The Honolulu Rush

When a restaurant opens in this town, it better be ready to rock

reviewers are supposed to wait, not show up at a new restaurant within a few nights
of opening.

It’s a fairness thing. The restaurant is supposed to get
time to work out the bugs. Only then are you allowed to review it.

only one problem: Nobody in Honolulu, at least nobody else, ever waits. Any new
restaurant of note gets mobbed immediately.

It’s not just restaurants,
of course. When you live on an island, you get desperate for novelty. Almost anything
new in town gets the Honolulu Rush. Honolulu may be the only city in America where
a Kmart opening set off traffic jams.

But the Honolulu Rush is worse for
restaurants. Eating out is prime entertainment in Honolulu, and somewhere new
is always welcome. God forbid a restaurant should raise the curtain on a kitchen
that’s not ready. If you don’t remember, on Halloween night in 1987, Dolly Parton
opened a restaurant in Hawai’i Kai called Dockside Plantation. Parton was there,
as well as a number of people dressed like her for the opening costume party.
For months, it was hard to get a reservation, as starstruck Honolulu rushed to
eat at Dolly’s.

The food was terrible.

So terrible that Dolly finally
hired a real chef (Gordon Hopkins, who was so good he eventually ended up as Roy’s
corporate chef). She threw a luncheon, where, all smiles and hair and country
charm, she took a picture with each and every guest. Too late. The Honolulu Rush
had come … and gone.

There’s a lesson here. You can’t open a high-profile
restaurant in this town without being ready for the Honolulu Rush. The Bistro,
for instance, refused to open for a year.

Then, suddenly, we got three
restaurants which opened very hot. The much anticipated Cheesecake Factory in
the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center, action star Jackie Chan’s Jackie’s Kitchen
in Ala Moana Center, and the first O’ahu outlet of the Kona Brewing Co. in Koko

I could have waited, but why? Everyone else would go. So I went
early, if for no other reason than to see how each was coping with the Honolulu

Cheesecake Factory

Hawaiian Shopping Center,
2301 Kala-kaua Ave. 924-5001

11 a.m.-11 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-midnight, Sun. 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Two-hour free
validated parking, major credit cards

the Cheesecake Factory, the Honolulu Rush was no big t’ing. During the practice
lunches, attended by almost everyone in Honolulu who could wangle an invitation,
the new staff at the Waikïkï location showed a few signs of strain. But by the
time the restaurant officially opened, it seemed ready to cope with long lines
of people willing to wait an hour for a table. Apparently, this was business as
usual for the 73-unit chain.

Cheesecake Factory has its own niche in the
American restaurant industry. It’s an upscale casual dining restaurant, a step
up from chains like Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Applebee’s, Chili’s. But it’s not
just upscale, Cheesecake Factory is also high-volume.

salmon rolls from The Cheesecake Factory courtesy of the cheesecake factory Photo:
Courtesy of The Cheesecake Factory

Here are
some numbers. The average check at a Cheesecake Factory isn’t large, just $15.78
per person. But an average Cheesecake Factory restaurant serves so many people
in a year that it grosses $11 million. Let’s put that in perspective. A good chain
restaurant, say a Chili’s in a good location, grosses about $2 million a year.
If a restaurant of any kind grosses $4 to $5 million, it’s an unqualified success.
Cheesecake Factory restaurants do twice that. No location has missed yet.

First, the name’s brilliant. Cheesecake is almost everyone’s favorite dessert;
according to the industry magazine Restaurants And Institutions, the cream cheese-sugar-eggs-vanilla
combo is on more than half the menus in America. And anyplace called a factory
is unlikely to be fussy, pretentious or expensive.

Second, a Cheesecake
Factory has a 19-page menu with more than 200 items. Want pasta? Chinese food?
Thai lettuce wraps? Fried chicken? Teriyaki steak? Burger? Pizza? A chicken taco?
Breakfast? Whatever you like, Cheesecake Factory’s got it. This makes it one of
the few restaurants that’s veto proof. No one can say, Let’s not go there, I don’t
feel like this or that tonight.

It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. The extensive
menu attracts the high volume of patrons, and only a restaurant that attracts
a high volume of customers can possibly afford to carry that many items. The huge
menu also provides a variety of price points, from a $24.95 filet mignon to a
$6.95 grilled cheese sandwich.

Finally, however, Cheesecake Factory’s successful
for an obvious reason: It’s better than you’d expect for the price you pay.

food’s not bad, with some real surprises. The appetizer menu has everything from
spicy little deep-fried popcorn shrimp (watch out, they’re addictive) to the best
artichoke that I’ve ever been served in a restaurant. The choke is cooked first,
then split and grilled in olive oil, served with a garlic dip. It’s soft, and
as artichokes go, remarkably easy to eat. It’s also tastes great. I’ve had grilled
baby artichokes, this one has all the flavor and much more to eat.

The entrees
go on for pages. We tried a sampling. The Chinese-style orange chicken piles a
mountain of real chicken pieces atop white rice. The chicken Madeira is entirely
different, sautéed chicken breast topped with mozzarella sauced with fresh mushrooms
and served with a mashed potatoes.

While we’re not talking slam bang wow
flavors, these dishes were not lowest common denominator, chain food. The sweet-sour
had some spice, the Madeira sauce may well have contained real Madeira.

the burger is worth eating, served on a baguette with fries and a side of grilled

The entrees are contemporary American restaurant portions, which
means nobody can finish them. Don’t try, save room for the cheesecake. Since there
are 40 varieties on the menu, it’s hard to resist ordering a slice for everyone
at the table.

Cheesecakes range from plain to chocolate peanut butter cookie-dough.
If you’re stumped, let me suggest the dulce le leche, a light caramel based on
a popular South American treat made by reducing condensed milk. It’s a flavor
that seems made for cheesecake.

Our check for four people, two appetizers,
four entrees, four cheesecakes, two glasses of wine, some sundry sodas, was $143
with tip. It’s possible to eat inexpensively at Cheesecake Factory; just split
entrees and desserts.


Moana Center, 1450 Ala Moana Blvd., Third Level 943-CHAN Daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

the Cheesecake Factory, Jackie’s Kitchen wasn’t as ready for the Honolulu Rush.

Jackie’s Kitchen, if you’ve evaded the
PR blitz, is action film star Jackie Chan’s first American restaurant. Chan has
restaurants throughout Asia, a mixture of concepts. He started three Jackie’s
Kitchens serving Hong Kong-style food in Japan. They were not a success, shutting
down after a year.

So the Jackie’s Kitchen concept is nowhere near as polished
as the Cheesecake Factory’s. When I arrived the second night, the waiter had to
keep apologizing. It seemed everything we ordered the kitchen was out of.

got really comical when I tried to order a glass of wine from the little table-tent
wine list. The Valley of the Moon pinot blanc? The waiter rushed back a few minutes
later: No, sorry sir, there isn’t any. The Murphy-Goode chardonnay? Another trip
to the bar, another sorry sir. “Wouldn’t it be simpler to tell me which wines
you do have?” I asked the waiter. They won’t tell me, sir.

I finally got
up, and walked to the bar, where I could actually see what they had.

ordered four appetizers. Some pot stickers, unfortunately cold, filled with ‘ahi.
Some little crab-cream cheese puffs (called wontons on the menu) with a terrific
hot-sweet chili sauce. Some sweet but tasty hoisin barbecue ribs, and a chicken-and-canned-mushroom
lettuce wrap with the kickiest sweet and sour sauce I have encountered in a while.

food at Jackie Chan’s borders on conventional Chinese food, which is a mistake,
since there’s great Chinese food, all over the Island, and it’s cheaper. When
I tasted the wokked string beans, I suggested to the waiter that the chef go to
Little Village on Smith Street and steal their wonderful spicy, garlicky string
bean recipe. The waiter assured me the chef would do so the minute he got a chance.

not likely to get a chance. He’s getting The Honolulu Rush. By the time we left,
there were long lines of people waiting for a table.

But, you know, there
was something I liked about Jackie’s. First, the meal, despite the waiter’s profuse
apologies, was not really a disaster. Plus, I liked the place much more than I
anticipated, especially for a restaurant where the entryway is a gift shop, selling
Jackie Chan tchotchkes. The design is all cheerful earth tones and custom light
fixtures, plus plasma screens everywhere showing promos for Chan’s movies.

fun part of the restaurant seemed to be the bar, so I returned a few nights later
with my friend the martini maven. At Jackie’s bar, the bartenders throw bottles
in the air and catch them behind their backs. They whipped up a drink that was
18-inches high and two colors, requiring two different blenders and multiple bottles
of suspiciously-colored liqueurs. We confined ourselves to martinis-which our
bartender poured with the glass balanced on his forehead.

You can get the
whole menu at the bar. We had a basket of chicken shu mai topped with a cilantro-ginger
pesto. And two entrees: lemongrass- crusted öpakapaka in Thai curry sauce and
a filet mignon in a soy wasabi butter. There were some glitches, the dim sum and
the fish course arrived a bit too cool. We had to send the steak back to get it
sliced, püpü style, the way we ordered it. But the food was good, the martinis
better, the whole experience enjoyable. The whole evening added up to $100, including
dessert, tip, an evening’s moderate drinking.

The Honolulu Rush was still
on. People were waiting for tables, and people stood outside the windows just
to watch the action at the bar. It made you feel like you were some place so fun
that other people enjoyed just watching you enjoy yourself.

Brewing Co.

Marina Shopping Center

Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Free parking, major
credit cards

The best thing about
Kona Brewing Co. is the beer. Well, let me correct myself. The best things on
the menu at the Kona Brewing Co. are the nine microbrews. Probably, the best thing
about the new Hawai’i Kai brew pub is that it took the roof and foundation of
a very tired restaurant (most recently Akasaka, but I cannot even count the number
of restaurants it has been), blew out the walls and put together a stylish concoction
of exotic hardwoods, brew pub stainless steel and french doors that open the whole
restaurant to the water.

They did a great job, but being out in the suburbs,
I am not sure they anticipated the Honolulu Rush.

A week or so in, the place
was slammed. The staff started apologizing even before you ordered. Midmeal, there
was a big crash boom smash from the waiter’s station in the back. The bus boy
emerged bleeding, a towel around his thumb. When he returned suitably bandaged,
we asked him if was OK. Yeah, he said, but the temporary shelf collapsed where
he was stacking dishes. “We’re not quite ready,” he said.

The food was ready,
but then again the kitchen is far from ambitious. When I ordered my sampler of
beers-four 6-oz. glasses, for $6.50-I noticed the menu offered kettle chips. Oh
wow, I thought, a restaurant that makes its own small-batch Hawai’i potato chips.
So I ordered them and got … a bag of chips. The waiter didn’t even open it for
me. Like eating at Subway, except the 5-ounces of chips were $3.49.

Brewing Co. isn’t into food. A French dip sandwich on a dense, cold “focaccia
roll” reminded me of the food at the old Woolworth’s before it closed down its
Honolulu operations. There was some reasonable Caesar Salad, a build-your-own
pizza with ingredients like fresh spinach and andouille sausage. And some incredibly
disappointing caprese, with a few slices of undistinguished tomato, a few of fresh
mozzarella and lots of dry toast.

None of this seemed to matter. Kona Brewing
Co. was packed, since Hawai’i Kai doesn’t have a restaurant like this, better
than fast food, but far from upscale casual dining. It’s reasonably priced food
for the unfussy; the beer and the setting were most pleasant.

Oh, and one
more thing. They serve an ice cream float with beer for dessert. I had to risk
one, choosing the liliko’i wheat ale because it sounded like it might go with
vanilla ice cream. In retrospect, I might have gone with the dark porter, with
its deep chocolate and coffee undertones. I am not sure I would ever order this
again, but the sharp bite of the beer seemed to handle the sweet ice cream all
right. Everything goes OK with beer.