The Best Bars in Honolulu 2009: Liquid Assets
The Lewers Lounge specializes in well-mixed, beautiful cocktails.
Photo: Mark Arbeit
When anxiety runs high— and there’s been plenty in this year of recession and swine flu—you don’t need a drink. You need a well-mixed drink. You need a guy with a moustache and kind eyes pouring you a perfect martini, and you need someone to bring you a plate with hot, salty things on it. You need a place where you can walk in and see people you know, and on the way out, maybe throw your arms around someone solid, and hold them close for a minute. When anxiety runs high, we remember that the best bars are assets to the community.
Aiea Bowl Bar Lounge
Sure, you can go there to bowl, but in-the-know locals flock to Aiea Bowl for the Alley Restaurant’s ono grindz (we dream about the tasty chicken platter) and the nightly drink specials in the Bar Lounge from 10 p.m. to closing. Take advantage of rotating drink specials on Super-Duper Saturdays, where, from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., you can try your hand at Cosmic Bowling (we like to think a little liquid courage improves our aim) and shake your money maker to the musical stylings of a live DJ. The Bar Lounge is open daily, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. 99-115 Aiea Heights Drive., 488-6854. www.aieabowl.com.
You can’t be a club kid forever. Eventually, you want to sit down someplace nice and have a conversation. That’s why nightlife promoters Flash and Matty Boy partnered with Charles “Chip” Jewitt, the owner of the former Aria restaurant, to create Apartm3nt (pronounced apartment three), a hip, slightly edgy lounge in the Century Center space that was home to Aria, The Bistro and, further back, Alfred’s. Unexpected asset: the menu, filled with gourmet versions of American classics, such as grilled-cheese sandwiches and hot dogs. Happy hour prices until 2 a.m. on Tuesdays. Daily 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., 1750 Kalakaua Ave., third floor, 955-9300.
Brandy’s Bar & Grill
Located across the street from Aloha Stadium, Brandy’s Bar & Grill is a neighborhood watering hole that attracts a motley mix of folks, from UH football fans watching the game on TV to Navy guys knocking back pints while shooting pool. It’s definitely a beer-swilling kind of place, with Bud Light, Budweiser and Michelob AmberBock on draft and Newcastle, Heineken, Corona and others available in bottles. Brandy’s serves up standard pub grub, including a recommended-by-the-regulars kālua pork quesadilla, slow-burning Buffalo wings and mini corndogs. Check the board for monthly drink specials. Monday through Thursday, 2 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Friday and Saturday., noon to 2 a.m.; and Sunday, 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. 4510 Salt Lake Blvd., 486-4066.
Breakers Restaurant & Bar
Despite the throngs of tourists and obligatory surf décor, the bar at Breakers Restaurant has several things going for it. First, there’s the bottled-beer selection (think everything from Heineken to Harp). Second, Breakers is one of the few spots where North Shore sports fans can get their fix, thanks to the smattering of TVs tuned to the day’s games. Lastly, Breakers is the only bar in Haleiwa that stays open until 2 a.m. Open daily, from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. 66-250 Kamehameha Highway., 637-9898.
Top Five Cocktails
We taste-tested drinks and quizzed bartenders all over town. In no particular order, here are Oahu’s don’t-miss cocktails:
- The Late Nite at Thirtyninehotel
- Pomegranate Sake at Shokudo Restaurant & Bar
- The Whiskey Smash at Lewers Lounge
- The Pisco Sour at Nobu
- The Shark Bite Bloody Mary at Oceans 808
Go on a Honolulu Bar Tour with us as we taste-test these drinks.. Watch the Video!!
When we pulled into the parking lot of the Creekside Lounge on a Tuesday afternoon, we noticed a young couple inspecting their motorcycle. “We had a fall at the intersection down the street,” the man said, his chin still bleeding. “This bar is great; they even patch you up when you crash.” Yes, bikers feel at home at the Kailua lounge, but, owner Shawne Garliepp adds, “We get all kinds, from marines to doctors and judges.” Alas, no beers are on tap, but there are free hot dogs on Sundays. Monday through Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Thursday to Sunday, 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. 153 Hamakua Drive, 262-6466. creeksidelounge.com.
Lucky for Windward residents, Formaggio Grill makes it easy to skip the drive into town. Expect 60 wines by the glass, a hearty dinner menu (steak and lobster included) and an upscale vibe—slippers are, of course, always welcome. Other perks include a daily happy hour from 3 to 6 p.m. and live music on Fridays and Saturdays from 9 p.m. until midnight. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. (Kitchen closes one hour prior to closing.) 305 Hahani St., 263-2633. formaggio808.com.
Haleiwa Joe’s, Kaneohe
It’s not often that you see a tourist dining at Haleiwa Joe’s in Kaneohe. Why? “It’s not that we don’t like tourists, they just can’t find us,” says managing partner Tim York of the restaurant’s tucked-away location at Haiku Gardens, which also overlooks a freshwater spring. It caters to locals with fresh fish items, large portions and reasonable prices. On the bar menu, we thoroughly enjoyed the Thai fried calamari ($8.50) and sweet kalbi ribs ($9.95). Daily, 4:30 to 10:30 p.m., except on Friday, when it stays open until 11:30 p.m. 46-336 Haiku Road, 247-6671. haleiwajoes.com.
The distinction between a bar and a restaurant can be fuzzy and we confess, we’re pushing it here. The bar inside Hoku’s has only five stools, and doesn’t even face the ocean, but, when you think about it, why wouldn’t you want your bar pupu to come from Hoku’s kitchen? The giant ahi musubi, the pan-seared day boat scallops, heck, the entire Hale Aina Award-winning menu. The cocktail menu is decent; we thought the After Dark—made with Absolut vodka, cranberry, orange and peaches juices—was the perfect antidote to Kona weather. Daily 5:30 to 10 p.m., 5000 Kahala Ave., 739-8760.
Hula’s Bar & Lei Stand
This gay bar has been a Waikiki mainstay since 1974. By day, learn to belly dance, practice yoga or take in the view of Diamond Head while munching on a kālua pork quesadilla. By night, mingle with the friendly crowd and get down on the dance floor. On our last visit, the well-sculpted bartenders were serving up cold drinks shirtless. Daily, 10 a.m. to 2 a.m., 134 Kapahulu Blvd., second floor of the Waikiki Grand Hotel. 923-0669, hulas.com.
Consider it Honolulu’s most undervalued bar asset—the bar at Hy’s Steakhouse. By all rights, it should be packed. This is a dark, wood-paneled, manly, old-school bar, the kind of place where Mad Men’s Don Draper would out-drink his clients. It felt so old fashioned, we ordered an old fashioned and it was only $5.25, about half the going rate for a drink in Waikiki. What’s not to like? Monday through Friday, 6 to 10 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. 2440 Kuhio Ave., 922-5555.
J.J. Dolan’s opened like a pop-up book—a fully formed institution that sprang up seemingly overnight. But owners Jay Niebuhr and Danny Dolan have plenty of experience with bars in Honolulu, coming from Murphy’s and O’Toole’s, respectively. Their experience, combined with a friendly staff and “the best pizza in Ireland” meant the bar had “an instant group of regulars,” says Dolan, who says the recipe for success is simple: “We can guarantee a cold beer, great pizza and a good room with nice people.” Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., Saturday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. 1147 Bethel St., 537-4992. jdolans.com.
Kanpai Bar & Grill
Sports bars are a dime a dozen, but few manage to nail all the elements as well as Kanpai does—casual indoor/outdoor seating, a plethora of TV screens, dartboards and food that’s several cuts above typical fried fare. On a recent visit, we watched the Yankees demolish the Angels 10-1 while enjoying a negi toro with sliced ahi sashimi, green onion coulis, wasabi oil, tobiko and Nalo Farm micro greens. Even prosaic Island faves get the deluxe treatment: Football diehards catching an early morning Sunday morning game can take on one of the best loco mocos we’ve tasted. Daily, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily; open at 6 a.m. Saturdays and 8 a.m. Sundays during football season. 404 Ward Ave., 593-9202.
Kemoo Farms Pub
Kemoo Farms Pub looks the way a bar should look—dark, with a long, wood bar punctuated with well-worn stools occupied by grizzly regulars—and smells how a bar should smell (cigarettes, sweat and beer). The crowd is a mix of Schofield Barracks residents and bikers bellying up to the bar during a pit stop. There’s a good draft-beer selection, including Drop Top Ale and Widmer Hefeweizen, and the food—a bar-friendly mix of burgers, sandwiches (we liked the reuben) and steaks—isn’t too shabby, either. There are daily bar specials, as well as weekly live music. Also be sure to check out the downstairs lānai overlooking the lake. Open daily from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. (kitchen opens at 10 a.m.). 1718 Wilikina Drive, Wahiawā, 621-1835, kemoopub.com.
Tucked in the back of Puck’s Alley sits this delectable izakaya. Here you’ll find the harmonious relationship between good bottles of sake or Kirin Ichiban on draft along with bite-size pupu grilled on skewers right in front of you. The kebabs range in price from $1.80 for a chicken thigh to $5.80 for tongue, so it’s easy to walk out with a $50 bill. But nothing compliments a cold one better than bacon-wrapped tomatoes or fried oysters. Itadakimas! Located at 2626 S. King Street, Suite 1, 941-7255, Sunday through Thurs. 6 p.m. to 12 a.m., Friday and Saturday 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Kona Brewing Co.
Drinking a Mainland beer? Shame on you. At Kona Brewing Co. in Hawaii Kai, you can find a dozen beers—each handcrafted at its brewery on the Big Island—on tap. The lineup includes familiar mainstays, like its Longboard Lager, as well as seasonal brews, such as the Kona Coffee Imperial Stout, which is available now and made with 100-percent Kona coffee. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. (bar until 9:30 p.m.); Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. (bar until 10:30 p.m.). 7192 Kalanianaole Highway, 394-5662. konabrewingco.com.
All that Jazz
» Honolulu’s jazz scene is small, but fans have two great nightspots they can turn to the dragon upstairs and Jazz Minds Arts & Café.
The Dragon Upstairs has been bringing jazz to Chinatown for three years, but its location—above Hank’s Café, in an intimate second-story bar in a historic building—makes it feel as though it’s always been there. Music lovers will appreciate the chance to sit close to the band. Thursday through Saturday, 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., 1038 Nuuanu Ave., 526-1411.
Jazz Minds presents live jazz six nights a week. This club offers a bigger stage, hence bigger musical acts. Monday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., 1661 Kapiolani Blvd., 945-0800.
Both clubs represent the rehabilitation of their neighborhoods, both have singular hands-on owners (Hank Taufaasau of The Dragon Upstairs, Young Hae Yi of Jazz Minds), both have an ever-changing line-up of artists, both feature pupu until the wee hours—so check their schedules and see which one matches your mood tonight.
Lewers Lounge and Nobu Waikiki
Bargains bars are all well and good, but sometimes you need a little unrestrained opulence. Luckily, Honolulu boasts two luxury lounges that offer exactly that. Which one you choose depends on your mood. Nobu has a chic, modern décor, a hip crowd and peerless sushi (bigeye and bluefin toro tartare with caviar, anyone?), while Lewer’s nails the moody, old-school vibe, with perfect renditions of classic cocktails and a nightly lineup of accomplished jazz pianists. If you can’t make up your mind, they’re across the street from each other. No reason you couldn’t bounce between them all night—apart from your bank account, of course. Nobu Waikiki, 2233 Helumoa Road, 237-6999. Lewer’s Lounge, Halekulani, 2199 Kalia Road, 923-2311.
After being closed for more than a year, Oceans 808 reopened last November better than ever, with a new, upgraded look, a larger dance floor and eye-catching water displays. Oceans has proved once again that it is a favorite weekend party stop for locals who like to dance, eat late-night pupu, such as the yummy ahi poke, and drink some of the Islands’ best cocktails all night long. Restaurant Row, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., 587-5838. oceansnightclub.com.
RumFire’s hip décor and location make this bar one of a kind. With indoor and outdoor seating, and an ocean view in every direction, it’s easy to unwind after a day’s work with a cucumber and lavender mojito, or a rum-filled Hokutini. After listening to live music, feeling the ocean breeze and enjoying the light from the fire pits around you, it becomes a challenge to leave. 2255 Kalakaua Ave., 922-4422, rumfirewaikiki.com.
The Crouching Lion Inn Bar & Grill
At the Crouching Lion Inn Bar & Grill, you’ll find yourself happily playing tourist, sipping on an ice-cold coconut (a restaurant specialty), tucking a plumeria behind your ear and taking in the quaint pub’s panoramic ocean view. Keep up the tourist façade with a tropical cocktail or opt for something off the beer or wine menus. Happy hour is Monday through Thursday and Saturday, 4 to 7 p.m.; Friday, 4 to 8 p.m.; and Sunday, 2 to 4 p.m. Draft and import beers, well drinks and martinis are discounted. Open daily, from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; on weekends the bar closes between midnight and 2 a.m., depending on the crowd. 51-666 Kamehameha Highway, 237-8981. crouchinglionhawaii.com.
New kid on the block The Manifest has already found its niche. Open from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m., this chill Chinatown hangout is a coffee shop/classy lounge and bar. Whether you need to get the day started with a poppyseed muffin and an iced mocha espresso, or want to take in art while drinking with your friends, The Manifest can’t be beat. The brick-walled space displays the work of local artists, with a new exhibition each month. Stop by on a First Friday, and owner Brandon Reid will serve you one of his delicious hotdogs outside. 32 N. Hotel St., Monday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 2 a.m., manifesthawaii.com.
Since moving from Keeaumoku Street to South King Street, the new-and-improved Tsunami has gone from casual bar to trendy lounge. It’s a great place to start the night with club music pumping, color-changing lights illuminating the tables and locals playing darts in the side room. It’s worth a trip for the food alone, prepared by chef Aaron Fukuda, the former executive chef at Sam Choy’s. We recommend the pork chops, cut in pupu-style slices and served with a spicy chipotle aioli. 1272 S. King St., Monday through Friday, 4:30 p.m. to 2 a.m., Saturday through Sunday, 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., 951-8885, tsunamihawaii.com.
12th Ave. Grill
You might know 12th Ave. Grill best as a restaurant. But with its thrice-weekly Craft Bar, it has created one of Honolulu’s most amazing happy hours. The prices are bargain basement—$3 microbrews, $4 martinis, and a tapas selection ranging from $3 to $8—and the quality is on par with the regular dinner menu. (The smoked ahi ravioli changed our lives.) Of course, there’s a catch. It’s also the city’s most exclusive happy hour. Craft Bar runs for one hour only, 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and the bar’s 10 first-come-first-serve seats fill almost immediately. 1145C 12th Ave., 732-9469, 12thavegrill.com.
Vino Italian Tapas & Wine Bar
HONOLULU Magazine named Vino as the best wine tasting location this March, citing owner and wine savant Chuck Furuya as one of the most educational sommeliers in town. That same expertise pushes an average evening at the bar over the top, as well; Furuya is wont to circulate among the guests, waxing poetic on the flavor notes and provenance of his menu’s 63 wines available by the bottle. Vino’s revamped tapas menu balances the wines on offer, whether you’re looking for a decadent pan-seared foie gras or a perfect cheese platter. Wednesday and Thursday, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m., closed Sunday through Tuesday. Restaurant Row, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., 524-8466, vinohawaii.com.
Views from the Top
We visit three bars in the sky.
Penthouse bars with killer views are surprisingly rare in this town, and only one of them rotates to give you a full 360 in retro splendor—Top of Waikiki. Climb up through the tiers of restaurant seating, have a seat at the bar and order the sliders, graced with foie gras. The cocktail menu boasts about 130 wines, but only ordinary cocktails. The better mixed drinks are hidden in the dinner menu, including the tasty Ginger Vodka-tini. Open daily, 5 to 9:30 p.m. 2270 Kalakaua Ave., 923-3877.
The town’s best view can be found in Twist at the Hanohano Room in the Sheraton Waikiki, 30 floors up. The entire bar and dining room have been remodeled since our last visit, and now looks tastefully luxe. Twist specializes in wine pairings, offering flights of one-ounce pours, or dinner pairings that range from $85. The Peking-style duck and foie gras pupu is terrific. Cocktails 5 to 11 p.m. daily, 2255 Kalakaua Ave., 922-4422.
Our editor had the most fun at Sarento’s Top of the “I,” where the bar boasts a Blade Runner-like mauka view from the Ilikai into the high-rises of Waikiki and the Ala Moana area. To find out why, check out this month’s editor’s page. Sunday through Thursday, 5:30 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., 1777 Ala Moana Blvd., 955-5599.