Before you go to Honolulu, Hawaii, you are likely to hear other visitors complain about how expensive the restaurants here are. I don’t know where those people are traveling from, but I didn’t find it to be excessively expensive at all; but then I’m used to spending money on food in Las Vegas, New York, Miami, etc. It’s all the same. If you’re on a super tight budget, you’d be wise to get a condo or hotel room that has a kitchenette, or at least a mini-fridge. There are some cheap breakfast deals out there—like $7 breakfast items at IHOP and the $5.99 breakfast special at Cheeseburgers, and many restaurants have happy hours with bar food specials.
One thing I will say I didn’t anticipate—and should have—was how you really need to make a reservation for dinner in Honolulu pretty much every night of the week if you plan to eat out. I found myself struggling on a couple of nights just to find a place to eat where the wait wasn’t half an hour or more. As a solo diner, I thought I would be able to easily just walk into a restaurant and sit at the bar—but no, the bars were packed, too. This unfortunately meant I squandered some of my precious few meals in Hawaii on chain restaurants just because they were the only thing I could get into. C’est la vie.
What were the highlights and lowlights of my dining experiences in Honolulu?
Alan Wong’s Pineapple Room
I had lunch here on day one with Hawaii PR pro Nathan Kam, who is just as nice in person as I’ve known him to be online. I really didn’t expect a restaurant like The Pineapple Room to be located inside a shopping center (the Ala Moana Center), let alone a Macy’s store. It’s a pleasant surprise. It’s large and airy, with plenty of sunlight coming in the windows and for solo diners, lots of bar seating and two-top tables. The open kitchen allows you to watch the kitchen staff in action. Chef Alan Wong is a forerunner of the localvore movement in Hawaii and an advocate of serving cuisine that reflects Hawaii’s culinary specialties and culture. It shows.
The first item I sampled was the Caesar salad topped with kalua pig, which was an instant hit with me; the kalua pig was just to die for. We had a bruschetta with four different toppings—olive tapenade, tomato, goat cheese, and pesto. All were quite good, but I tried not to load up too much on the carbs. And finally we had a fish entree with an amazingly flavorful sauce. The fish in Hawaii, of course, is very fresh. The entire meal was heavenly and I would highly recommend The Pineapple Room to anyone who wants to treat themselves to a quality meal in Hawaii made with fresh, local ingredients.
Duke’s at the Outrigger Waikiki
I had a great dinner one evening at Duke’s with travel blogger Christine Ka’aloa of the blog Grrrltraveler. Duke’s is a very classy place to have dinner, and obviously very popular. Our server was very attentive without being overbearing and the food was quite good. They have a famous salad bar with a wide range of fruits and vegetables which we both sampled. Christine made the salad bar her dinner, and I ordered the Huli Huli Chicken (“Grilled fresh breast of chicken marinated in garlic, ginger and shoyu served with pineapple gremolata”). It was terrific, but large, and I couldn’t finish it. For such a nice restaurant, dinner was not that expensive. Maybe we just happened to order the right things, but it was not a hard bill to pay.
I also stopped by the bar at Duke’s one day for a refreshing beverage after walking the length of Waikiki Beach. I asked the bartender what their specialty is, and he recommended the Pau Hana Punch, which he told me was invented at Duke’s. The key to this drink is mulling the fruits (lemon and orange, I believe he said, though it tasted like grapefruit to me), not just pouring in juices. In any case, I loved it. Pau Hana, by the way, is an expression used in Hawaii that means “getting out of work early”–a concept I wholeheartedly support.
I discovered this wonderful little Thai restaurant at 1910 Ala Moana Boulevard on my last night in town, when I was looking for a place to eat, hadn’t made a reservation (as usual), and didn’t feel like walking all the way down Kalakaua Avenue again. I wish I’d discovered it sooner. I love Thai food. Singha Thai is an intimate space, heavily decorated with Thai artifacts and featuring a dancer who comes out every little while to perform.
I had the Thai Curry Puffs (shrimp, pork, potatoes and onion in what is described as a puff pastry) and my old standby, the Tom Ka Gai soup. I enjoyed the puffs, which came with a great dipping sauce, but was thrown by the flavor of the soup; it didn’t taste the same as the Tom Ka Ghai I’ve had in Vermont. The soup spoon was bigger than my mouth, which made it a little difficult to eat as well, and the chunks of chicken were humongous (and I had nothing to cut them with). Still, overall, I was quite pleased with my dinner and it was one of the cheapest meals I had during my stay. I’d definitely go back. The live entertainment during the meal was kind of fun.
Tiki’s Grill & Bar
I had a relaxing, late lunch at Tiki’s Grill one day on the patio, which is upstairs in the Aston Waikiki Beach Hotel (but there’s an outside stairwell access) on Kalakaua Ave. It has a great view overlooking Kalakaua Avenue and Waikiki Beach, with plenty of umbrellas if you need to be in the shade and plenty of sunshine if you don’t. All the staff here were really friendly. I had the mango mojito and the prime rib poke, which was just out of this world. The prime rib was cut into small cubes, topped with aoli, sitting on a bed of greens. I could eat this every week of my life.
The Shorebird Restaurant
Most of my breakfasts were comped by my hotel at the IHOP next door, so I really had no reason to venture further afield for food most mornings. But I did have breakfast one morning with Nancy Daniels, Director of PR for the Outrigger chain at the Outrigger Reef’s Shorebird. I really liked the laid-back vibe of this restaurant. It’s very open and airy and has a great view of Waikiki Beach—since it’s literally right out the door. Solo diners, take note: There are plenty of seats around the bar and two-top tables. Dining alone here would be very comfortable, especially if you had a nice view of the beach from your seat.
For lunch and dinner, the Shorebird offers a buffet and an ala carte menu. For breakfast, they offer a $13.95 breakfast buffet, which has all the typical breakfast foods you could possibly want—eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, fruits, pastries, yogurt—as well as Hawaiian specialties, such as steamed mahi mahi, Hawaiian sweet bread french toast, and fried rice. What food item made me do a double-take? Red velvet cupcakes. How can you not love a buffet that serves red velvet cupcakes for breakfast???
(Coincidentally, I later learned that one of my best friends here in Vermont used to be a cocktail waitress at the Shorebird many years ago. Small world.)
Tropics Bar and Grill
I wound up at the indoor/outdoor Tropics Bar and Grill a couple of times because of its convenient location across the street from my hotel at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. The bartenders here were super nice, friendly, and could not do enough for me. I really liked them. There were always plenty of seats at the bar, since most people were sitting at tables, and always a game on the TV, if you’re into sports. Both times I was here, I only wanted something small and light to eat, so one day I had chips and salsa and one day I had the 3 beef soft tacos (which were delicious). They also serve the locally brewed Kona Longboard Lager, which I became fond of during my stay in Hawaii.
Early one evening, Christine brought me to Ryan’s at the Ward Centre so I could get a feel for more of a locals establishment. And it did feel exactly like the kind of bar I’d go to back home after work on a Friday. We sat out on the patio, overlooking Ala Moana Beach Park. She introduced me to soy ginger edamame (peapods, basically), which I’d never had before and had no idea how to eat–which made for a bit of a comical few moments—and to the ultra-delicious li hing mui magarita. Li hing mui is made from salty dried plums and is apparently a popular addition to many snacks, foods and beverages in Hawaii. I can easily see why—it was delicious, with both a salty and a sweet-and-sour flavor such as you might get from Sweettart candies.
I had trouble convincing Christine I had actually used chopsticks before, because like any other skill, “if you don’t use it, you lose it”–and I really only use chopsticks once every few years, so I always forget how to hold them and have to relearn it every time. And I’ve never had to break them apart before, so I was puzzled by that. Christine captured it all in photos, and you can pretty much see exactly what I’m thinking during the process by the expression on my face. Thanks, Christine, for not making (too much) fun of me. 😉
The Wailana Coffee House
Given the hype this place gets as a “legendary” restaurant in Honolulu, I really expected a quality diner like some of the diners we have here in Vermont, where the food is simple, but home-cooked, abundant and cheap. Well, breakfast might be good here, I don’t know. And it is indeed, cheap. But I cannot recommend dinner here at all.
I got the Tokyo Burger (which the menu inaccurately described as “sooo good”); it was a pre-pressed burger patty that had been soaked in some teriyaki sauce and slapped on a mediocre grocery store bun. I also ordered the curly fries on the side, and they were exactly the same curly fries you can buy in the frozen food section of your grocery store. Food like this should never be served in a restaurant, people. Ever. If you can’t make food from scratch, just don’t bother.
But honestly, that was the only big disappointment of my trip–except for the fact that I really didn’t try as many Hawaiian foods as I had hoped to. Next time. . . .
Note: Nathan bought me lunch at the Pineapple Room, Nancy bought me breakfast at the Shorebird, and Christine picked up the tab at Ryan’s Grill. Nobody asked me to review the restaurants. The opinions expressed in this post are 100% my own and are not necessarily endorsed by any of the other people mentioned in this article.