Two More Beloved Restaurants—Wailana Coffee House and Mocha Java—Close For Good
No more all-you-can-eat pancakes at 2 a.m. in Waikīkī or casual cofficing at Ward anymore.
One last meal at Wailana Coffee House yesterday, with pancakes, sunny eggs, bacon, a teri burger and a chocolate milkshake.
Photos: Catherine Toth Fox
Last year was a bad year—at least for me—for restaurants.
Some of my personal favorites, including Ryan’s Grill and Heights Drive Inn, closed their doors, forcing me to find just-as-good li hing margaritas and fried noodles elsewhere. (It hasn’t been easy.)
SEE ALSO: Bidding Goodbye to Some of Our Favorite Restaurants in 2017
This year isn’t turning out to be any better, with popular spots like Yauatcha Waikīkī and Kan Zaman in Chinatown—its Kaimukī spot remains (thankfully) open—shutting down, too.
But two restaurant closures this year hurt the most so far: Wailana Coffee House, the iconic 24-hour family diner in Waikīkī, and Mocha Java, the popular café in Ward Village.
Wailana Coffee Shop, which first announced it would close at the end of September, extended its run until Oct. 14. For decades, the corner coffee shop has been known for its all-you-can-eat pancakes, quintessential diner fare and throwback classics you won’t find anywhere else, including beef liver with fried onions, Hawaiian-style ambrosia and S.O.S. (creamed beef on toast served with two eggs).
Inside the iconic Wailana Coffee House yesterday afternoon. The restaurant is closing on Oct. 14.
The family—the coffee shop is run by the three kids of the late founder Francis Tom—own the restaurant space and part of the 24-story Wailana at Waikīkī condominium where the restaurant is located. The three owners decided to close Wailana Coffee House because renovating the space would be too costly.
Since the announcement of its impending closure, Wailana has never been busier, with residents heading to Waikīkī for one last meal—or some trying it for the first time. Lines snaking out the door and down Ala Moana Boulevard are common now, even during typically slow times.
I got to Wailana after the lunch rush at around 1 p.m. yesterday, and I still had to wait behind a dozen people to get a table. The restaurant is running specials until it closes next month: 10 percent off on all day on Tuesdays and Thursdays and from 3 to 5 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; and 50 percent off all bar appetizers ordered with drinks during the week. I doubted, though, that’s why people were here.
I’m not one of those locals who had forgotten about this homey diner and came back to pay my respects. I had just dined here on my birthday in March, sitting in one of the small booths that can only fit two people. We had just surfed in Waikīkī that morning and walked over to Wailana for pancakes and corned beef hash (husband) and Belgian waffles and bacon (me).
Yesterday I brought my foodie pal Melissa Chang, another Wailana regular, to split one last meal here. The waitress, dressed in a mu‘umu‘u as bright as her personality, chatted with us about her favorites on the menu, which included the Reuben and French dip sandwiches. Melissa had been craving the pancakes—they’re among her Top 10 favorites—and I wanted a burger and milkshake.
All that makes Wailana retro and old-fashioned—the décor, the menu—is what also makes it so beloved. As the culinary scene in Honolulu evolves and expands, with restaurants offering innovative hybrid brunches and dishes carefully designed for the ’gram, Wailana has remained the same, offering the kind of local food people craved. You won’t find seared foie gras or black truffle anything here. But you can order salisbury steak, won ton mein, a triple-decker clubhouse sandwich, chopped steak, old-fashioned meatloaf or a roast turkey sandwich smothered in giblet gravy.
Wailana will be missed.
Mocha Java Café, on the other hand, is already closed, but that hasn’t stopped people from lamenting its end.
The coffee shop, which opened 35 years ago in Ward Center, didn’t notify its patrons until a sign was posted on its windows. It read, “Serving the community of Honolulu has been an incredible journey that we will never forget. The staff of Mocha Java would like to take the time to thank you for your years of patronage. We will truly miss serving you.” The café quietly closed on Aug. 31.
The sign invited patrons to write notes about their fondest memories or what they would miss the most and leave it in a jar.
“The jar was full of notes,” says owner Luzia Maia, who bought Mocha Java from the original owner about 20 years ago. “They were so nice and warm. I read a couple of them, but I’m not ready to read them all. It will have to be a day when I’m at home with a bottle of wine and a couple of friends and some popcorn. Because there will be crying.”
There isn’t a coffee shop that I’ve patronized more than Mocha Java. I started going there when I was in high school—this was in the early ’90s—indulging in my favorite chocolate-espresso milkshake with friends after (and sometimes during) school. It’s been my go-to spot for meetings, interviews and cofficing—lots of parking, great food, free wi-fi, air conditioning—and I can’t count the number of hours I’ve spent writing here. There’s a table outside that was basically my second writing desk—but with a better view.
Maia says sales had plateaued the last couple of years, and the new development in the area, which had promised to lure more people to Kaka‘ako, didn’t have an effect on the coffee shop.
“What we had in our favor was the lease was expiring,” she says. “It was a good time to exit.”
The café was known for its extensive menu of breakfast and lunch items, from its tofu scramble to black-bean burger, from the popular Greek chicken salad to the even-more-popular spinach-mushroom-cheese omelet. Its freshly squeezed juices and acai bowls, both Maia’s addition, were hits, too.
Even when other coffee shops popped up—at least half a dozen Starbucks opened in the neighborhood—Mocha Java still had its loyal patrons, many of whom (like me) appreciated the restaurant’s philosophy of putting the customer first. You could literally customize any dish on the menu and the staff would try to accommodate your request.
“We were like a second home to a lot of people,” Maia says. “You get the food you want because we wanted to accommodate everyone, whatever the request they had. We served simple food, very casual, nothing complicated. We had good coffee, it was a friendly place, you could come and bring your dogs or your bicycles and your kids and your grandmas.”
The good news? Maia opened a second location, called MJ Café, at Windward Mall in 2011. You may not find everything you loved from the Ward café, but you can still get its great sandwiches, salads, soups, waffles, fresh juices, acai bowls and coffee.
It’s just a farther drive.
READ MORE STORIES BY CATHERINE TOTH FOX