Thirty Years at the Table
A 30-year memoir of Honolulu restaurants, served in five courses.
Chicken Feet Soup
When good fortune brought me to Honolulu 30 years ago, I set out to eat in as many restaurants as I could. That was not a professional ambition or even a conscious goal. It was just what I liked to do.
The author and wife Barbara (who figured in many dining columns as his “local food consultant”) at a high-end banquet in the early ’80s. Note the Sears rental tux.
photo courtesy of John Heckathorn
I was blessed with my first real job, the kind with a salary—not a particularly large one. Back then, my kind of Honolulu restaurant had Formica tabletops, and a menu I often couldn’t understand.
You can’t figure out food in Hawaii overnight. I often found myself ordering things just to find out what they were.
One night, in a restaurant (now long gone) in the Chinese Cultural Plaza, I ordered the soup of the day. It came topped with bright red chicken feet. So as not to appear as fresh off the plane as I was, I decided to eat them. They weren’t bad at all, kind of bony, so all I had to do was suck off the nearly gelatinous flesh. The experience was liberating. If I could eat chicken feet, I could eat anything.
Early on, a group of feral Australians dragged me to the ramshackle Kuhio Grill, a bar by the University of Hawaii at Manoa. I was surprised when they had to tear it down a decade later. It looked like it would fall over if you breathed hard on it.
At Kuhio Grill, the Australians explained, you drank a lot of Foster’s and left a big pile of money on the table. If her tip looked big enough, the waitress would bring you food. You didn’t choose, she did, and she didn’t bother telling you what it was. That’s how I ate raw fish for the first time without realizing it, and then, emboldened by the Foster’s, voluntarily ate tako poke, even though it looked suspiciously like octopus.
Both of these things proved much better than chicken feet.
I discovered yakiniku, miso butterfish, kung pao shrimp, nigiri sushi—and was unhappy when sushi bars became trendy on the Mainland. I wanted them to stay my, and Honolulu’s, secret.
Occasionally, I would even eat haole food, some of it at restaurants I remember fondly. The Third Floor served an incredible abalone in cream sauce with mushrooms and tomatoes, a dish that got even better when legendary sommelier Richard Dean, now in San Francisco, convinced me to stop pairing it with chenin blanc and order chardonnay.
A vintage ad for now defunct restaurant The Third Floor.
I am not sure The Third Floor was really about food. It was, like most of the grand restaurants of the period, about dressing up and feeling special. (Look over there by the koi pond, Mary Tyler Moore!)
Martin Wyss’ Swiss Inn, however, was always about food—wienerschnitzel, rosti potatoes, osso buco, onaga with capers. Wyss himself cooked every dish. The food was so good and so reasonable, for years we tried to eat there once a week.
I miss a third restaurant—not because it was good, but because it seemed to typify the whole kitschy dining scene in those days.
Along the waterfront in Hawaii Kai was a restaurant that may in fact have been called The Waterfront. It’s now a Zippy’s. But decades ago, a waitress in an abbreviated Eskimo costume used to wander the dining room with a warmer basket, giving you all you could eat of not particularly good, originally frozen King crab legs, slathered with molten butter.
The restaurant served wine in carafes, filled from large boxes of wine in the back. You didn’t order wine by name—just red or white. Don’t laugh. Carafes were hip—and affordable, even in quantity.
In my 30 years in Hawaii, the Waterfront was the only restaurant that ever threatened to throw me out. One night, a group of friends and I were laughing and talking over dinner, when a severely pained looking manager suggested we were, ahem, bothering his other patrons. “By laughing?” asked my friend Chris. The manager made threatening huffs.
Hawaii Kai was quiet in those days. We probably weren’t talking loud enough to be heard over the table at Roy’s.
Belon Oysters, Caviar and Canned Vegetable Soup
In the early ’80s, my avocation turned into my profession. I was recruited by HONOLULU Magazine to write on restaurants. I’d always hoped that the ability to write might come in handy some day. I’d never anticipated it would result in someone paying me to go out to dinner.
It’s hard to imagine in these food-obsessed times, when entire cable channels are devoted to cooking, that, back in ’80s, no one else in the Islands was writing seriously about dining. That was fortunate, because it allowed me to receive my education in public without undue embarrassment.
The dining scene in Hawaii at that time was confusing, not to mention schizophrenic.
On the one hand, I would find myself interviewing Spence Weaver, who was clearly inebriated at 10 in the morning. Weaver began his Honolulu restaurant career in 1939 with a hot dog cart called Swankie Frankie. By the ’80s, his company, Spencecliff, had 27 Oahu restaurants serving 3.6 million meals a year.
A 1970s menu from Coco’s, once one of Honolulu’s most popular coffee shops.
Spencecliff’s iconic restaurant was Coco’s, which perched like a flying saucer at the junction of Kalakaua Avenue and Kapiolani Boulevard, where the Hard Rock Café now resides. Coco’s served Vienna Sausage with breakfast and the soup of the day was often vegetable out of the can. It was not good, but lots of people ate there, from morning to late at night.
On the other end of the spectrum, in 1986 I flew to Maui for a special dinner at Raffles, the top dining room at the Stouffer Wailea (which became a Renaissance hotel and is due to be demolished in September). At the time, the Stouffer was a luxury property, the only hotel in Wailea. Outside at night, it was spooky. There were no other lights in any direction.
The dinner that night, I wrote, was the most fun I’d ever had with my clothes on. That may have been an exaggeration, but it was certainly the most fun I’d ever had in a Sears rental tux.
The food was Old School—real turtle soup, truffles in galantine, white rose-petal salad, veal with zucchini flowers, Charlotte Russe. It began with ice tables (literally, tables hewn from massive blocks of ice) full of Belon oysters imported from Normandy and tins of caviar, with real blini. It ended with brandy and Cuban cigars, which were, yes, illegal as well as immoral.
It was not the last of such dinners. The hotels were proving their European chops. The hottest restaurant opening in all those years was La Mer at the Halekulani. The consulting chef from France came up with pigeon salad in lamb’s lettuce, nage of prawns with chervil, cheese courses. I remember being shocked that dinner for two, including wine with each course, cost $162. (Of course, if you put that into 2007 dollars, it was $300, which might still raise my eyebrows, though not as much.)
La Mer kicked up the competition in all the dining rooms in Waikiki. The Hilton hired a team away from the Hyatt’s silver-domed-entrées restaurant Bagwells 2424 and started the Bali Room.
The town was in a race to get more sophisticated. People were ordering wine by the bottle. I remember a Honolulu professional woman explaining to me gravely, “If I want white, I say CHAR DON AY. If I want red, I say CAH BURR NAY.”
A number of Asian restaurants went upscale. The old King Tsin on King Street had tablecloths and waiters in ties. Keo filled his Kapahulu Avenue Thai restaurant with orchids and art. Suntory opened a stunning Japanese restaurant in the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center. Kyo-ya built a concrete palace on Kalakaua.
A 1987 ad touted Halekulani’s La Mer, still one of Hawaii’s finest restaurants.
But there was clearly something amiss. Restaurants were looking for the next new thing. They felt it coming, but had no idea what it was. The conventional wisdom was somehow that everyone wanted less.
Less restaurant—no more heavy, dark, formal dining rooms. All new restaurants sported pastels, blonde woods, etched glass.
Even established restaurants freaked out. Rivaling Spencecliff in those years was a chain called Jolly Roger, which had the Yum Yum Tree restaurants and a pleasant upscale eatery at Kahala Mall called The Spindrifter. The chain ripped out all the black Naugahyde booths and deemphasized the prime rib and steaks. I remember thinking the bright, new, floral Spindrifter, with plenty of salads on the menu, ought to be called Grandma’s Kitchen. The location is now, of course, buried beneath a Barnes & Noble.
The saddest decline was that of one of the town’s legendary eateries, The Bistro. Not the one that just closed at Century Center, this one stood on Kapiolani until it lost its lease and moved to Monsarrat. Near the end of its life, the Bistro went nuts, draping the walls with swaths of brightly painted fabric, and instituting, of all things, a non-alcoholic drink menu—which flew in the face of what had made it the town’s hippest hangout in the first place.
The food was supposed to become less, too. A trend toward the weird, diminutive portions of nouvelle cuisine gripped top-end restaurants. I remember sitting across a banquet table from the late Dave Donnelly. The waiters whipped the silver domes off the entrées, to reveal three tiny medallions of veal, a few dabs of sauce, a baby carrot, eggplants and zucchinis no bigger than one of your fingers, and a few sprigs of rosemary. “All that damned fuss for this,” said Donnelly.
Kiawe-Smoked Duck with Lilikoi Barbecue Sauce and Maui Blue Potatoes
Everybody wanted something different, but nobody knew what it was. I was convinced Hawaii wanted East-West cuisine. Of course, at the time, that meant stuff like scallop mousse in puff pastry with champagne-wasabi sauce or shrimp pasta in miso-mustard sauce.
The only person who knew what Hawaii wanted was a 32-year-old chef fresh from a spectacular restaurant failure in Los Angeles—Roy Yamaguchi.
When Roy’s opened in late ’88, most of the buzz was about his location. My column asked: Could he possibly survive in that graveyard of restaurants, Hawaii Kai?
Fortunately, I got over the location thing real quick.
I went nuts over dishes that have long since disappeared from Roy’s menu in favor of more sophisticated fare—pork shu mai in mustard-soy vinaigrette, grilled shrimp with wasabi cocktail sauce, kiawe-smoked duck with lilikoi barbecue sauce.
I wrote: “Yamaguchi may very well become a pivotal figure in the creation of a true contemporary Hawaii cuisine—that blend of East and West and Polynesia that’s been long expected and slow arriving.”
King Tsin, one of several upscale Asian restaurants in the ’80s, was famous for its beggar’s chicken.
I wish I were always that smart.
Of course, I was missing a key element in what was to become Hawaii regional cuisine. Even though it was right in front of my face.
I’d eaten at Merriman’s, where Peter Merriman would even climb trees to get coconuts for his kitchen. I’d flown to Maui to eat with Roger Dikon at the Maui Prince.
Dikon, like Merriman, often resorted to guerilla sourcing to get fresh Island ingredients. He grew eggplants and lettuces in his own garden. He would whip up a meal of papio on sesame mustard greens and a duck salad with blue potatoes and fresh Maui onion chutney.
I was so amused by the blue potatoes, which Dikon had found on an obscure farm in Kula, that I just shook my head when Dikon said this was local food, since it was grown locally. “It’s Island regional cuisine,” he insisted.
He was right. It was going to take farmers as well as chefs to create a true Hawaii cuisine. When everyone realized that, we embarked on the most glorious decade in Hawaii restaurant history.
Of the original 12 Hawaii regional cuisine chefs, who banded together in 1991, it’s remarkable how little known most were at the time. Many were Neighbor Island chefs. Roger Dikon, Bev Gannon, Amy Ota and Mark Ellman were on Maui, with Ota hidden away in Hana and Ellman perhaps the best known for his longtime Lahaina restaurant, Avalon. Jean-Marie Josselin had a small shopping center restaurant on Kauai.
Philippe Padovani, Alan Wong, Peter Merriman and Sam Choy were on the Big Island. Choy, who had a restaurant in a bowling alley, was known mainly for a boffo performance in a HECO commercial.
George Mavrothalassitis and Gary Strehl were Oahu hotel chefs. If you weren’t a foodie, the only one you might have heard of was Roy Yamaguchi—at that point a radical young chef on whom the jury was still out.
As these chefs appeared suddenly on the scene, opening restaurants, it seemed every few months, their menus exploding with surprises.
Seafood curry soup, shrimp gyoza with chili beurre blanc, and mahimahi with garlic-sesame crust and lime-ginger sauce at Josselin’s (dear departed) Pacific Café Maui, where the walls glowed Gauguin yellow.
Pohole ferns, opihi and wild boar tenderloin with hoisin at Mauna Lani, where Amy Ota became the first woman executive chef at a Ritz-Carlton hotel (long since become a Fairmont).
Seared ahi with a nori purse of rice and Asian osso buco from Sam Choy, who finally got a white-tablecloth restaurant on Kapahulu Avenue.
I ate some bad meals during this period, mostly at old-style restaurants struggling to redefine themselves. The venerable Third Floor first devolved into a restaurant called The Secret, then into Aqua, where the food, apparently in an attempt to look modern, was piled so high on the plate it toppled to the table when you set a fork to it.
Wild boar loin prepared by Amy Ota, the first female executive chef at a Ritz-Carlton, circa 1993
Michel’s briefly hired Jean-Marie Josselin, who brought along his lobster potato salad and wanted to change the name to Jean-Marie’s. When Josselin left, Michel’s served inedible meals for perhaps a year, until it was sold and restored.
The ’90s, you’ll remember, were an almost endless recession in Hawaii. A number of the Hawaii regional restaurateurs floundered in the choppy financial waters. But, on the table, the restaurant news was very, very good.
I knew Hawaii food had arrived nationally during the ’90s when I walked into a restaurant in New Orleans—then perhaps the greatest food town in America. Written on a chalkboard, the day’s special: “Hawaiian Mahi Mahi in Thai Curry Sauce.”
Soup and Sandwich
As the ’90s wound to a close and the new century dawned, the Hawaii restaurant scene either consolidated or went to hell in a handbasket, depending on how you looked at it.
The good side, first. Many of the best ideas in Hawaii cuisine seem to start on the Neighbor Islands and then make their way to Oahu. The real consolidation of Hawaii’s signature restaurants began when Alan Wong, George Mavrothalassitis and D.K. Kodama all made their way back to Oahu.
Wong had established a serious reputation at the Mauna Lani, first among chefs, who called him Wongie and tended to steal his recipes, then among the interisland foodies. The buzz was so great when he arrived in Honolulu, in an unpropitious King Street location, that I was skeptical.
Until I had his soup and sandwich. By now this little Wong lagniappe is legendary. If you’ve never had it, it’s a champagne flute filled with a garlicky red and yellow tomato soup. The soup was not much more than liquefied Big Island tomatoes—and tasted a lot better than any tomatoes in the supermarket back in ’95. With tomato soup, Wong figured you needed a grilled cheese sandwich—so you got a small one, with kalua pork and foie gras.
Let’s deconstruct this dish. It’s Hawaii regional (vine-ripened Big Island tomatos, kalua pig). It’s high-end (foie gras). It’s as artful as anything you might get at, say, the French Laundry, which is why everyone owes Wong a vote of thanks for putting Hawaii on the high-end foodie map of the United States.
However, in fine Island fashion, the dish doesn’t take itself too seriously. I once took a national food writer to the counter at Alan’s. When she got the soup and sandwich, she burst into laughter. She loved it, but she was right: It was funny.
Mavro returned from exile on Maui—and did similarly startling things just down the block from Wong’s. Mavro could have coasted for decades on his onaga in salt crust with ogo-herb sauce. He kept progressing into foams and essences and remarkably slow cooking, becoming more international on the one hand, making Fodor’s list of the 10 best restaurants in the world. On the other, he’s become more local, since he now makes the best malassadas in town, filled with coconut ice cream.
Hawaii regional cuisine icons (from left to right) Jean-Marie Josselin, Peter Merriman, and Amy Ota and Philippe Padovani, circa 1992.
I originally met D.K. Kodama on Maui, when I dropped by his small sushi bar on the advice of Peter Merriman. I was absolutely blown away by his menu: Thai ahi carpaccio in red pepper-lime sauce. Peppery Chinese-style snapper sashimi. Asian rock shrimp cake in a powerful ginger-lime-chili butter. Very Hawaii, not a wimpy flavor in the bunch.
Of course, Kodama has since become one of Hawaii’s best known restaurateurs, branching into wine bars and steak houses, and partnering with Hiroshi Fukui at Hiroshi’s Eurasion Tapas.
When Fukui began cooking at L’Uraku 15 years ago, I gave him a terrible review. L’Uraku back then was the sort of place where, when I asked the waitress what kind of chardonnay they had, she answered, “White, sir.”
That was before Chuck Furuya, then a wine broker, now wine director of all the Kodama restaurants, got a hold of him.
Fukui raided Nalo Farms for new ingredients, and proved himself one of the most inventive chefs in the Islands, turning out refined and elegant Hawaii Regional Cuisine.
But while these chefs became stars, pillars of the community, something odd happened. We stopped getting restaurants put up by Hawaii chefs and started getting national chains: Cheesecake Factory, Romano’s Macaroni Grill, P.F. Chang’s and Yardhouse. Now, heaven save us, a Señor Frog’s and a sushi bar from Miami are on the way.
Pop Tart with Cinnamon-Balsamic Ice Cream
The explosion of new retail and dining space in Waikiki has shown precious little imagination in the restaurants it has fostered, with the exception perhaps of Nobu.
Young chefs George Mavrothalassitis and Philippe Padovani play with beluga caviar and Maui tomatoes, circa 1989.
While Nobu is an international brand, Nobu himself had been coming to Hawaii for two decades to cook at food events and squeeze in a little golf with Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi.
Nobu’s big problem may be how Hawaii his food actually is. His sizzling sashimi in ponzu, for instance, has been so frequently imitated here that it’s hardly going to strike anyone as revolutionary, as it did in the Los Angeles of the ’80s.
But at least the general construction boom has been providing plenty of restaurant locations. The new Honolulu Design Center has given us the most ambitious independent restaurant in a decade, Stage. I am still salivating over Chef Jon Matsubara’s coq au vin and still amused by pastry chef Mark Okumura’s apple “Pop Tart” with cinnamon-balsamic ice cream.
Of course, Mavro has opened Cassis, his “casual” restaurant downtown, not without some criticism of its prices and formality. But anyone who knows Mavro knows he’s going to tinker with the restaurant until it blows people away.
I’m not even mentioning the Maui restaurant scene, about which I said some harsh things in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and which now rivals Oahu’s. Try Mala Terrace in Lahaina or DUO in Wailea.
The present palmy days, with construction cranes everywhere, remind me of the late ’80s. I am hoping that somewhere in the state there’s another revolutionary chef/restaurateur, another Roy perhaps, though totally unlike Roy, who’s ready to redefine Hawaii restaurants in a way that make us all say, “Yeah, that’s what I wanted all along.”
John Heckathorn has been writing restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984. In 2007, he won a bronze medal from the City and Regional Magazine Association for his food writing.