The King of Chinatown
How Dave Stewart revived an ailing neighborhood with booze and six simple rules.
If there’s a king of the new Chinatown, he’s not Chinese.
He’s New Zealander Dave Stewart. On this particular Saturday night, the king is hiding in the alley alongside Bar 35, grilling 250 bratwurst.
He’s giving away the bratwurst to the crowd of 20- and 30-somethings who’ve stood in line to get into Bar 35’s sixth anniversary celebration.
Only a few of the 300 people here would recognize 63-year-old Stewart, with his receding hairline and eye-popping floral shirt, even though he owns the place, not to mention Du Vin, Bambu2 and The Venue, all within two Chinatown blocks.
He’s not mingling. “Take it from me,” he says. “This is the safest place. It’s madness in there.”
The music electropops from the speakers in the dark main bar, so loud that it rattles the plywood partitions in the men’s room several doors away.
Couples of assorted genders bomp together on the concrete dance floor. Others flail more or less together in abstracted groups.
For the party, Stewart has hired “that girl Serena, or Selena.”
That girl turns out to be Cyrina Hadad, who describes herself as an “avant-garde social darling.” She will, for a price, fill your party with performance art and artists. “I love working with Dave,” she says. “He is as outrageous as I am.”
“Great for us,” says Stewart. “You give her a little money and she takes care of it all, these theme things.”
Tonight’s theme is Freaky Circus Fun. There’s a ringmaster, Johnny Shaw, who stands all of 3-feet, 3-inches tall. He wanders the room accompanied by a spectrally thin, heavily tattooed model named Caleb Shinobi, who stands 9-feet tall on stilts.
The cast also includes a yogi flexing himself in impossible postures, a go-go dancer with a hula hoop, a bearded lady, a stripper in a quaint 1940s-style peepshow, and a “lion temptress” in spangly leotard, a top hat and fishnet hose.
Not only do these characters occasionally dance, or at least pose, onstage, they also star in a video that loops endlessly on the far wall.
Three minutes of this and I need a drink. I find Kelsie, the waitress, who’s complaining about the stiff corset Hadad has made her wear, though she thinks the moustaches painted on all the waitress’s faces are pretty cool.
Before I get my drink, I’m dragged onto the dance floor by two mid-30s women in pricey cocktail dresses. We don’t talk much, but I am guessing that, during the week, they have grown-up office jobs. They’ve showed up at Bar 35 to add a little avant-garde social spice to their lives.
Dave Stewart has rules.
Stewart Rule No. 1: “It’s not enough to open a place. You have to give people a reason to come.”
Dave Stewart has been giving people a reason to come to Chinatown since 1994, when he and chef Glenn Chu opened Indigo on Nuuanu Avenue.
In 1994, Chinatown was still a no-go zone at night. Even the Hawaii Theatre, Indigo’s landlord, would not open its doors until two years later.
“Chinatown still had hookers in the middle of the afternoon,” recalls Stewart. “Debauchery all around us. We wouldn’t have survived if we hadn’t started valet parking.”
Stewart built, literally hands-on, much of Indigo, especially the extensions, the Green Room and the Opium Den. Then he went to work giving people reasons to come. He made a deal with Skyy Vodka, new at the time, and began selling $2.75 martinis. “The place was on fire,” he says. “We sold 1,200 martinis between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.”
Stewart Rule No. 2: “The money’s in liquor. But if you’re going to sell anyone more than two drinks, you need food.”
He took the leftovers from the Indigo lunch buffet and gave them away free. “They just mobbed the food. Like locusts.”
Indigo established itself as Honolulu’s go-to spot. Still, all was not well. Over the years, Stewart was locked in continual disputes with his landlord, the Hawaii Theatre. Eventually he and Chu had a falling out over the lease. Chu, who had a cookbook in the works with the name of the restaurant on it, wanted to renew. Stewart didn’t like the terms.
In Stewart’s view, Chu and another partner simply threw him out of the business. Chu’s view differs, of course. He insists that the Hawaii Theatre would not renew if Stewart was in the mix, so he was bought out.
No matter, because, by this time, Stewart was frustrated, and not just with the lease. The landlords along Nuuanu Avenue, he says, lacked his vision of what the street could be. “They just couldn’t see what I saw.”
What could Stewart see?
Ponsonby Road, Auckland, New Zealand.
Stewart grew up in New Zealand, part of an extended family whose patriarch, Stewart’s grandfather, was a civil engineer named H.H. “Steam” Stewart. Steam Stewart designed roads, bridges and steam engines.
“My grandfather was offered the Ford and Chrysler franchises for New Zealand,” says Stewart. “If he’d taken them, I wouldn’t be here talking to you. I’d be on my yacht.”
Instead, H.H. Stewart chose the Stanley Steamer dealership. Unable to cope with competition from internal combustion automobiles, Stanley Motor Co. shut down in 1924.
Dave Stewart got the yacht, anyway. On his own. Twice.
Lacking patience for school, he apprenticed as a draftsman. New Zealand began conscripting soldiers for Vietnam. While still in his teens, Stewart discovered a loophole in the law. It exempted principals in a business—so he started one. He and a friend manufactured carts for lady’s golf bags.
The business was not a roaring success, he says, but he managed to sell it stock and all for a profit, and retired at age 21. He chipped in with three friends to buy a fixer-upper yacht. After much labor and a two-year cruise through the Southwest Pacific, the friends resold the yacht at a profit.
“The spoils were considerable,” says Stewart. Considerable enough that Stewart could afford to tour Europe for a couple of years. In London, he met Mari Inui, the daughter of a Japanese writer who’d emigrated to England.
By 1977, after a brief detour in which Stewart designed North Sea oil platforms, the two were back in New Zealand.
Stewart’s family had a hard time accepting that he was going to marry Mari. Says Stewart, “They couldn’t get over having fought the Japanese in World War II. Mari wasn’t even born during the war. She’d grown up in London, anyway, she wasn’t even culturally Japanese. I told them to go to hell. Racist dolts.”
Stewart Rule No. 3: “I don’t shut up when I think other people are wrong. That makes it hard to hold a job. When I get the urge to work, I have to work for myself.”
In Auckland, Dave and Mari started not one, but two businesses. Mari opened a jeans store in a fashionable shopping district. Dave, doing most of the work himself, turned an old house on Ponsonby Road into a two-story restaurant called Toad Hall, after Wind and the Willows. There were Wind and the Willows murals on the wall, and characteristic Stewart touches, old pieces he reclaimed, like two antique barber chairs at the ends of the party-room table.
“At the time, Ponsonby Road was essentially a slum,” says Stewart. Toad Hall was its first restaurant. Now, the Travel Channel calls Ponsonby a “hip downtown hood,” blocks upon blocks of restaurants, café, bars, clubs, boutiques and galleries.
Why not Nuuanu Avenue?
Of course, by the time Ponsonby Road had turned itself into Auckland’s restaurant row, the Stewarts were long gone. They’d sold both businesses, Stewart had built a yacht, and the two had set sail for Fiji, Tahiti, Hawaii and their ultimate destination, San Francisco. But, notes Mari, “Cruising turned out to be far more expensive than we thought.”
When the two landed in Honolulu Harbor in December 1979, they were broke. Back to work. But at what?
“I’d vowed never to go into the restaurant business again,” says Stewart.
Stewart Rule No. 4: “If you’ve got a restaurant, you don’t have a life. There are a million moving details—food, service, restrooms, décor. You have to take care of all of them. Otherwise, long term, you crash and burn.”
Instead, the focus was on Mari’s first love, retail. She began a 25-year run with Rafael, a woman’s fashion store, first in Ward Centre, then Ala Moana Center and Khala Mall. Stewart, who liked to build things, did the build-out on the Rafael shops.
“I tried a lot of things, trying to stay out of the restaurant business,” he says. “Yacht repair, contracting, nothing terribly successful.”
Next door to Rafael in Ward Centre, chef Glenn Chu and then-wife RoxSand opened RoxSand’s Pâtisserie. Stewart volunteered to help Chu build out a Moroccan restaurant, Hajibaba’s, near Kahala Mall. “At some point I figured if I was doing that much work, I might as well be a partner,” says Stewart. “The great thing about working with Glenn is I knew I wouldn’t have to deal with the food.”
From Hajibaba’s, it was Indigo, and the frustration that Nuuanu Avenue was not going to become Ponsonby Road.
So Stewart moved over a block to Bethel Street and opened Du Vin—which allowed travel writers to say the new Chinatown Arts & Culture District had trendy wine bars. One, anyway.
In 2005, a few months before Du Vin opened, I was walking up Bethel Street and encountered Dave Stewart at his happiest. He was horsing an 8-foot-long, 4-by-4 beam from his truck into the restaurant, and invited me in for a look. He’d just broken through the back wall into a long-neglected courtyard piled with decades of decaying trash. “I’ve got some old windows in my garage. I am going to put a false wall there and turn this into the courtyard of a French provincial town.” It seemed unlikely, but he managed it.
Stewart Rule No. 5: “It’s more fun to build them than run them.”
He wasn’t finished building. “I didn’t intend to become king of Chinatown, so stop saying that, it’s embarrassing,” he says. “You need synergy, and, if nobody else is opening more joints, you have to.”
After making a deal with the landlord, Stewart walked into a Hotel Street bar called Caspy’s Hawaiian and bought it. For $1.
“The guy was fed up,” recalls Stewart. “I gave him a dollar, because money had to change hands, and he handed me the keys. There was still liquor at the bar. I locked the door and called some friends. I couldn’t drink it all by myself.”
Stewart describes the décor of Caspy’s, which for decades had been one low-rent bar after another, as “sh-t layered upon sh-t.” He stripped it down to brick and concrete, filled it with black leather furniture and suddenly he had a place that appealed to an entirely different demographic than Du Vin, with its $10- and $15-dollar-a-glass wine list, its baked brie and moule frites.
Bar 35 stocked 150 kinds of beer. Then (Rule No. 2), Stewart needed food, something clean and simple.
He met with Italian chef Francesco Valentini. “What makes you think Italian guys know all about pizza?” Stewart asked him. “It’s Chinatown. How come I can’t have Chinese pizza? What’s more, I don’t want any knives, forks and plates.”
“Dave, he thinks he’s a challenge,” says Valentini. “But I’m Italian. I‘m back in two days with a menu.”
Thus was born Valentini Fusion Gourmet Pizza, including one with Chinese sausage and sweet chili sauce. On top of that, Valentini cut down standard wood pizza paddles so he could use them as serving trays. No knives, forks, plates. Mission accomplished.
“I stopped beating up on him,” says Stewart. “No point in it. I give him a good deal, and he takes care of everything.”
Stewart needed people, because Bar 35 was not the end. Stewart also took over the old rRed Elephant space, turning it into a performance/party room called The Venue (in charge of booking: Francesco Valentini). The rRed Elephant coffee lounge became a stylish bar called Bambu2.
Why 2? Along the way, he’d fallen into a partnership with his best friends, Al and Jane Sieverts. The Sieverts had had a long career in retail (Aca Joe, Canoe, Kunahs, Nautica and so forth). After shutting down their retail empire, which at one time comprised 11 stores, they redid the Row Bar at Restaurant Row as Bambu, Dave Stewart supplying the design and most of the labor, and ending up a minor partner.
The Sieverts are now partners in Bar 35, Bambu2 and The Venue as well.
The Sieverts were, of course, at the Bar 35 anniversary party. Al was putting the grilled bratwurst into slices of baguette.
“It’s hard to get any work out of Al,” says Stewart. “What I got out of the deal was Jane. Jane’s the brains.”
“Jane is definitely the brains,” echoes Al cheerfully.
Jane Sieverts does all the accounting for Stewart’s enterprises. “I’m ADHD,” says Stewart, rather proudly. “I won’t have anything to do with computers.”
“To me, accounting is just like a video game,” Jane tells me later. “I love to see those numbers fall into place.”
She’s one more reason Stewart can run four places. “Dave’s like Al,” she says. “They’re the creative types. I can’t do what they do. I go to the weekly meetings and put in my two cents. Dave always tells me to stick to my knitting.”
At the party, Jane is hanging out with Rick Ralston, once the Sieverts’ partner in a retail business, and chef Ronnie Nasuti of Tiki’s Bar and Grill, for which she also does the accounting.
I end up helping Al Sieverts and Stewart with the bratwurst, putting on squiggles of mustard and catsup, and handing them out to the crowd, which seems to have a stunning percentage of attractive young women.
It’s a good gig, because Al has sent to the bar for a bottle of Taittinger champagne.
“Al, don’t forget you’ve got a job to do with those baguettes,” grumbles Stewart. “Try not to get f—ked up too early in the evening. I know that will be a challenge for you.”
“A challenge for me?!” says Sieverts. “That’s harsh.”
The two are obviously best friends.
“You have to abuse Al just to get his attention,” says Stewart. “I always say what I think. Not everyone appreciates that.”
Grilling and giving away 250 bratwurst takes time. At one point, I take over the grill. “Don’t touch those tongs,” says Stewart. “If you were in New Zealand right now, you’d be f—king thrown out of the country. Never touch another man’s barbecue.”
He’s been diverted because he’s just delegated the difficult problem of a young lady locked in the restroom to Francisco Valentini, who’s resplendent tonight in a black patterned blazer.
“See, I got Francesco to handle it. That’s why it’s important for me to have this job.” Steward points to the grill. “Something comes up, I’m busy. So don’t touch my tongs ever again.”
After a couple of hours, we give all the bratwurst away.
“What do we do now?” I ask Stewart.
“We get drunk,” he says. “Then we go to Du Vin and eat.”
There’s a rule for this as well.
Stewart rule No. 6: “There’s absolutely no point in working if you’re not enjoying yourself.”