When you’re traveling to Honolulu, sometimes you want fine dining, and sometimes you simply crave poke tacos and a frosty beer. Whether you’re going high-end or low-frills, we’ve rounded up some delicious highlights of Hawaii’s capital city, from classic dining spots to cool newcomers. It’s time to eat, island style!
Waikiki’s most irreverent farm-to-table restaurant
Chef Ed Kenney, who helped pioneer Honolulu’s farm-to-table dining movement with his three Kaimuki restaurants (Town, Mud Hen Water and Kaimuki Superette), has launched his first Waikiki dining spot, and it’s loads of fun. At Mahina & Sun’s, located poolside at the recently opened Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club, you might snack on avocado tacos or chèvre beignets paired with beet ketchup to accompany your local craft beer.
After that, you could face off with a plate of grilled he’e (meaty octopus served atop a salad of watercress and olives) or try any of the Hawaiian fish, perhaps monchong paired with green beans, and ‘ulu (breadfruit) or ahi palaha (white tuna) with 12-grain rice salad and pickled mushrooms.
For dessert, don’t miss the salted mac nut meringue with lemon-olena (turmeric) curd, piled on a plate of colorful tropical fruit.
Look closely at the wallpaper, too; the design incorporates the “shaka,” Hawaii’s thumb-and-pinky hand gesture meaning “hang loose” or “it’s cool.”
Best smoked meat west of Montreal
Smoked meat in Hawaii? Yes, it’s a thing now that Piggy Smalls, sibling to Chinatown’s The Pig and the Lady, has opened its doors in Ward Village. This little piggy is serving a “pho-strami” sandwich: juicy smoked meat in a crisp baguette, slathered with pickled mustard seeds. Also worth sampling are the delicate potato beignets topped with ham “dust” and the classic pho.
To drink, the creative cocktail menu offers up the “Crush It” (a regularly rotating slushie with your choice of tequila, rum, gin or vodka), an island-brewed coconut porter and a non-alcoholic turmeric tonic.
Swoon-worthy seafood on the beach
When you want that romantic, only-in-Hawaii seafood dinner at the beach, head for Azure Restaurant at the “Pink Palace of the Pacific,” The Royal Hawaiian Hotel, A Luxury Collection Resort. Overlooking the sand at this 1927 icon on Waikiki Beach, you might share a plate of sashimi with your beloved before diving into the hearty modern bouillabaisse or whatever grilled fish is on the daily fresh sheet. Save room for the dragon fruit sorbetto, a sweet that’s as fuchsia-hued as the building itself.
Newest “SALT-y” hangout
Taking its name from the salt ponds that once covered the area, SALT at Our Kaka’ako is a retail and restaurant complex being developed northwest of Waikiki. It’s also home to Moku Kitchen, the newest outpost of Hawaiian regional cuisine pioneer, chef Peter Merriman, who runs Monkeypod Kitchen and several other restaurants across the islands.
At lively Moku Kitchen, Merriman’s team mixes upcountry and urban, roasting prime rib, chicken and duck on the rotisserie; firing up pizzas (like the kalua pork and pineapple combo) in the wood-burning oven; and giving you plenty to graze on, from shrimp and mushroom dumplings to poke tacos. Live music daily, too.
Best Hawaiian hipster brunch
When you’re craving poached eggs served on poi biscuits, cornflake-crusted French toast or a daily dose of dumplings, alongside cocktails like a Lilikoi Fizz (gin, lilikoi, ginger beer and Thai basil) or a Strawberry Hula (vodka, strawberries, cucumber, mint and pineapple juice), head for the Kaimuki neighborhood’s Koko Head Café. A bit hidden on the avenue, this hipster hangout, with chef Lee Anne Wong at the helm, serves a seriously fine brunch that you don’t have to wait till the weekend to dig into (they’re open every day).
Best sweets in an art museum
If the combination of an art museum and dessert doesn’t seem like a natural pairing, perhaps you haven’t been to Artizen by MW on the lower level of the Hawaii State Art Museum. Popular with the downtown office crowd, this casual café — owned by Michelle Karr-Ueoka and Wade Ueoka, the husband-and-wife team that also operates the more upscale MW Restaurant — serves simple bento boxes alongside elaborate pastries.
Try the mochi-crusted opah or a spicy Korean pork bowl, but save room for the sweets. You’ll be tempted with selections like a strawberry yuzu tart, kabocha cheesecake and chocolate-banana cream puff. It’s worth browsing the museum’s free Hawaiian art exhibits, too.
Poke, poke and more poke
Ask Honolulu locals about their favorite poke spot, and you’re sure to ignite a lively debate. You can find this simple raw-fish dish everywhere from corner markets to posh dining rooms. We don’t want to get between any Hawaiian and their poke bowls, so we’ll simply weigh in with a few suggestions.
Stop in at the Poke Stop, with three Oahu locations dishing up several poke varieties, from shoyu ahi to spicy salmon to wasabi tako (octopus). Aloha Cones, a tiny pink take-out shack near downtown Honolulu, is known for its poke bowls and chirashi sushi. Then there’s Da Hawaiian Poke Company, where you can belly up to the poke bar and choose your fish, your flavor and your desired toppings. To find your own favorite, you might have to eat poke every day of your Hawaiian getaway.