Old-School Diners We Love: Kaua‘i’s Tip Top Motel, Café & Bakery

Who can resist a 107-year-old café with famous pancakes and a sumo-size bento?


Tip Top Exterior James Nakamura

Photo: James Nakamura


It’s 11:40 a.m. when I pull into the parking lot of Tip Top Motel, Café & Bakery in Lihue. As usual, the lot is jam-packed and the only open spot is in the far corner. The same scene plays out when I walk into the restaurant: Every table looks occupied, but a server hollers from across the dining room that there is an open table on the far side.


Waiting for my friend to arrive, I look around at the scene. A father and son are finishing bowls of oxtail soup before heading back to the family business. Behind them, an auntie garbed in a fresh lei celebrates her birthday with two friends. A young couple in another booth tries, with mild success, to get their two boys to sit still and finish their lunch. When my friend arrives, it takes a few minutes for him to cross the room, since people keep calling him to their tables to say hello or talk business. “It’s always like this in here,” he says when he finally sits down.


SEE ALSO: Hawai‘i’s Oldest Restaurants Are Still ‘Ono After All These Years


full dining room at Tip Top Motel and cafe

Photo: Gregg Hoshida


Tip Top Motel, Café & Bakery has been a cornerstone of Lihue dining for 107 years. Now run by the fourth generation of its founding Ota family, it is a place that has served similar generations of Kaua‘i families who make themselves at home in its booths and order the famous pancakes and other old-school diner fare. Rubber-necking at nearby tables, I see loco moco, saimin with shrimp tempura, and Wing Dings (seasoned chicken wings), all of which go on my short list for future visits.


Oxtail Soup is said to be a kauai favorite at tip top motel and cafe

Photo: Gregg Hoshida


Today I order the oxtail soup ($23.14). The menu describes it as a “Kaua‘i Favorite”—with luscious morsels of oxtail swimming in a hearty bath of beef stock and glass noodles, it is easy to see why so many tables around me have this same dish. My friend orders the Tip Top Yokozuna Bento ($22.79), a behemoth of a plate named after the top rank of sumo wrestler and loaded with fried chicken, shrimp tempura, corned beef hash, sliced steak and the local favorite, Goteburg sausage.


Tip Top Yokozuna Bento Gregg Hoshida

Photo: Gregg Hoshida


In the aisles, every server maneuvers a dining cart filled with condiments, pitchers of iced water, plastic cups and coffee mugs. Upon closer inspection, I see that the cups and mugs carry the logos of different companies Tip Top has done business with over the decades. Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Hawai‘i Coffee Co., Royal Kona: Unpretentious and unapologetic, the varied display adds to the quirky charm of the establishment. It’s probably what some of our cupboards at home look like.


plastic water glasses and coffee mugs bear different logos at tip top cafe

Photo: Gregg Hoshida


Our food arrives. The flavors are deep, rich and embracing, just how I imagine 107 years as a beloved hometown institution would make them taste. We dig in, catch up on old times, and become one more patchwork in the culinary quilt that is Tip Top Motel, Café & Bakery.


Open Tuesday to Sunday from 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., 3173 Akahi St., Lihue, (808) 245-2333, tiptop-motel.com


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