Old-School Diners We Love: Times Coffee Shop in Kailua
On the Windward side, generations have grown up on Times’ fried rice, hamburger steak and banana pancakes.
Slipping into the brown vinyl booths at Kailua’s Times Coffee Shop feels reassuringly familiar. I’m already anticipating the sturdy white mug of coffee sliding across the just-wiped wood-grain laminate. Most likely, I’ll order eggs over easy with housemade corned beef hash patty. If my kids are with me, somebody’s getting the plate-sized buttermilk pancakes with banana or blueberry.
Servers in running shoes crisscross a bright orange tile floor cracked and worn by years of traffic. They swoop in shortly after you write your name on the clipboard by the door, sorting out who arrived first, getting everyone settled and taking your orders. Usually I’ll run into a buddy from the gym or a high school classmate of mine or my kids. In a neighborhood with the standard assortment of corporate chains, this local diner stands out like a hometown hug.
On any day, you’ll find in its booths families, friends, couples and solo diners. Our family finds our way to Times with relatives from off island, after doctor visits or simply when we’ve been rushing too much. There’s something about being able to order exactly the same thing for years. A cousin insists it’s the most local breakfast place in Kailua, focused on food, not frills, down to the old-fashioned toast with those little individual containers of jelly and jam.
Most of the ample plates range around $10 to $15. Some of the most popular include the meaty fried rice with a signature sweetness from a teri sauce, although I prefer the more savory off-menu shoyu version. There’s even a veggie version with kale, carrots, mushrooms and tomatoes instead of Spam, ham and sausage bits. Also popular: a hamburger patty made from scratch and served in the loco moco, a plate lunch and a burger—all of which can be made vegetarian with a plant-based patty.
The first Times Coffee Shop in Kailua opened a couple blocks away on Oneawa Street in 1959. Manager Tricia Low-Ham explains that the Shimabukuro family sold the restaurant to her parents, Samson and Veronica Low, in the early 80s. At the old location, the Lows doubled down on the popular dishes, especially the fried rice—“That’s always served as the foundation for the menu,” she says—and focused on service, quality and affordable prices. The family tweaked recipes to make them their own, even after moving to the current spot.
Low-Ham started working in the business as a teen, earned a degree in travel industry management at UH Mānoa and gradually took over. She’s been there 32 years and loves it when students or former residents return after years away and say, “Kailua’s changed so much, but you’re still here!”
While Low-Ham’s father died in 2003, her mother is still there, and five years ago, Samson’s grandson and namesake—who goes by Sam—joined the business full-time. Low-Ham credits her nephew for his hard work, cooking and contemporary touches: he runs the social media, added a QR code for the menu and comes up with marketing ideas such as an eggs Benedict special for Mother’s Day.
The other Times Coffee Shop in Kāne‘ohe is part of the same family. Low-Ham’s sister, Sharon DiPrete, runs the Ko‘olau Center location in Temple Valley. It moved there from Kāne‘ohe Bay Shopping Center in 2008 with a similar menu, but its own touches and customers.
Dutch Steele is one of the Kailua regulars who stops in for breakfast or brunch at least five days a week. He’ll ride there on his motorcycle, then grab an Irish coffee next door at Creekside Lounge afterward. That’s him in the photo, in a booth that parallels busy Hāmākua Drive. Servers all greet the retired civil servant as they pass by.
Steele sums up the unbeatable appeal of his favorite diner. “If I can’t remember what I want to eat, they remind me,” he says. “It’s the best local food around.”
Read the series:
Old-School Diners We Love: Harry’s Café in Kaka‘ako
Old-School Diners We Love: Kapi‘olani Coffee Shop in Waimalu
Old-School Diners We Love: Shiro’s Saimin Haven
Old-School Diners We Love: Jane’s Fountain in Liliha
Old-School Diners We Love: Jack’s Restaurant in ‘Āina Haina