Honolulu’s dining scene has surpassed heating up, it’s boiling. Simply put, Hawaii is in the midst of unleashing its natural-born foodie, a delicious trend flavored by the region’s locavore bounty, multicultural roots, and global influence. Locals agree, in early 2013, Honolulu Magazine wrote, “Honolulu has seen a new jolt of energy in its dining scene…shocking us out of our two scoops of rice and mac salad food coma.”
I’m not sure whether it’s homegrown talent like Chris Kajioka leading the city’s most decadent restaurant, celebrity chefs like Masaharu Morimoto setting up shop, or both bon vivants tipping Honolulu’s dining scale toward chic. The jury’s out. I do know every one of Oahu’s leading chefs are stepping up their game, giving local and visiting gastronomes something to cheers, every single night.
Living on the West Coast, Oahu is my quickest connection to the tropics, so when the weather turns 50 shades of grey, my husband and I feast our eyes on palm-lined landscapes sprinkled in fancy fare. To save our physiques (and pocketbook) from bloating, seven years ago we instigated a tropical tradition: eat simply during the day, and indulge at dinner. This way we take advantage of our sun-soaked surroundings when it’s bright, and satisfy our food-forward cravings at night. When aloha calls, here are the restaurants that answer.
Viewfinder Tip: Don’t expect all of Honolulu’s gourmet eateries to bask in the glow of sunset’s kaleidoscope light. Some of Oahu’s most revered restaurants are off the beach.
Chef Mavro’s namesake restaurant is cause for celebration. If you don’t have something to celebrate, go anyway, as the food is exquisite, creative, and frame-worthy. And, James Beard award-winning Chef Mavro is so good, he could easily have a cookbook empire and a dozen shows on the Food Network. Yet, as a man of deep culinary passion, he prefers to spend his time being an actual chef in his restaurant’s kitchen.
A dinner at Chef Mavro’s feels more European than North American (by design, I surmise, he hails from France). Time fades. Tables are not turned. Food is mastered. Out of the ordinary sommelier-selected wine pairings – think sparkling sake – enhance every bite of the flexible prix-fixe menu. Dishes like Hawaii Island goat cheese ice cream topped in strawberry rhubarb jam and baby arugula are at once eye-popping and humbling.
Goat cheese ice cream from Chef Mavro
Celeb and Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto’s Honolulu outpost sizzles with style, substance, and service. The sleek and glossy-white interior even comes with an oh-so-Hawaii bonus; it peeks over the Waikiki Marina and the end of Waikiki Beach.
We don’t visit Oahu without stopping at Morimoto. Similarly, we don’t dine at Morimoto without sinking our teeth into his most famous dish: tuna pizza. About the size of a salad plate, thin pieces of ahi drizzled in an anchovy aioli cover the ultra-thin-crust base. We always start with one in an effort to conserve space for the rest of the meal. Inevitably, we end up ordering two.
Not even a year old, Vintage Cave is causing the biggest splash since Morimoto set up shop in Waikiki. The 32-seat restaurant is dressed to the nines in original Picassos, custom Swarovski crystal chandeliers, and imported bricks to give it a cave-like appearance. All this for a mere $20 million.
The culinary program is similarly stacked, lead by local boy Chis Kajioka, who worked under the likes of Thomas Keller. Kajioka’s dishes, like his imported fois gras, ride in the caviar crowd and command Honolulu’s grandest price tag, about $200 per person for a six- to eight-course classic tasting menu. A seasonal tasting menu runs about $300 per person. Oh, and don’t be shocked when your GPS takes you into Oahu’s main mall, Ala Moana; remember, not all swanky restaurants are perched over the ocean.
Tiki view from L’Aperitif
No night out is complete without a nightcap. Two tipple rooms I recommend hang in hotels along Waikiki Beach. L’Aperitif, at the Halekulani is the more formal of the two. Here, Colin Field, Chef du Bar at the legendary Hemingway Bar in the Ritz Hotel Paris, was called in to create the chic cocktail list, where many libations come with a specially paired amuse bouche (bite-sized hors d’œuvre). Down the beach find The Grove, poolside at the Modern Honolulu. Not only does this alfresco lounge serve a mean coconut mojito, it’s also lit by the moonlight and strings of lights plunged into wine bottles. With all this fuss over food, thank goodness bathing suits are stretchy.
What chic restaurants do you bite into when visiting the Hawaiian Islands?