What Does It Take to Win a Hale Aina?
There are more than 5,000 eateries in the state. What does it take to stand out from the crowd and win a Hale Aina Award? Here are a few inside stories.
It's 4:30, the late afternoon sunlight blasting through the plate-glass windows of Roy's Hawaii Kai.
Around a few tables cluster all 15 members of the wait staff. It's unusual for an average restaurant to bring the whole front-of-the-house staff in early. Typically, a few are paid to come in to set up. The rest arrive just a few minutes ahead of the customers.
Roy's—which won this year's Hale Aina Award for Restaurant of the Year, plus three other awards—is willing to pay its whole staff to come in early. It's pre-opening meeting is one reason it also won the gold Hale Aina award for best service.
Rainer Kumbroch, president of Roy’s Hawaii operations, stands up and points out that John Dominis, once the town’s top restaurant, just closed after 31 years. “Top restaurants do die,” he says.
Kumbroch repeats his mantra, which he knows that everyone—down to the junior waiters and the food runners—knows by heart. “Your most important responsibility? The customer. Your most important customer? The person who saved up to come here. Make sure the anniversary couple from Wahiawa, who passed by 2,500 restaurants to get here, leaves happy.”
Next to speak is Roy’s Hawaii Kai manager, Zameer Mallal. “It may rain tonight,” he says. “What do we do when it rains?”
Get the umbrellas, says the staff in unison.
“And if it pours?”
We run the customers to their cars.
Zameer recounts a Roy’s legend: A waiter a decade ago who leapt over a hedge to flag down a bus for a customer. “Nothing’s too much, ever.”
The hostess runs through tonight’s reservations. A veteran waitress reminds the staff that one of the regular guests hates to wait downstairs, wants to go directly to table No. 28, always drinks chardonnay, in a red-wine glass.
Then it’s wine-tasting time, a new Napa merlot on the list. “What might you recommend this wine with?” asks Mallal. The short ribs, someone suggests. “It would go perfectly,” he says.
After the wine, the waiters gather at the rim of the display kitchen. Chef Chris Gainer shows them the dishes he’s created for tonight.
This is, after all, Roy’s. There’s new, and often complex, food every evening, and the waiters are supposed to know the dishes in detail.
The seared shrimp special, for instance, comes with asparagus, in a sauce made with lobster, Nalo Farms shiso and Pernod. All on a purée of kabocha pumpkin. At the last minute, the pumpkin is mixed with beurre blanc.
“What’s in our beurre blanc?” asks Gainer. Without hesitation, a young waiter rattles off all seven ingredients: white wine, white wine vinegar, shallots, cream, butter, salt and white pepper. Even Gainer grins. His waiters are on it.
There are four new dishes in all, including a scallop and risotto dish that includes an egg cooked for two hours at exactly 59.5 degrees Centigrade.
Gainer’s still working on the presentation. He begins placing items on the risotto. “Don’t cover up the egg,” says a veteran waiter. Point taken, the chefs take care to make it look great.
Pictures of the dishes are snapped for Facebook; the waiters all get bites, enough to know what they’re talking about.
Suddenly, it’s 5:30. “There’s a line downstairs,” says Mallal. “Let’s hit it, people.”
Another night at the Restaurant of the Year begins.
What's It Take?
That's the kind of effort, thought and manpower it takes for Roy’s to become Restaurant of the Year, not to mention winning multiple Hale Ainas for Value, Service and even Dessert (Roy’s legendary chocolate soufflé cake may account for the latter).
Our readers, who vote for the Hale Ainas, don’t usually peek behind the scenes at a wait staff meeting—but they are sophisticated enough to know the results of that dedication when they see and taste them.
Seventy-five Hawai‘i restaurants won the most prestigious dining awards in the state, HONOLULU’s Hale Aina Awards, in more than 28 categories.
None of those awards came without effort. Here’s how a few of the winning restaurants did it.
The 14-Year Overnight Success
During the midafternoon lull between lunch and dinner, Sean Priester finally gets a chance to eat, a Carolina-style pulled pork sandwich with buttermilk cilantro cole slaw.
“What a wild year,” says Priester. In the past 12 months, he quit his job, started a lunch wagon, then a restaurant. On top of that, he and his wife had a baby.
“Suddenly, I have a Hale Aina Award,” he says, shaking his head. “Unbelievable.”
Priester’s overnight success took 14 years. After college in North Carolina, he came to Hawaii on a whim, living with a college buddy in Sunset Beach and cooking at Sunset Grill, then one of the trendiest restaurants in town.
Cooking in those days was just a job, one at which he wasn’t the most reliable. “Then in 1996 I got sober, and I got serious,” he says. Since then he’s put together an unusual career.
First, he gained a kind of underground prominence at a restaurant in the downtown YWCA, the Wild Mushroom, where he threw memorable Sunday jazz brunches. There he met his wife, Lisa Marie, who sang with the band. “We were introduced by Azure McCall,” says Priester. “How cool is that?”
After the Y, he took over the Kau Kau Café at the Hawaii State Hospital in Kaneohe. He ran the restaurant not simply as an eatery, but as vocational training for the patients.
“That was one of the best jobs I ever had,” he says. He got his crew to such a high level, he took them to Taste of Honolulu, where they held their heads high, competing effectively with professional restaurants.
“After that, I still had some things to prove,” he says. Like whether he could run a high-profile, professional kitchen. He stepped in as executive chef at Top of Waikiki, the rotating restaurant which, until his arrival, had a well-earned reputation as a tourist trap.
“I told them I was going to be a revolution, that we were going to respect our guests and ourselves.” He managed to turn the restaurant around.
I ate there both before and after. Before his arrival, it was dismal. By the time he was done, you could take anyone to dinner there, the food enlivened from time to time by Priester’s command of Southern flavors.
Having transformed Top of Waikiki and increased his profile—he decided he didn’t have much more to prove. He went back to his roots in a lunch wagon called Soul Patrol.
Soul Patrol gained a quick underground reputation for its food, its hipness solidified by its Twitter following.
“There’s romance with lunch trucks,” says Priester. “But really, they’re a lot of hard work and an uncertain result. Some days were horrendous.” The Soul Patrol may never roll again.
Priester was offered his current small location at the foot of St. Louis Drive. Its size seemed perfect. After 14 years in the business, Priester had the reputation, skills, organizational talent and soul-food chops to attract an immediate following. People came looking for his fried chicken, cornbread and seafood gumbo.
“It’s my version of Southern food. It’s food you feel right here,” says Priester, slapping his hand over his heart.
Then he pauses a minute: “But, Best New Restaurant—that’s still hard to believe. I knew this little place wasn’t going to make me rich. I just wanted to do a good job.”
Only in Kailua
Whenever I drive to Kailua from town, I feel stressed and overdressed. “Relax, let’s get a bottle of dry rose, have lunch,” says Don Dymond. Dymond isn’t exactly laid back; he’s a smart, focused entrepreneur. But he’s like Kailua itself—friendly, open, unpretentious, yet somehow full of dynamism.
In 1992, Dymond bought a moribund little market near the beach, with a hard-to-pronounce name, Kalapawai. He kept the name, because he wanted a place that was an integral part of the neighborhood.
Kalapawai Market became a community gathering place. You could buy staples, and also flowers and a bottle of excellent wine. Soon, though, food service became increasingly important. Commuters grabbed coffee in the morning; beachgoers got sandwiches at lunch. It’s now hard to imagine Kailua without the market.
Enter opportunity, in the shape of a slight sliver of land on Kailua Road, right as you enter town. It’s a highly visible, yet tiny lot; Dymond built a long, narrow restaurant with only 60 seats, deliberately replicating the green-and-white country-store look of Kalapawai Market.
At the end of 2006, Kalapawai Café opened. At first it was like the market—a coffee shop in the morning and a deli at lunch. But Dymond had hired not one, but two talented chefs, John Memering and Jason Iwane. Memering had worked at Alan Wong’s and taught at Kapiolani Community College.
Six months after opening, Kalapawai Café did something few restaurants can pull off. At 5 p.m., it stops being an order-at-the-counter deli and becomes a sit-down, full service dinner house.
“We had to educate the customers that, no, you couldn’t have a turkey-cranberry sandwich at dinner,” says Dymond. Instead, Memering’s small kitchen pumped out items such as house-cured venison salami, gnocchi with Hauula tomatoes, fresh fish with Meyer lemon risotto and Big Island sirloin with grilled asparagus. All paired with a reasonably priced but adventurous wine list. Here you could get a bottle of Vouvray or Brunello. It was just casual enough, just upscale enough for the town.
“When we won the gold Hale Aina Award for Neighborhood Restaurant, that was perfect,” says Dymond. “That’s exactly what we want to be. I’m not sure this restaurant would work many places besides Kailua.”
Kalapawai also picked up a bronze award for Best Gourmet Comfort Food. “The other winners for that were Ed Kenney, of Town, and Kevin Hanney, of 12th Avenue Grill,” says Dymond. “I knew at that moment we were on the right track.”
“Oh, that’s good company, the kind we want to be in,” says chef Memering.
Back at the 12th Avenue Grill in Kaimuki, the winner of top honors for Gourmet Comfort Food, Kevin Hanney stands in front of the smoker he’s jerry-rigged in the back of his kitchen. He’s smoking wedges of Pecorino over a can of smoldering kiawe chips.
The smoked Pecorino is the secret ingredient in 12th Avenue’s mac-and-cheese, a dish that has been written up in Gourmet, Food & Wine, Travel+Leisure and Bon Appetit. “Mac-and-cheese,” says Hanney. “That’s why people think we do comfort food, like their mother cooked, but we really don’t.”
He points to the night’s specials—pork loin wrapped in pork belly, mahimahi atop lobster risotto. “Did your mother ever make lobster risotto?”
We’re joined by Hanney’s executive chef, Bob McGee, who’s come over to tuck some goat cheese into the smoker, so he can pair it with “some great beets” for an appetizer special.
“Kevin’s right,” he says. “We do food you wish your mother had cooked.”
Comfort food or not, Hanney and McGee don’t let themselves get too comfortable in the kitchen. Every night, they come up with eight to 10 blackboard specials, new dishes, built around available local ingredients from small suppliers.
“We like to be on a first-name basis with people who have 20 great rabbits, 20 great ducks,” says Hanney. “We’re small enough they can supply us, even if we only get enough for a couple of nights’ specials. But we’re large enough to make a difference.” He pauses. “By the way, do you know anyone who has duck eggs?”
“Oh, yeah,” says McGee. “Give us two or three dozen duck eggs. You’d be amazed at what we could do.”
Sacrificing a Suntan
For someone who baked scones and muffins until 11 last night and then came back to work at 5 a.m., Chrissie Kaila Castillo seems impossibly young, attractive and cheerful. Her little Café Kaila in Market City Shopping Center in Kapahulu won Hale Aina honors for Best Breakfast. But to make the place work, she says, “I’ve sacrificed a lot of sleep. I drink more coffee than anyone I know.”
At 9 a.m. on a weekday, Café Kaila is packed: businessmen meeting, surfers fueling up for the waves, older ladies socializing over frittatas and featherlight pancakes with caramelized apples.
It’s busy, but this is nothing. On weekends there are people waiting on the sidewalk. “Saturday and Sunday, I never get a chance to leave the kitchen,” says Castillo.
That’s what it takes to win the Hale Aina. That and enjoying what you’re doing. “I love to cook and I love breakfast,” she says.
For a UH course in entrepreneurship, she created a business plan for a breakfast café. She was taking the course pass/fail, but Castillo passed with flying colors—her plan won her a Small Business Loan, just enough money, with a lot of sweat equity and help from friends, to open Café Kaila at the end of 2007.
“I thought it would be a tranquil spot, classical music, people sipping cappuccinos around a fountain," she says. Surprise, after a few weeks, KHON’s Manolo Morales dropped by with a camera, and the next morning, there was a line. “I was terrified. There were only three of us, my sister, my mom and I. We got on the phone to friends and said, please, we need help.”
Her crew, all smiles and T-shirts, is still mainly friends, she says. “You have to have a happy place to deal with people at breakfast. People can be sleepy, some are cranky, some are rushing, some are just cruising. You have to take care of them all.”
She makes it sound like a pleasure. “It’s worth it, it’s fun,” she says. “Except look at me. No tan. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any waves.”
"Sorry I had to put you on hold," says Mike Pasher. “I just bought 180 pounds of big, beautiful onaga.”
Pasher is the “Fish Guru” for Mama’s Fish House on Maui, and his three-plus decades of experience are one reason the restaurant won a Hale Aina Award for Best Seafood.
Mama’s Fish House is a state-licensed primary seafood dealer, which means Pasher can legally buy the catch directly from fishing boats, instead of through wholesalers. That means that the fish at Mama’s is a little fresher than most.
“The fisherman love us, we pay on the spot,” he says. “We can’t take everything, but we buy 1,400 to 1,600 pounds of fish a month. That means we usually get first right of refusal.”
He puts me on hold again. When he comes back, he says, “With cell phones now, the fishermen call me right from the boat. I just got my ahi for tomorrow. They’re catching them right now.”
Most restaurants buy their fish cut into fillets by a wholesaler. Mama’s preps its own fish; Pasher employs not one, but three fish cutters.
The last time I saw Pasher in person, a few years ago, his fish cutters were working in a hallway. “Oh, no more,” he says. “We built a brand-new, climate-controlled cutting room, so we can keep the fish perfect. We’re always changing here.”
That’s true and that’s why, in addition to Best Seafood, Mama’s has won Hale Ainas as a Best Maui Restaurant and a Restaurant Worth the Trip.
Doris and Floyd Christenson founded the restaurant at remote Kuau Cove in 1973. They didn’t have much money, but they had a lot of energy. In the 37 years since, they never opened a second Mama’s, never opened another kind of restaurant, never franchised the operation. Instead, they kept trying to improve every detail.
Now in his 70s, Floyd is still tinkering with the restaurant, everything from menu descriptions to building a new dining room, one wall of which is recycled from a demolished plantation house. Doris is still greeting guests with “Hi, I’m Mama.”
“Our philosophy at Mama’s is that, if we’re doing things the same way we did yesterday, we’re going backwards,” says Pasher. “We’re always trying to get better. If you haven’t been to the restaurant in a couple of years, get yourself over here.”
Cookin' in Kona
When in Kailua-Kona, I always liked to eat at Huggo's, its open-air dining room perched on pilings right above the waters of Kailua Bay. The restaurant has a killer sunset view and a warm clubby feel.
Once, by myself, I grabbed a stool at the bar. “I guess you can take that seat,” said the man next to me. “The guy who usually sits there is on a trip.”
I loved Huggo’s, except for the food, which used to be competent but bland. Until my most recent trip.
I wasn’t sure what had happened, but the cioppino, a long-time menu item, was suddenly alive with flavor as well as abundant with clams, shrimp and Kona lobster. The sizzling skillet of mushrooms was now packed with meaty Hamakua mushrooms, fresh shiitake and a zap of Asian flavors.
“We hired a young chef,” said the man who took over the venerable restaurant from his parents, Eric Von Platen Luder.
The new chef, Laine Uchida, has deep Kona roots. Laine’s grandfather, Atae “John” Uchida, came from Japan in the ’50s to cook at Teshima’s. Laine himself cooked at Alan Wong’s Hualalai Grill. When he signed on at Huggo’s, he decided to give the food a boost.
“I’m all about old-school, local flavors,” he says. He hit the mushrooms with shoyu, oyster sauce, chives, ginger and garlic. Deciding the cioppino on the menu “had no flavor,” he added bell pepper, more saffron, truffle butter. His remarkable mahimahi is crusted with lup cheong, Portuguese sausage, black beans, ginger and garlic.
“A lot of Mainland cities have the best of the best, French food, all that. Why try to compete?” he says. “Instead, you come here and what you taste is the kind of food everyone in Hawai‘i grew up with. Nowhere else can do that.”
And nowhere else can boast a Kona sunset, or those giant eels that swim up out of Kailua Bay and gobble down the lobster and clam shells you toss over Huggo’s railing. It was always a great restaurant, but now it has the food to make it a Big Island Hale Aina winner.
Ambition on Kauai
How do you win a Hale Aina as a Top Kauai Restaurant in a boutique hotel that hardly anyone has heard of? Ambition.
In 2009, nearly 17 years after Hurricane Iniki devastated the Poipu Beach Hotel, the Koa Kea Hotel & Resort rose on its foundations, more luxurious but no bigger than the original ’60s hotel. It needed to make a name for itself.
“We don’t want to sound arrogant, but our goal was to have the best food on the island,” says Koa Kea’s manager, Chris Steuri. “We knew we had to work at it.”
Steuri had just spent the weekend reviewing 605 guest comments on the hotel’s Red Salt restaurant—from Urban Spoon, Yelp, e-mail surveys and so forth. “Less than 5 percent had anything negative to say, and I counted the ones that said it was expensive, even though it’s fairly priced. We’re pleased so far.”
The food at Red Salt is spectacular—its checkerboard poke is likely to become a classic, and its plate of Wagyu steak with Red Salt fries alone is worth a trip to the Garden Isle.
Unfortunately, Red Salt’s founding chef, Ronnie Sanchez, has just returned to the Mainland, his father seriously ill. “He did the noble thing,” says Steuri. “He’s so good he’ll have no problem finding another job when he’s ready. Besides, he trained the three guys in the kitchen so well that we’ve had no fall off in quality.”
Still, Red Salt is looking for a great new chef. “If you know of someone, a No. 2 in a good kitchen, who wants to step up, let me know,” says Steuri. “We’ll make him famous. Maybe not rich, but famous for sure.”
Grilling Front and Center
Good to Grill in the Kapahulu Safeway complex won a silver Hale Aina Award for Neighborhood Restaurant. I wondered how it had done it; it was, as far as I knew, a plate lunch place in a shopping center.
When I went for the first time, I found myself caught in a flashback—I remembered the first time, decades ago, that I first walked into Hy’s Steak House.
The thing I remember most vividly about Hy’s was its then chef, Almar Arcano, in a sparkling white uniform, smack in the middle of the dining room, grilling big steaks over a glowing kiawe fire. The patrons were protected from the grill by a glass booth, but the wonderful aromas seeped into the room.
Good to Grill had the same large kiawe grill, this time not tucked away in a fancy dining room, but front and center in the little eatery.
I suppose that’s no surprise. Arcano and his one-time compatriot from Hy’s, Wes Zane, are partners with Jason Kim at Good to Grill. “I think it was always Almar’s dream to do that upscale, kiawe-grilled food in a casual, affordable setting,” says Kim. “We’re a little like Hy’s, I guess, except we do plate lunches.”
Exceptional plate lunches—macadamia-nut-crusted mahi, spicy-sweet hibachi chicken, loco mocos. The short ribs are so good that even Roy Yamaguchi tweeted them. To me, however, the can’t-miss dish at Good to Grill is the prime rib. We are talking aged beef, slow-roasted for five hours and then given a finishing burst of flavor on the grill. You can get a 10-ounce slice for $9.99, complete with garlic mashed potatoes or rice and baby mixed greens in balsamic vinaigrette.
When you can put that kind of value on an inexpensive plate, you’ve earned yourself a Hale Aina as a great neighborhood eatery. It’s a convenient neighborhood, too, since you can pick up wine for your dinner at Safeway next door. Get it in a screwcap bottle; the staff doesn’t open wine for you. But still … pinot noir and prime rib at these prices? What recession?