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O’ahu Restaurants

Thanks to its blend of cultures and the increase in locally grown produce and meat, my island home, O’ahu, has truly come into its own as a culinary destination. From Ala Moana and downtown to the beachy ‘burbs of Kailua and Kaneohe, great-tasting—and reasonably priced—local cuisine abounds. Here are some new and old favorites discovered during my recent visit.

Hawaii Kai, Kailua, and Kaneohe

In and around town

Queen’s Surf Cafe & Lanai, Kapiolani Beach Park. The best value & atmosphere in Waikiki for plate lunch. Special touches, like wooden platters instead of styrofoam plates and a fruit and flower garnish, elevate this beachfront, outdoor eatery. You can’t beat the location, which comes complete with salt spray from Queen’s Surf and sunset views. Weekend barbecues are reportedly a bit insane; try a weekday breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Kapiolani Beach Park, beachfront, between Kapahulu Avenue and the Waikiki Aquarium.

Queen’s Surf Cafe and Lanai

Yataimura Food Court, Shirokiya, Ala Moana Shopping Center. Japanese specialty store Shirokiya’s in-house bakery, St. Germain, has long been the source of the finest bread and pastries in town. Now, the 2nd floor Yataimura food court is a destination in itself. With weekly food festivals, a beer garden, and everything from bento to ramen, curry to the homey vegetable-based crepe okonomiyaki, Yataimura offers a unique alternative to the mall’s generic fast-food court. Shirokiya store, 2nd floor, Ala Moana Shopping Center.

Cafe Julia. Hidden in a graceful courtyard in the historic YWCA building, Cafe Julia offers a pleasing respite in downtown Honolulu. Most cafe goers are employees of neighboring businesses, but the restaurant’s location across from I’olani Palace attracts visitors as well. Admire the soaring arches and original grillwork and the light and tasty Asian-Pacific fare. 1040 Richards Street, downtown Honolulu.

Cafe Julia, in the historic downtown YWCA building

Diamond Head Market and Grill. With a convenient location near Kapiolani Park and Kaimana (Sans Souci) Beach, Diamond Head Market and Grill is still a mainstay for tourists and locals alike. With scrumptious baked goods and only-in-Hawai’i grab-and-go deli items like Japanese sweet potato and beef stew, the Market remains my favorite part of this winning establishment. For lighter fare, skip the long line for plate lunch and burgers and grab a salad from the refrigerator case topped with mochiko chicken (chicken tenders coated in mochiko flour and fried), spicy ahi, or grilled salmon and tofu. 3575 Campbell Avenue at Monsarrat, Diamond Head.

Tamashiro Market. When I was growing up in Honolulu, buying fresh fish from Tamashiro Market was as much of a weekend tradition as going to the beach. This flourishing grocery also stocks farm-fresh produce and prepared food items, such as ten different kinds of poke and grab-and-go sushi, fried fish, and boiled edamame. 802 North King Street, Honolulu.

Poke at Tamashiro Fish Market

Sushi, high and low. In the Safeway Center on Kapahulu Avenue, very good quality sushi and other light Japanese food can be found at Ninja Sushi, where the super helpful and patient staff explain the dazzling array of menu items. For a higher end Japanese experience, try the unassuming but excellent Sushi Bistro on King, an authentic sushi and izakaya restaurant frequented by both local and visiting Japanese community. Ninja Sushi, 870 Kapahulu Avenue; Sushi Bistro, 1914 S. King Street, Moiliili.

Read about Hawai’i Kai, Kailua, and Kaneohe

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Hawai’i Kai, Kailua, and Kaneohe Restaurants

Uahi Island Grill, Kailua town. This small, casual restaurant serves inventive Asian-Pacific cuisine. The ahi salad and Jawaiian-style chicken were tasty, but what really sent me into a tizzy were the desserts. Chef Nick Yamada calls his burnt caramel tart, coated with Waialua Estate dark chocolate and macadamia nuts, a grown-up Twix bar, but I call it pure buttery chocolate heaven. 131 Hekili Street, Kailua town.

Pah Ke’s Chinese Restaurant, Kaneohe. A longtime favorite of Kaneohe residents, Pah Ke’s distinguishes itself with its Asia-Pacific menu items and its stellar desserts. An ahi chopped salad was tangy and flavorful. Peking Duck was served with the crisp skin tucked in house-made buns dabbed with plum sauce and the meat piled on a separate platter, a service that many Chinese restaurants in the States forgo. I’ve never been one for guava chiffon cake, but Pah Ke’s is the best I’ve ever tasted. Creamy lilikoi cheesecake is light and lovely, and the soymilk custard (far better than it sounds) was a nondairy revelation. 46-018 Kamehameha Highway, Kaneohe.

Yummy Korean BBQ. True to its name, this is freshly made and delicious Korean BBQ, with a choice of four vegetable sides—ranging from various kim chee to noodle salad—to accompany your smoky char-grilled meat and two scoops of rice. Meat jun, thin slices dipped in egg batter and fried, is the Korean answer to chicken-fried steak. Those with small appetites or no fridge to save leftovers may wish to opt for the mini-plate. With outdoor seating overlooking the marina, what better way is there to fuel yourself after a morning at the beach? Koko Marina Shopping Center, behind Cosmopolitan Sun Shop, as well as other locations.

Bubbies. Still the best and most creatively named ice cream on the island, with two locations: the original spot in Honolulu, with its blush-inducing, racily named sweets, across from the Varsity Theater, and a second location in the Koko Marina Shopping Center, where the desserts have family-friendly monikers. It’s not listed on the chalkboard menu, but you can get your ice cream dipped in chocolate coating for extra indulgence. 1010 University Avenue; Koko Marina Shopping Center near Zippy’s, 7192 Kalanianaole Hwy.

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O’ahu, which means The Gathering Place, is the commercial, residential, and industrial center of Hawai’i. The state capital of Hawai’i, Honolulu, is on O’ahu.

O’ahu is the most developed and populated island. 908,000 people (70% of the population of the state of Hawai’i) call the city and county of Honolulu home. Hotel accommodations are centralized in Waikiki, the tourist center of Hawai’i.

Waikiki offers hotels, restaurants, shopping, a sandy beach, and battalions of tourists, some of whom never leave Waikiki. If you plan to stay in a hotel, I highly recommend staying at the southern end of Waikiki, near Kapahulu Avenue and the Honolulu Zoo. That area is quieter and near the zoo, the excellent small aquarium Waikiki Aquarium, and San Souci/Kaimana, a small and calm swimming beach next to the New Otani Hotel. It is easier to enter/leave Waikiki from the southern end to explore the rest of the island. Condos are also available in Waikiki and selected other parts of the island. The advantage of a condo is having a kitchen to prepare some meals – a great way to save money.

Some visitors choose to bypass O’ahu entirely and go straight to the neighbor islands for a more “authentic” Hawaiian experience. I grew up on O’ahu, and I enjoy its urban attractions very much.  The fine small art museums are worth a visit. Culinary options on O’ahu have exploded in recent years. And O’ahu is also the only island with any real nightlife to speak of.

Even hiking options in Honolulu are wonderful and accessible, and O’ahu boasts many lovely white-sand beaches, good for swimming, snorkeling, and surfing.   

Some highlights of natural attractions in or near Honolulu:

  • Lyon Arboreteum or Manoa Falls State Park
  • Foster Botanical Garden
  • Snorkeling/swimming at Hana’uma Bay – famous for tropical fish. Parking fee and viewing of a brief educational film required; these measures help to fund and protect the park, which is a national marine sanctuary.
  • Hiking Honolulu
  • The beautiful sandy beaches of the Southeastern shore: Makapu’u and Sandy’s, for boogie boarders and surfers; Waimanalo;  Kailua Beach, where you can rent kayaks.

Urban attractions:

  • Walking tour of Historic Downtown Honolulu, including I’olani Palace, Mission Houses Museum, and a stop at Isamu Noguchi’s deceptively lovely sculpture “Skygate”
  • Visit Honolulu’s Chinatown and have dim sum or noodles.
  • Try Hawaiian food at Ono’s Hawaiian Foods. For dessert, don’t miss haupia, or head out for malasadas (Portuguese doughnuts) at Leonard’s Bakery.
  • Get shave ice at Waiola Shave Ice, a favorite stop for locals, and the best shave ice on the island.
  • Ala Moana Beach Park – great urban park & beach, nice place to have a picnic – and Ala Moana Shopping Center – mostly high end shops
  • Take a morning to visit Kapi’olani Community College Farmer’s Market for a smorgasbord of flavors and people.
  • Historical attractions: Pearl Harbor WWII Memorial; Bishop Museum (a Hawaiian history museum)
  • Check out the Honolulu culinary scene

In your O’ahu itinerary, include a one-day driving tour to the Northshore of O’ahu:

  • Waimea Falls Park and Waimea Valley
  • Waimea Beach – famous and beautiful swimming beach in spring/summer, surfing beach in fall/winter, good place to watch the surf or to snap photos
  • Visit the Kahuku shrimp trucks for lunch
  • Stop in Hale’iwa town for shave ice and shopping

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Kaua’i, The Garden Isle, is aptly named. It is the oldest of the main Hawaiian island chain. It is largely undeveloped and has a country-like feel outside of the touristy hotel areas. Kaua’i is famous for its magnificent scenic attractions, primarily the Na Pali coast, Waimea Canyon, and Hanalei Valley. The island also has gorgeous white-sand beaches, though many are unsafe for swimming during the winter months.

The main tourist & hotel areas are Po’ipu Beach and Princeville. But Kaua’i also has many rental condos, B&Bs, and lovely small hotels all over the island.

Kaua’i boasts Na Pali, which means “the cliffs”. They are spectacular, looming over the Pacific Ocean, graced with secret waterfalls and deep valleys. Na Pali covers a large portion of the northern coast of the island. You can enjoy the sights and sounds of Na Pali in numerous ways:

  • Drive to Na Pali Lookouts. Na Pali means “the cliffs”. You can drive to two scenic lookout points. Drive to the second and final lookout point to do the Pihea hike, a short and easy hike with views, birds, and native plant life. The Pihea hike is accessible from the second Kalalau lookout (Pu’u O Kila) in Koke’e State Park. The drive through Kokee State Park is also very pretty.
  • Take a helicopter or boat tour to view Na Pali from the water – if you are up for this and can afford it, it is not to be missed. Because the cliffs are largely inaccessible, the best way to view Na Pali is by water or air. Tours leave from both the Northshore and the south; the best are from the northshore, but weather and time of year will largely determine from where you can depart.
  • Hike part (4 miles round-trip) or all (22 miles round-trip) of the well-traveled Kalalau Trail. You’ll get unparalleled views of Na Pali along the trail. Even the shorter hike is strenuous, but is well worth it.

Note: If you hike the Kalalau Trail, be aware that hiking in Hawai’i is probably a lot harder than what you’re used to, even if you are an experienced and fit hiker. The Kalalau trail is narrow, steep, muddy, rocky, and rooty. You will likely need twice as much water as you think you will. Protection from the strong tropical sun is critical. Be sure to consult a hiking guide, such as Stuart Ball’s guides, before attempting this hike.

Additional highlights of Kaua’i:

  • Scenic drive to northshore, with stops in Hanalei town and Ke’e Beach, at the end of the highway/gateway to Na Pali coast hiking trails
  • Waimea Canyon, the Grand Canyon of Hawai’i. You can stop at scenic lookouts for Waimea Canyon on the way to the Na Pali Lookouts. Hikes in Waimea Canyon are also possible for the more adventurous.
  • Poipu Beach Park – pleasant and central place for a picnic and swimming
  • A kayaking trip on the Wailua River
  • Snorkeling at Tunnels Beach
  • Visiting other beaches – there are many to choose from.

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When friends learn that I spent the first 17 years of my life in Hawai’i, the reaction is twofold. First, they typically ooh and ahh with undisguised envy. “That must have been an amazing place to grow up,” friends say. And I enthusiastically reply in the affirmative. Hawai’i was and is a wonderful place for children and adults alike, with a safe, clean environment, abundant nature, rich diversity, and a unique culture and history.

The second reaction, one that often comes much later, is a request for advice. Which islands should I visit? What are the best places to eat? What sights should I see?

If you are the type of visitor who likes to plunk down by the pool and never leave your fancy resort for the duration of your stay, the information I offer will be of little use to you. If, however, you want to see all of what Hawai’i has to offer, as a natural, cultural, historical, and culinary destination, read on.

For first time visitors who have just one week in Hawai’i, to get a good feel for the islands, I recommend 3-4 days on O’ahu and 4-5 days on either the Big Island (island of Hawai’i) or Kaua’i. This itinerary offers a taste of the best of both urban and scenic delights.

For a less hectic itinerary, another option is to choose a single island and explore it really well. This allows time for both sightseeing and ample relaxing.

You’ll want to rent a car; public transportation is extremely limited and slow. You’ll also need to fly between the islands.

Here are summaries of my favorite three islands: O’ahu, Kaua’i, and the Big Island

A BRIEF WORD ABOUT THE OTHER ISLANDS

Maui is also very beautiful and boasts Haleakala, a famous, dormant volcano. Like O’ahu, Maui is highly developed and populated and is very popular with tourists. Maui has a number of large and luxurious resorts, like The Four Seasons and the Grand Wailea. My feeling about Maui is if I want the highly developed urban experience, I’d rather go to O’ahu, but many people love Maui and many mainlanders have made it their home. 

Lana’i is a rather exclusive island, a former pineapple plantation, that was opened to the public only very recently and has only one hotel and limited accessibility. Bill Gates got married there.

Moloka’i is known as the island of paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys). It is not a very popular island for tourists, as it lacks resorts, entertainment, the fine beaches of the other islands, and shopping. Its primary tourist attraction was the ranches, the largest of which closed in 2008 for financial reasons.

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The Big Island is the newest and largest island in the southern Hawaiian island chain. The island has two distinct population centers: Kona and Hilo.

Kona, the main tourist center and the dry side of the island, offers snorkeling, swimming, some sandy beaches, hotels and resorts and shopping. Most tourists fly into Kona, though you can also fly into Hilo.

Hilo, the lush, green, wet side of the Big Island, is the home of Volcanoes National Park. Kilauea Volcano at Volcanoes National Park has been actively erupting since 1983. If you are lucky, you will see lava flowing and pouring into the ocean during your visit – it is the creation of new land happening before your eyes, the way all of the islands were formed. The park itself offers a glimpse into life (and the lack of it) after volcanic activity, like an eerie moonscape.

The drive between Hilo and Kona is 3-4 hours, most of it on a two-lane road.

Because of the volcanic activity and newness of the island, white-sugar sandy beaches are a rarity on the Big Island. The Hilo side of the island has almost no sandy beaches. The beaches tend to have coarse black or black-and-gray sand. However, this also means that snorkeling and scuba diving are phenomenal on this island.

Highlights of things to do on the Big Island:

  • Volcanoes National Park. The quaint town of Volcano boasts very nice bed-and-breakfasts and small inns. Kilauea volcano has been in continuous eruption (flow) for a number of years and it is amazing to witness geographical activity happening before your eyes. Spend at least one day driving and/or hiking around the park and witnessing the different impact the volcano has had on the landscape.
  • Akaka Falls. Take a short, paved stroll through a misty botanical landscape, ending with a view of majestic waterfall. After visiting Akaka Falls, be sure to stop by Ed’s Bakery in Honomu, a charming mom-and-pop operation with scrumptious baked goods. Mr. Ed and his wife also make a wide assortment of the most delicious tropical jams and jellies I’ve ever tasted (and having grown up on the islands, that’s saying something). Starfruit, white guava, Surinam cherry, and jaboticaba (a Brazilian plum) are some of the more exotic flavors.
  • Warm springs: natural lava rock pools with geothermally heated spring water mixed with ocean water.
  • Waipio Valley. At the northern end of the island, Waipio Valley is excellent for hiking. You can do a short hike down to the black-sand beach from the lookout point or longer hikes into the valley.
  • Snorkeling. While the beaches aren’t soft and sandy, the snorkeling is probably the best on the main Hawaiian islands. The best snorkeling happens on calm days and in the early morning. On windy days, it can be difficult for beginners to navigate in the current, and waters can be murky. Please don’t walk on the coral or feed the fish!
  • Circle-island drive. It takes a solid day to drive from Kona to Hilo, but it’s a lovely drive and gives you a great sense of the scale and majesty of the Big Island. If you drive north, you pass through Waipio Valley as well.
  • The Mauna Lani Hotel. For our honeymoon, my spouse and I spent three heavenly nights at the fabulous Mauna Lani on the Kohala Coast before heading to Volcano National Park. A few things make this luxury hotel extra-special and distinguish it from resorts that have no Hawaiian feeling or respect for the history and natural beauty of Hawai’i. The open-air architecture of the hotel means you can enjoy the wonderful tradewinds all day. The extensive and beautiful grounds of the hotel include a shark pond, turtle pond, and protected ancient Hawaiian fishing ponds and petroglyphs. A short walk past the fishing ponds takes you to a tiny beach with rare white sand, sparkling water and decent snorkeling (we saw sea turtles and (harmless) reef sharks there). And, the breakfast brunch is first-class. Even if you don’t stay at the Mauna Lani, if you are in Kona and feel like doing something low-key, consider having brunch or taking a walk through the grounds of this exquisite and uniquely Hawaiian hotel.

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The food revolution has hit the Hawaiian islands. Options for dining out – without breaking the bank – are better than ever before. Gone are the days of tasteless vegetables and lacklustre meats, thanks to the plethora of restaurateurs, chefs, and farmers who are changing the way food is grown, produced, cooked, and sold on the islands.

Here are some of the local joints I visited during my stay. It is but a small sample of the mouthwatering local fare you can find in Honolulu and beyond.

Monarch Seafoods is a seafood distributor in Kalihi with a small but well-stocked lunch counter that is flooded at lunchtime by area workers. There is no seating, but plenty of poke (raw, marinated diced fish), excellent lunch plates featuring fish, and even a selection of desserts.

Ahi katsu from Monarch Seafoods

Ahi katsu plate from Monarch Seafoods

Monarch makes some of the best and freshest poke on the island, with numerous varieties, including tako, ahi limu, and spicy ahi. Bring a cooler and go early to get the freshest selection. Their lunch plates win points among health-conscious locals for brown rice and a very nice Nalo Farms green salad with a tasty miso creamy garlic dressing. On my last visit to Monarch, my brother and I got crab-stuffed ahi rolls and ahi katsu rolls. The ahi in the katsu dish was just barely seared around the outside and still gem-like on the inside, perfectly cooked. The crab rolls were decadent and delicious. For more pics and reads on this local standout, see Kim Lehano’s article.

Monarch Seafoods
515 Kalihi St @ Colburn
Honolulu, HI 96819
(808) 841-7877

The Food Company, tucked into the definitively suburban Enchanted Lake shopping center in Kailua, mixes up the concept of plate lunch with a good fish selection, salads, veggies, brown rice, and even pasta. Look to the colorful signboard to the left of the cash register for special dishes such as furikake mahi mahi, ahi katsu, and sesame-crusted ahi. I had a very good filet of blackened ahi laid on a bed of luscious macadamia pesto pasta. My friend Krista ordered golden brown crab cakes, hefty with crab, with brown rice and stir-fried veggies replacing the usual white rice and macaroni salad. The Food Company is also popular with locals for its surfer-sized breakfasts.

The Food Company
Enchanted Lake Shopping Center, to the right of Safeway
1020 Keolu Dr Ste D1
Kailua, HI 96734
(808) 262-6440
 

For anyone who grew up in Honolulu in the 70s and 80s, eating tasteless food imported from the mainland, the Kapi’olani Community College (KCC) Farmer’s Market is an absolute revelation. Dozens of vendors, selling locally grown produce, flowers, foods for immediate consumption, and food products, gather on Saturday mornings on the KCC campus at the foot of Diamond Head to hawk their splendid wares.

Kona abalone

Kona abalone, one of the many treats available at the KCC Farmer's Market

The KCC farmer’s market is locavore foodie heaven, bar none. You can munch on strawberry mochi, imbibe lilikoi lemonade, and partake of fried green tomatoes. Meat lovers can try kalua pork sliders or freshly grilled Portuguese sausages. Enjoy garlic ahi or mochiko chicken plate lunches and Portuguese bean soup, or join the queues to sample Kona abalone or to try the popular pesto pizza with fresh tomato and mozzarella. Devour fresh-baked scones and cookies guilt-free, because you’re supporting the KCC culinary school. For unique gifts with an island flavor, pick up tropical jams and honeys, Hawaiian coffee, or even locally made chocolate. Get there early – the market closes at 11:00 am – and enjoy the vibrant, food-loving crowds.

KCC Farmer’s Market
Saturdays 7:30-11:00 am
Kapiolani Community College, Diamond Head Campus
4303 Diamond Head Road
Honolulu, Hawai’i

Famed for the hot plate lunches and grilled sandwiches available at their outside counter, Diamond Head Market and Grill also has an outstanding bakery and fine selection of cold foods and grab-and-go fresh salads. My favorite was the salad topped with mochiko chicken; also available are grilled salmon or spicy ahi. Desserts are truly memorable and range from the genuinely local to just plain delicious. A marvelous haupia and okinawan sweet potato pie entrances the eye with creamy white and purple layers set on a brisee pastry crust. The famous blueberry cream cheese scone has won many a local and visitor’s heart. But I would just as soon go for one of the scrumptious PB&J cookie bars. Drop by, if you can snag a parking spot in the tiny front lot, and pick up a picnic lunch on your way to the beach; it’s an easy drive from here to any of the beach parks in town.

Diamond Head Market and Grill
3158 Monsarrat Avenue
Honolulu, HI 96815
(808) 732-0077

I’ve got to give a shout-out to my good friend Michael Gelfo, who runs the snazzy Rock Island Cafe, a fun, family-run gem in the heart of an increasingly corporate and charmless Waikiki. On any given day, one or all of the members of the effervescent Gelfo family can be found manning the stations at Rock Island, which is a delightful blend of old-fashioned American diner, complete with soda fountain, and an impressive museum of memorabilia and collectibles from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Every evening, the staff performs rock-n-roll classics on Rock Island’s small center stage. Michael’s custom-made videos featuring favorite clips from musicals and concerts provide continuous entertainment. The refreshing chocolate haupia (coconut pudding) milkshake and oven-baked fries alone are worth a stop. The cafe is nestled in King’s Village; look for the statue of Elvis out front.

Rock Island Cafe
King’s Village
131 Kaiulani Ave
Honolulu, Hawaii 96815
(808) 923-8033

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