Hawaiian tourism has been on a roll. On any single day of 2017, the average number of tourists roaming its islands and beaches topped 230,000 people.
That works out to a record 9.3 million visitors to the Aloha State last year, an increase of 4.6 percent over the preceding year, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, with 5.7 million of those in Oahu alone. In 2017, those tourists spent $16.78 billion, a further record, up 6.2 percent from 2016—the sixth consecutive year tourism revenue has grown. Increased flight service from United and beaches that weren’t hit by hurricanes or affected by Zika virus, as were those in the Caribbean, are likely contributors to growth.
But to my eyes (and mouth), we ought to thank the food.
During a January visit for a meeting of the James Beard Restaurant Committee—and more eating than you’d think wise during a three-day trip—it became clear that Honolulu, which we dubbed the “next global foodie destination” two years ago, has been steadily lifting its food-and-drink bar even higher. Here are the top three reservations you need for your next trip—plus a half-dozen more, from local breakfasts to no-frills poke to a food hall that actually merits a visi—to ensure whatever beach bod you had when you arrived, has a healthy glow when you fly back home.
Despite being one of the more scenic cities in the country, Honolulu restaurants tend to hide behind oft-gritty, unassuming facades. Not the year-old Senia, with big windows looking onto the street from its airy brick-walled dining room. Chris Kajioka and Anthony Rush—both Per Se alums—rethink Hawaiian fare, as well as the Continental cuisine that used to give the island a bad reputation. The chefs serve snacks of poke on puffy, jet-black crackers. Their do-it-yourself bites are particularly fun: delectable pork belly you wrap with green pancakes and pickles; a platter of bone marrow, beef cheek marmalade; and red-clay and black-lava salts meant to be slathered and sprinkled on glazed Hawaiian sweet rolls. A standout on the $185 chef’s counter tasting menu is an elaborate, pastry-wrapped fish Wellington. The 150-bottle wine list has a mix of old and new world selections. From the short, sweet cocktail list, a cardamom vodka-spiked plantation tea with grilled pineapple did me right.
If “Hawaiian sushi” sounds suspiciously like a rebranding of spam musubi, the nori-wrapped spam-and-rice snack served at 7-Elevens around the state, it’s time to set the the record straight. And Sushi Sho’s Keiji Nakazawa, revered in Tokyo for aging fish (and unrelated to the other Nakazawa), is the chef to do it. His invigorating, Edo-styled menu at a 10-seat, irregularly shaped counter costs $300 and requires plenty of advance booking. Tuna tartare is dotted with Maui onion and macadamia nuts; Washington State oysters are topped with yuzu; and Japanese hamachi is aged for several days to become intensely rich. Just behave: Nakazawa once famously kicked out a Michelin Guide inspector for rude, unappreciative behavior.
Bar Leather Apron
Justin Park co-owns this dressed-up, reservation-only bar on the mezzanine level of an anonymous office building. He and his team craft excellent classics—there’s an Daiquiri as well as the now-ubiquitous Manhattan—but the signature drinks are the move here, such as the Imperial Old Fashioned, a mix of Suntory Toki and Hakushu 12-year whiskies with shiso essence. The most dramatic option, when it is on the menu, is the Tavern Keeps Treasure, a smoked cocktail presented under a glass dome. Bar Leather Apron also offers a deep, pricey whisky collection and a small selection of bar snacks such as smoked Alaskan salmon spread with tobiko.
Best of the Rest
Breakfast: Koko Head Cafe
You can’t reserve a table at Koko Head. But you can walk into the bustling diner every day, starting at 7 a.m., for an epic brunch beloved by locals and lucky tourists. The menu pulls influences from Japan, Korean, and China to make Hawaiian originals, such as a particuarly over-the-top breakfast congee stocked with chunks of bacon, Portuguese sausage and ham, as well as a poached egg and cinnamon-bacon croutons. A cornflake-crusted French toast with black pepper-infused maple syrup is another best-seller. Chef and owner Lee Anne Wong, a Top Chef finalist, says she hasn’t met anyone who has officially eaten their way through the 30 or so items on the menu. “But I am pretty positive we have regulars who are working on it,” she says.
Local Favorite: Mud Hen Water
Set on a corner with a large patio, Mud Hen Water evokes a party and is a standout from Ed Kenney’s local Honolulu food empire. Here, he features such addictive, Hawaiian-accented comfort food as a pig ear-and-kimchi omelette with scallion ketchup, and coal-buried fish with coconut cream. Even the bucatini carbonara feels like a local specialty, thanks to a generous addition of smoky meat. To drink, there’s a mix of cocktails such as the tequila- and mezcal-spiked “… And Don’t Call Me Shirley,” plus Big Island brews and a handful of food-friendly wines.
More Casual Japanese: Sushi Izakaya Gaku
Exceptionally fresh sashimi and sushi are Gaku’s hallmarks: The chefs source product from Chinatown fish markets and Honolulu’s own tuna auction, a local version of the world-famous Tsukiji auctions in Tokyo. Inside the crowded dining rooms, the menu has a strong Japanese vibe. Besides such izakyaka items as fried Kurobuta pork and sweet shrimp cakes, there’s an array of fish, from Japanese mackerel and snapper to toro and the house special: housemade tofu with uni.
International Grazing: Waikiki Yochoko Food Hall
Honolulu has taken to food halls in a big way. Among the newest and fanciest is star chef Michael Mina’s the Street, on the upper level of the $350 million International Market Place. A block away and down an escalator is Yochoko and the opportunity to dive into the greatest hits of Japanese food and drink. Among the stands in the brightly lit, light-wood maze are an outpost of the Michelin-listed Baikohken, which specializes in shoyu ramen; Scichimusubi, with jewel-like, freshly made triangles of rice with stuffings such as pickled plums and spicy tuna; and Nana’s Green Tea, which has a menu of matcha lattes and eyecatching sundaes.
Hole in the Wall: Ethel’s Grill
If you want to feel like a local, go to Ethel’s Grill—and make sure to show up hungry. The restaurant, on a small street in Honolulu’s industrial district, feels like a grandmother’s kitchen, with linoleum flooring and a handful of wobbly tables. Platters of the signature tataki sashimi abound: The deep-red, just-seared tuna is layered on a mound of shredded cabbage and bean sprouts and doused with a fried garlic and shoyu sauce; it’s only $8. The runner-up is mochiko fried chicken, with a puffy, super-crunchy crust and a dressing of ponzu dipping sauce, which goes for $9.50. You might as well order both.
No-Frills Poke: Ono Seafood
Ono, a favorite of chefs around the city, is a no-frills take-out spot that specializes in one thing: poke. Snag one of the few tables out front to dig in—or better yet, bring it all to the beach. Order a “sampler" and make sure to include the Hawaiian style ahi, which has a pop of seaweed and heat from chiles mixed with the silky cubes of raw fish; even more potent is the sinus-clearing wasabi oil ahi. The signature is Shoyu ahi, which comes with scallions, sesame oil, and an all-important secret sauce.