Your Guide to Late Night Dining in Hawai‘i
Eating at midnight or later isn’t just for party animals. A guide to late-night food that’s a step up from the same old ZipPacs.
CHEZ KENZO’S DINING ROOM IS AN ATMOSPHERIC HIDEOUT, WITH A MENU MORE THAN 100 ITEMS LONG.
After-hours dining is not just the realm of club kids, boozehounds and post-shift industry workers. Plenty of us enjoy the city with an after-movie dinner and dessert, linger in a restaurant to discuss changing the world into the wee hours, or need a late dinner escape after the kids are in bed.
No doubt, Honolulu rises early, meeting the dawn in the ocean and on the trail. But it’s also a town that likes to stay up late to socialize. Our strong ties to Asian cultures and their emphasis on around-the-clock dining ensure that there are plenty of izakayas and Korean barbecue to carry us through the night, while local bars in every neighborhood have always served exactly what we crave late at night, from dive/sports bar favorites Side Street Inn and Home Bar and Grill to newer gastropubs Salt and Pint and Jigger. Of course, there will always be Zippy’s, but, for nights when a chili chicken mix plate doesn’t measure up to the occasion, turn to these restaurants, all of which are open at least until midnight, many later.
I thought I was alone in my need for late-night dessert. But, in exploring the after-hours world, I’ve found that, like vampires, the sugar-obsessed come out at night to feed. OK, they come out to feed at all hours, but somehow the late-night cravings seem more urgent, maybe because it’s so hard to get a good dessert late in this town. Your best bet seems to be some combination of ice cream and bread. Which sounds absurd and, when presented at Izakaya Naru, looks even more so: a baguette stuffed with vanilla ice cream. As a rustic version of a profiterole, though, it’s oddly satisfying. The coffee awamori is the best pairing for this; while awamori by itself is about as appealing as grain alcohol, Izakaya Naru infuses the Okinawan spirit with coffee, making it more palatable. It’s like the Okinawan version of a Red Bull and vodka—fuel for a night that is still young.
INSIDE THE STUDY.
More refined: the dainty desserts at The Study at The Modern, where yuzu shave ice covers a mango pudding that tastes like it was plucked from a dim sum cart. The desserts tend to be light, even the chocolate and peanut butter tart topped with caramel Krispies. Past midnight, you can order from the room service menu, such as a chocolate mousse bar with crunchy sugar flakes. During the day, I wouldn’t go out of my way for these sweets, but at night, they satisfy.
MANGO PUDDING WITH YUZU SHAVE ICE.
THE STUDY'S MALTED CHOCOLATE AND PEANUT BUTTER TART.
INSIDE CHEZ KENZO.
Newcomer Chez Kenzo’s menu of Japanese fusion comfort food is more than 100 items long. Come dessert time, though, the decisions are easier. Of the six options, the parfait of green tea and vanilla ice cream, cornflakes, mochi, azuki and more, offers an inspired Japanese take on a halo-halo, a mix of cold, sweet, chewy and crunchy textures.
CHEZ KENZO PARFAIT WITH CORNFLAKES, GREEN TEA ICE CREAM AND MOCHI.
Grab and go in Chinatown
Chances are, if you’re downtown late at night, there’s going to be big trouble in little Chinatown if you don’t get some food in your belly, stat. Luckily, in the past year, two new places have introduced the genius, why-didn’t-this-happen-earlier, late-night window concept to Honolulu. Previously a popular food truck, Da Ala Cart is now set up at bar and club Lotus Downtown, serving skewers late night (10 and on) Wednesday to Saturday. Da Ala Cart owner Chris Kazunori Quisote grills the perfect late-night street food: pork belly, shiitake mushrooms, chicken wings, musubi stuffed with pork and miso, crisp and chewy mochi and, if you’re lucky, beef tongue.
From a window with a brown butcher-paper menu taped next to it, from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., Lucky Belly serves $5 eats that are exactly the sort of thing you need after a late night in Chinatown: meatloaf sandwiches, barbecued pulled pork, pork kimchee fried rice (the menu changes weekly). Or, to escape madness in the streets, retreat into the stylish restaurant, open until midnight serving soul-satisfying ramen and cocktails that include classics such as the sidecar and innovations such as the M-Rock, complex and seductive with gin touched with absinthe and balsamic vinegar.
Forget New York, Seoul is the true city that never sleeps. Late-night dining is as much a part of Korean culture as brunch is to American; Koreans even have a term for it—yasik. Which explains why so many of Honolulu’s late-night options are Korean. Most know of Sorabol, open 24 hours, presenting the entire canon of Korean food, from Korean barbecue to hangover soup, a spicy beef and soybean paste-based soup. But I’ve never heard of any more magic combination of words than all-you-can-eat, BYOB, 24-hour, Korean barbecue, all associated with Sikdorak. (Caveat: Alcohol must be consumed by midnight.) Meats—ribeye steak, marinated kalbi, spicy pork, thinly-sliced brisket—are brought out to order. Don’t bother actually having conversations here; late-night philosophical discussions inevitably give way to Man v. Food antics. Here, it’s all about filling your stomach.
For a more civilized experience, head to Million Restaurant, with cozier booths and drop-down vacuum hoods sucking up smoke from pork belly and outside skirt steak grilling at your table. Million is no longer open 21 hours a day, as you might remember from your 3 a.m. party days, but still remains open until a respectable 2 a.m.
If you enjoy your Korean food served by short-skirted, pretty waitresses and to the soundtrack of loud K-pop, then head to Pandora Café, which we are assured is not a hostess bar (where a whole other realm of late-night eats exists, but we won’t go there). This dark bar serves Korean comfort food as well as sashimi and sushi prepared by a moonlighting Mitch’s sushi chef. The result: lobster sashimi and lobster miso soup a la Mitch’s, generous cuts of fish on the sashimi platter, and huge, meaty hamachi kama. If you miss Nobulnae fried chicken (Pandora Café took over the former Nobulnae space), the recipe lives on and you can still get the sweet, salty, cinnamon-spiced chicken here.
AKI NO NO KEEPS YOUR SAKE BOTTLES FOR YOU.
Plenty of izakayas around town satiate the late-night crowd until midnight. When the rest close, Aki No No keeps the light on and the burners going. And, unlike many of its rowdy late-night counterparts, it offers a quiet, relaxed atmosphere for discussing the world’s problems, which can only be solved by ordering grilled smelt, presented and eaten whole, fried mochi and bacon-wrapped enoki. If, at the end of the night, the answers are still not found and your sake bottle is unfinished, Aki No No will store your bottle until you return.
AKI NO NO’S GRILLED BACON-WRAPPED ENOKI.
GRILLED SMELT FROM AKI NO NO.
Ko’s salmon and ikura kamameshi.
Ko took over the homey little restaurant that used to be garlic-focused Ninniku-ya and renovated it into a modern, bright white space. The mango tree remains, growing through a hole cut in the roof, and little touches in the dining room, such as soft pillows and comfortable cushions in the booths, keep it cozy. Before 10 p.m., the only option is a prix-fixe menu (underwhelming the last time we tried), but after 10, the a la carte menu opens up comforting options such as a lotus root dumpling and salmon and ikura kamameshi (rice bowls cooked in a special iron pot and mixed tableside). Finish with a Japanese-style ice cream sandwich, the monaka, a wafer filled with vanilla ice cream and azuki bean. If you’re seeking an intimate late-night option for after-hours date nights or secret trysts, Ko is probably your best bet, where the calm is interrupted only by an overeager staff and the occasional motorcycle gunning down Waialae Avenue.
RESTAURANT KO’S MONAKA ICE CREAM SANDWICH.
Artisan late night pizza? Put down the phone for Domino’s and head to V Lounge, which serves its Neopolitan-inspired pizzas even later than Domino’s delivers. Its slightly chewy, crisp-crust pizzas topped with prosciutto and arugula or anchovies marinated in chili pepper water befit a San Francisco or Brooklyn pizzeria, but after-hours V Lounge isn’t your neighborhood Italian restaurant—past midnight, the speaker volume gets cranked up, the club kids pour in, and the tatted and pierced bartenders start pouring more shots than Peroni.
If you slide in Friday or Saturday right before midnight, the ever-packed JJ Dolan’s offers New York-style pizzas including classic pepperoni and a white pie. But its latest specials are crazier than Pizza Hut’s cheesy crust pizza: a mac ‘n’ cheese plus ham pizza, and a four cheese pizza topped with crab and bacon.
ANYTIME CAFE, A HONG KONG-STYLE CAFE.
ANYTIME CAFE’S BEEF TENDON NOODLE SOUP
Perhaps Anytime Café should be renamed Anything Café. It’s a Hong Kong-style café; Cantonese dishes and Chinese interpretations of Western food share the menu, resulting in a list of 80 or so items from eggplant parmesan to spaghetti to burgers to jook. Our picks for late-night sustenance: the brisket tendon noodle soup, offering tender braised beef; toast with kaya, a spreadable coconut custard, a snack often eaten for breakfast in Singapore; and snow ice, which at Anytime Café tastes like ice cream and shave ice’s love child.
PORK CHOP RISOTTO AND KAYA TOAST.
MANGO SNOW ICE.
Past midnight, when Anytime Café closes, it’s like Cinderella’s coach turns into a pumpkin, for you’ll have to trade Anytime’s cute, cozy interior for fluorescent-lit, tables-packed-too-close Fook Yuen, the Cantonese seafood restaurant that most think of for family banquets rather than after-hours eating. But the late-night menu offers serious carb comfort in the form of jook and noodle soups, with most items less than $10.
Who doesn’t love breakfast all day and all night? Somehow, the very things we want to start our days with—eggs and pancakes and waffles and maple syrup—are exactly what we want to end our nights with. (And for the people-watchers, there’s something endlessly amusing to seeing the uber late-night crowd collide with the early risers, the drunk girls that need to lie down in each other’s lap sitting alongside cops focused on their coffee.)
Every night owl knows Liliha Bakery as the place to sober up over pancakes, waffles, loco moco and the signature butter roll, split and griddled and served with radioactive red jelly, bright as a homing beacon by which you can instantly spot any friend that’s Instagramming at Liliha. But I don’t have to be drunk to declare these the best pancakes and waffles in the city, anytime, any day.
If you’re in Waikiki, Wailana Coffee House is a reliable last resort, and MAC 24/7, inside the Hilton, is its modern counterpart. MAC 24/7 (an acronym for Modern American Cuisine) is most famous for its ridiculous-sized Mac Daddy pancakes, a stack is as tall as a birthday cake, with the diameter of a hubcap. In the past, it wasn’t a case of too much of a good thing, but too much of a bad thing—the pancakes were tough and rubbery. Now, though, with Hilton’s new chef, James Aptakin, the pancakes are something you and your seven pancake-crazed friends would actually want to eat. For those without a pancake team, you can also get a short stack of pancakes, which still seem to require at least a couple of friends to finish. And if 2 a.m. (when most bars close) is too early to call it quits on drinking, MAC 24/7 serves alcohol until 3:30 a.m.
Sure, you could go to Pho 777 for a decent, nourishing bowl of pho, but if the cover of night has you feeling adventurous, wander into QQ, the unsigned Vietnamese karaoke bar two doors down from the original Side Street Inn. Unless you are Vietnamese, a smoker and a regular, you will probably get stared down, just as we were, when we walked through a long, dark hallway into an empty shell of a club. We found a booth farthest from the speakers blasting Vietnamese music and asked what beers were offered. “All beers. Everything,” was the reply.
“Everything” turned out to be Coors, Bud and Bud Light, Heineken and Corona. Friends (with whom the last beer I shared was a Westvleteren 12, one of the rarest beers in the world) wanted to leave … until the banh mi arrived, one of the best on island, with the perfect balance of pate, pork and pickles. A dish called shaking beef, a vibrantly seasoned beef stir-fry with shoyu, fish sauce and lime juice, (though a tad too chewy) also made the experience worth it. Almost. Next time, to avoid the obnoxiously loud karaoke, I’ll order takeout at the bar, beneath the large sign proclaiming, “God’s love never fails.”
Food you can karaoke to
GEARING UP FOR KARAOKE AT 8 FAT FAT 8.
With free karaoke and half-off menu items, late-night happy hour at Sansei gets loud and crowded fast. In the mayhem, settle down with crab truffle ramen, rich with truffle butter and brightened with cilantro and Thai basil, and the Hawaiian moi roll, in which the firm, white fish is wrapped around pickled gobo and Maui onions.
Fried chicken, karaoke and funny-sounding bars equal late-night magic, particularly at Café Duck Butt (Korean slang for “nice ass”) and 8 Fat Fat 8 (“eight” sounds like “fortune,” or fat, in Chinese). (Call it humor in translation.) At both places, non-battered chicken is fried crisp with hardly a trace of grease.
THE SPREAD AT 8 FAT FAT 8, INCLUDING THE FAT FAT CHICKEN.
On the menu with the Fat Fat Chicken, as it’s called at 8 Fat Fat 8, is fried lettuce, which sounds about as promising as dive-bar 8 Fat Fat 8 looks, but lettuce stir-fried in butter and garlic proves to be a surprise hit, just like the man singing Elton John’s “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” in an otherwise empty booth.W
here y go after wor