year, despite only being open for a year. The only other restaurant at the time to manage a rare win like this: Roy’s, when it was named a Top 20 Restaurant in 1990. Speaking of Roy’s, the fine-dining restaurant won for Most Interesting Menu, with dishes such as pan-roasted salmon over a salad of gizzard confit and sweetbread in a zinfandel sauce.


To prevent big-name restaurants from taking over the ballot—and give small ethnic eateries a chance to break into the lineup—this is the year HONOLULU returned to splitting up the winners by cuisine, followed by geographic categories to accommodate the Neighbor Islands as the dining scene expanded, making Hale ‘Aina a statewide sensation. The magazine continued to tweak the categories as needed to cover restaurants that might be overlooked, such as “Little Restaurants You Love,” “Best Dessert,” “Best Bar” and “Best New.”





hale aina cookbook

HONOLULU readers could whip up chef Peter Merriman’s Puna goat cheese on sparkle greens dish, thanks to the 1999 Hale ‘Aina cookbook.


By 1999, the first of several of Peter Merriman’s restaurants had been open for more than a decade in Waimea, on Hawai‘i Island. Now, Merriman’s name is on restaurants throughout the Islands. In 2023, Merriman’s Waimea was awarded as Best Hawai‘i Island Restaurant, Merriman’s Honolulu was Best O‘ahu Restaurant and Merriman’s appeared in three more categories.


SEE ALSO: Quote Unquote: The Scoop on Chef Peter Merriman’s First O‘ahu Restaurant


In 1999, Merriman himself was featured alongside other influential chefs in the Hale ‘Aina cookbook, which was sold by the nonprofit Hale ʻAina ʻOhana, dedicated to supporting the development of culinary programs in the Islands.


Alan Wong’s won Restaurant of the Year for the third time. (The restaurant first won in 1996 and again in 1997.) Chefs D.K. Kodama of D.K. Restaurants and Hiroshi Fukui of L’Uraku were also named rising stars in the 1999 issue. The two, along with sommelier Chuck Furuya, would go on to open Hiroshi Eurasion Tapas in 2004.




Roy’s Hawaiʻi Kai won Restaurant of the Year. Roy Yamaguchi, along with chef Jurg Munch of Lahaina Inn and Paul’s Lahaina Grill, chef Roberto Los Banos of Bali By The Sea and chef George Mavrothalassitis of Chef Mavro shared their secrets of home cooking in that year’s Hale ʻAina cookbook. Readers could cook up chef favorites, such as Yamaguchi’s baby-back band-practice ribs and Los Banos’ lechon with somen noodles and chili-pepper-water dressing.




Both old- and new-school restaurants made up that year’s list of 92 winners. Alan Wong’s won Restaurant of the Year, and Michel’s at the Colony Surf won Most Romantic and Best Ambiance. New eateries also got in the mix, such as the Merriman’s in Kapalua, which won Best New Neighbor Island Restaurant, and Tangö Contemporary Café, which took home Best New Oʻahu Restaurant.


SEE ALSO: James Beard Semifinalist Nami Kaze Is Launching an Omakase Dinner




Hale ‘Aina Awards 2014

Chefs Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong are the two winningest chefs in Hale ‘Aina history. As of 2014, restaurants owned by Yamaguchi and Wong had earned more than 160 Hale ‘Aina titles. Each chef took home seven for Best Restaurant of the Year. Photo: Kelli Bullock and Ross D. Hamamura/Sony


In 2014, HONOLULU Magazine debuted the John Heckathorn Dining Excellence Award, a tribute to Heckathorn, who was an integral part of shaping Honolulu’s burgeoning dining scene in the ‘80s. For years, he chronicled and critiqued the rise of Hawaiʻi Regional Cuisine, until he passed away suddenly in 2011, a devastating loss to many. The award was given to the two winningest chefs of the Hale ‘Ainas: Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong.


Roy’s won its first Hale ʻAina Award when it was new to the scene in 1990, and Heckathorn wrote that it surprised the public. Five years later, Roy’s won Restaurant of the Year. “I guess we’ve finally become mainstream,” Yamaguchi said.


The following year, in 1996, Alan Wong, who had never won a Hale ʻAina Award for his work at the Canoe House on Hawaiʻi Island, shocked everyone when he took home the awards for Best New Restaurant and Restaurant Of The Year for his spot on King Street, which closed in 2020.


SEE ALSO: Alan Wong Talks About the Difficult Decision to Close His Restaurant


Yamaguchi and Wong were the first and only to be awarded the John Heckathorn Dining Excellence Award, which hasn’t been awarded since. Between the two chefs, they have won more than 150 Hale ʻAina Awards.


 Chef Peter Merriman Hawaii Cover

Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino


Other past Hale ‘Aina award highlights in 2014 include Peter Merriman’s Monkeypod Kitchen winning Best New Restaurant, V Lounge winning Best Hole in the Wall and Real a Gastropub winning the first-ever Best Beer Program award, which has since evolved into separate categories for Best Bar and Best Brew Pub.




Rather than name a Restaurant of the Year, HONOLULU started naming a restaurateur instead. The first Restaurateur of the Year was Hide Sakurai, owner of Shokudo, Búho Cucina Y Cantina and Bread and Butter. His latest venture, La Bettola, just opened in Waikīkī this month.





In 2018, Pai Honolulu was the editors’ choice for Best New Restaurant and also won gold for Best Service and finalist for Best Tasting Menu. At the time, it was only a year old. In 2023, it won silver for Best Wine Program and bronze for Best Tasting Menu, Best Dessert and Best Service—no small feat for chef-owner Kevin Lee, who seems to enjoy a hands-on approach.


Chef Kevin Lee

Chef Kevin Lee. Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino


“I figured if we were going to serve bread in the restaurant, I was going to do it myself,” he told HONOLULU in 2018. Lee launched an entire menu built around a foundation of his artisanal breads. He also cures, ages and smokes his own meats and personally shops for fresh ingredients in Chinatown several times a week.


The reader pick for Best New Restaurant was Herringbone Waikīkī, which was a finalist for Best Seafood in 2023. The Pig & The Lady won Best Oʻahu Restaurant (and took home Best Vietnamese in 2023). Kim Chee 2 won Best Overall Korean—which was won by O’Kim’s Korean Kitchen in 2023. Ichiriki took home Best Hot Pot in 2018—and it did it again in 2023.


Garrett Marrero, who owns Best Brew Pub Maui Brewing Co. with his wife, Melanie, told HONOLULU in 2018 that their idea was to brew an authentic Hawaiian craft beer that was world class.


“We were part of helping beer grow in Hawaiʻi,” Garrett said. “We’re proud that Oʻahu has become the beer city we knew it had potential to be. And we’re happy to be a part of that.” Maui Brewing Co. won gold again this year too.


SEE ALSO: Staying Crafty: How Maui Brewing Co. Expands its Reach While Staying Local




Honolulu Ordered To Stay At Home For Two Weeks To Stop Spread Of Covid 19

In 2020, restaurants like Doraku (pictured), had no choice but to rely on takeout services while the state navigated their way through coping with the pandemic.


The pandemic hit the food industry hard, and we debated whether or not it was appropriate to give out awards to the best restaurants when so many were just trying to survive. 2020 was the year we all learned just how important restaurants are, not just as places that feed our stomachs but filled our souls. We announced the restaurant winners via livestream, followed by a socially distant drive-thru event on the top floor of International Market Place’s parking garage. We wouldn’t return to a big blowout until 2022.





Tko 7615

Jason Peel, chef of Nami Kaze, accepts the award for Best New Restaurant. Photo: Travis Okimoto


After a tough few years for restaurants, we did away with takeout categories that had become all too relevant and reintroduced old favorites like Best Buffet and Best Business Lunch, which had both become obsolete during the first few years of the pandemic. We also went back to the dining team choosing a single Best New Restaurant winner, rather than a ranked reader selection. The awards were announced at a private event on June 9. The public celebration will be held Sept. 9 at the Hawai‘i State Art Museum, with a theme of Whimsical Wonderland. 10% of ticket sales will be donated to the Hawai‘i Community Foundation’s Maui Strong Fund. Tickets are on sale at hnltix.com.



As Heckathorn once wrote, the Hale ʻAina list is, and should be, ever changing. While some older names have remained on the list over the decades, some restaurants have faded away, but there are always new contenders, new names to be reckoned with that have fresh ideas and are ravenous for recognition.


After 40 years, what was once mistaken as “the ʻAina Haina Awards” by a chef in the ’80s has transformed into the state’s longest-running dining awards. The Hale ʻAina plaque serves as the ultimate stamp of approval in the foodie world, gracing the walls of the best restaurants in Hawaiʻi. Its presence is a beacon for hungry customers, reassuring them that they’ve arrived at the right place.