I’m not much of a foodie, but I really love the dining options in Honolulu. On my recent January trip, I ate at some of my old favorites (like Tiki’s Grill and Bar) and tried a number of new places (like the Rainbow Drive-In, which I’ve already written about). I tried malasadas and deep-fried banana for the first time and ate half my body weight in pork. I saved money by eating some meals in my room, but didn’t hesitate to spend on meals out when I wanted. I ate at some locally-owned restaurants, and I ate at some chains. What can I say? I believe in balance.
Since I find restaurant reviews really helpful when I’m planning a trip to a new destination, I’d like to pay it forward by jotting down my thoughts about where I ate this time around—and how solo-friendly those restaurants were.
Favorite Overall Restaurant: Tiki’s Grill and Bar
This is a great spot to listen to live music and sip a cocktail while watching the sun set over the ocean, to be replaced by the light of the tiki torches once darkness falls. The staff was always very friendly, and I never had trouble getting a seat immediately—at the bar or at a table–without a reservation. People sitting at the bar tend to be friendly if you’re feeling social.
But the best thing about Tiki’s is the food; I would marry it if I could.
Their Prime Rib Poke is one of my favorites, with greens and slices of tender prime rib marinated in a spicy sauce. The Kona Coffee Mousse Dream Cake—which isn’t “cake” at all, but chocolate mousse in a chocolate shell—is divine. The beef gyozas were delicious, with moist meat and a tasty sauce drizzled over them. They are an appetizer, but the perfect amount of food for a light appetite like mine.
The Miso Pressure Cooker Pork Pot Roast is a must-try if you eat meat: four large, tender slices of “misoyaki smothered pork shoulder, served atop creamy kabocha pumpkin puree with vanilla bean maui pineapple sauce & demi glace.” It came with skinny little green beans on the side. It was the best thing I’ve eaten in a long time, and I waddled away from the table feeling overstuffed but very satisfied.
For a Treat: The Hula Grill
I’ve said it before, the Outrigger hotels have some of the best restaurants in Waikiki. I ate at Duke’s and the Shorebird on my last trip, and this time out, I had both breakfast and dinner at the Hula Grill, located at the Outrigger Waikiki. Dinner was at the bar, which was a little dark, but had plenty of seating and no wait. The girls behind the bar were the right amount of friendly and professional.
I had the Mai Tai (which they are apparently famous for) and the macadamia crusted fish. If that’s not the quintessential Hawaiian meal, I don’t know what is. The fish came with long grain rice and macadamia nut slaw. The most notable of these was the slaw, which was incredibly tasty. At $42, this was definitely a “splurge” meal.
I also had breakfast here one day with Nancy Daniels of the Outrigger PR Department (who treated—thanks, Nancy!). Nancy is, as the expression goes, “really good people”; I met her on my last trip to Hawaii and was happy for the opportunity to catch up. The food was excellent: my Beach Boy omelet was stuffed with moist kalua pork and caramelized onions. Yum.
But the setting is equally important here: We sat on the terrace in a comfortable booth with upholstered seats. It’s such a treat to eat breakfast in the fresh air in the middle of winter. I always know I’m on vacation when I do that, because nobody in their right mind would try that in Vermont.
Tip: For a memorable dinner, try for a seat on or near the patio around sunset.
Restaurant with the Most Solo-Friendly Seating: Lulu’s
Lulu’s is a second-floor, open-air restaurant with a surf motif at the Parc Shore Waikiki on the corner of Kapahulu and Kalakaua. There are surfboards hanging on the wall, and television sets showing surfing videos.Two clocks hang over the bar: One shows the time at the Bonzai Pipeline on the North Shore of Oahu and one shows the time in Chiba, Japan (another surfing spot). The youngish staff here is very sweet.
This restaurant has the most solo-friendly seating of any restaurant I’ve ever visited. Two entire walls have counter seating facing the ocean and Diamond Head. All restaurants should have seating like this for solos! There is also bar and table seating. Even with all the counter space, you may have a bit of a wait for a seat there, as this is a very popular restaurant.
As for the food, it was a mixed bag. Other than the cheap price, I can’t say I was wowed with the Deuces Wild (2 eggs, 2 pieces of bacon, 2 huge pancakes, and a scoop of white rice). But I loved the Grecian Sunrise Omelet (stuffed with spinach, feta cheese and grape tomatoes) with a side of kalua pork and breakfast potatoes. I loved the restaurant, though, and I’d definitely return, maybe to see what lunch and dinner are like.
Best Pancakes in Waikiki: Eggs N Things
You can tell this place is popular because no matter what time of day you walk by, there is a long line out front. But they’ve got it down to a science: While you wait in line, a staff member hands you a menu so you can decide what you want. At the host stand, you place your order and are given a number on a slip of paper. Then you stand in a second line for the cashier, where you pay for your order. Then you stand in a third line to wait for a seat. Finally, you are shown to your seat by a hostess. It was 30 minutes from the time I arrived to the time I was seated. My food arrived five minutes later.
I’m not a very patient person when it comes to food. So I thought “This breakfast better be worth it.” It was.
I ordered one of their most popular items, the strawberry pancakes. My jaw nearly hit the counter when the waitress set my plate in front of me. It was humongous. There must have been 2 cups of whipped cream on top of the pancakes, along with strawberries and sprinkles of macadamia nuts. I tried them with all the syrup flavors—maple, coconut, and guava—but syrup wasn’t even needed. Too much food, but really delicious.
There is counter seating here for solos, too. In fact, there were three of us solos in a row in line and we all wound up eating at the counter near each other. The three of us compared breakfasts and chatted a bit. The counter faces a wall, so if you get bored easily, bring your smartphone or something else to read.
Tip: Don’t eat here when you’re in a hurry.
Best Cheeseburger: Cheeseburger in Paradise
The décor here is so cheesy, they almost don’t need to add cheese to their burgers. The staff unselfconsciously wears fake grass hula skirts over their shorts. The walls are littered with Hawaiian décor—and a pretty good mural–and there’s a “Ukelele Bar” in the back of the restaurant (though I never saw anyone there). There are plenty of two-top tables.
If your restaurant has the name “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” your burger better live up to that name. It does. The “It’s All Good Burger” came with mushrooms, cheese, bacon and guacamole, with sweet potato waffle fries on the side. Their menu states that all their burgers are cooked medium well (no pink), which made me nervous; I was afraid it might be dry. But it was, in fact, very juicy and delicious. Thumbs up.
I also came for their $5.99 breakfast special one day. The restaurant is mobbed during breakfast. Service is slooooow like a honu (sea turtle) creeping across the sand. It took about 30 minutes from when I placed my order to when it arrived (and that doesn’t count the 15 minutes I waited for a table). The food was good (the sweetbread toast was yummy and the hash browns were shredded, just the way I like them).
But the coffee was horrible. It required 3-4 creamers to be remotely drinkable, and then the waitress came along and topped it off without asking and I had to dump even more creamer in. The next time she tried to top it off, I immediately covered my cup with my hand and said “NO!” a little louder than I should have. But sheesh. Ask first.
Also, my coffee mug was chipped. What kind of restaurant uses chipped mugs? Still, cheap breakfast, great cheeseburgers. I’d eat here again. But not if I were in a hurry.
The Convenience Factor: California Pizza Kitchen
Confession: I ate at this chain twice because it was convenient. Don’t get me wrong: I like their food, too, but I’ve eaten at CPK in Vegas more than once, so I wouldn’t necessarily have gone out of my way to eat here in Honolulu if it weren’t for the convenience. The first time I sat on the upstairs terrace overlooking Kalakaua with a new friend. It was a sunny, fun people-watching location. I had the mushroom flatbread (an appetizer), which hit the spot.
The second time I ate here was because I was caught without a reservation and needed to eat quickly to get to the Friday Night Fireworks. I scored a seat at the bar easily. Here, I had the half caramelized peach salad (greens, gorgonzola cheese, peaches, candied walnuts, and bacon). The term “half salad” is a joke. Half a bushel maybe. But it was a good salad.
Tip: If you eat here, don’t waste your money on an alcoholic beverage. I’m a lightweight when it comes to drinking and neither of the drinks I had here (a mojito and a Caribbean Sunset Sangria) gave me so much as a buzz.
Best Surfer Vibe: Jimmy Buffet’s and the Surf Museum Bar
Jimmy Buffet’s restaurant and the Surf Museum are located on Kalakaua at the Holiday Inn Beachcomber. They’re upstairs and to get there, you either take an escalator or the slowest one-floor elevator ride in the world.
Tip: The Surf Museum Bar is located behind the pool area, and is less busy than Jimmy Buffet’s, but they share the same menu. Of the two, the Surf Museum Bar is smaller, and a bit more laid back, while the main bar is larger and a bit more lively. There are Jimmy Buffet music videos playing in the main bar if you’re into that sort of thing.
The same bartender, Tatiana, served me at both bars on different days when I ate here. She was a bartending ninja—everywhere at once. One night, I stopped in for a drink (a cucumber, watermelon and pineapple juice concoction that sounded better than it tasted) and a salad. She was behind the bar by herself and it started getting very busy, but she handled it all efficiently.
When she brought me my bill, she told me “I got your drink.” I asked why. She said “Because it took so long.” That was pretty decent of her, especially since I didn’t notice that it took a long time.
At the main bar, I had the Lava Lava Shrimp and a slice of key lime pie. The shrimp was a bit spicy, but really good. The Key Lime Pie was the perfect dessert to pair with the shrimp, since it was cool and mellow.
Tip: If you’re drinking beer here, go for one of the local Kona brews. I like the Longboard Lager.
Some travelers sneer at the idea of eating at chain restaurants when traveling. But while I think sampling local specialties is important, as a solo traveler, it’s also important to find places where you feel comfortable dining alone and give yourself permission to eat there (especially when you’re on vacation!). In the end, I have no regrets–except maybe that I didn’t order spam with anything.
Have you been to Honolulu? What’s your favorite solo-friendly restaurant there?