Dining Around Honolulu

by Gray Cargill on April 11, 2012

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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?

The Highlights

Caesar salad topped with kalua pig

Caesar salad topped with kalua pig at The Pineapple Room

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.

Fresh fish at the Pineapple Room

Fresh fish at the Pineapple Room

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

The patio at Duke’s, photo courtesy of the Outrigger

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.

The Pau Hana Punch

Duke’s Pau Hana Punch

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.

Singha Thai

Singha Thai

Singha Thai

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.

Mango Mojito and Prime Rib Poke

Mango Mojito and Prime Rib Poke at Tiki’s Grill and Bar

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 at the Outrigger Reef on the Beach

The Shorebird Restaurant at the Outrigger Reef on the Beach

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.

View of the Beach from the Shorebird

View of the Beach from the Shorebird

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???

Buffet station at the Shorebird

Buffet station at the Shorebird

(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.)

Beef soft tacos

Yummy beef soft tacos at Tropics

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.


Soy ginger edamame at Ryan's

Soy ginger edamame at Ryan’s

Ryan’s Grill 

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.

Li hing mui margarita

Li hing mui margarita (that’s li hing powder around the rim)

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. 😉

Me breaking chopsticks

“Does this work like a wishbone? What if I break it in the wrong place?”

Me breaking chopsticks

“Hey! It worked!”

Me breaking chopsticks

“I am now ridiculously pleased with myself for doing something every 3 year old in China can do.”

Christine and me at Ryan's Grill

Christine and me at Ryan’s Grill


Wailana Coffee House

Plenty of counter seating at the Wailana Coffee House

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.

Tiana Kai January 21, 2013 at 10:21 am

Oh my, Hawai’i has so many amazing spots! Great pics! One of my fave’s is Doraku. Unfortunately, it’s located in the mall on Waikiki, but at least it is the most beautiful mall, the Royal Hawaiian Center! They have two locations in Hawai’i and two in Miami… amazing! Duke’s is always fun with a gorgeous view. The Kahala Resort is also one of my top choices… dolphins in pool, beautiful quiet grounds, million dollar view, great food and top service. I guess the service tends to always be great in Hawai’i, at least everywhere I have been to. Would be great to go back if it wasn’t so far!

Gray Cargill January 26, 2013 at 10:06 am

Oh, I know, I’d go back again just for the food, if nothing else. (Luckily, there are many more reasons to go back!) Oh yes, the Royal Hawaiian Center. I didn’t see Doraku, but I wasn’t really looking for it. Where is the Kahala Resort?

Gray April 21, 2012 at 9:34 am

That would be wise, Sabina. Wish I had been that smart.

Sabina April 21, 2012 at 1:42 am

This is a helpful post, Gray. I’ll try to remember to make restaurant reservations if ever I end up in Honolulu. And that Caeser with Kalulu pig is what I want to eat when I arrive!

Gray April 16, 2012 at 5:20 am

It should be, Spencer. It’s a great place.

Spencer April 16, 2012 at 2:19 am

I can’t wait to get to Honolulu, it is high up on my travel list.

JoAnn April 14, 2012 at 11:49 am

I did like it.

Gray April 14, 2012 at 10:00 am

Did you like it, JoAnn?

JoAnn April 14, 2012 at 9:48 am

I think I ate at Tiki’s when I was in Honolulu.

Gray April 13, 2012 at 6:23 am

Oh, me too, Suzanne. Why do you think I mentioned it? 🙂

Suzanne va April 12, 2012 at 8:58 pm

You had me at red velvet cupcakes for breakfast 🙂

Gray April 12, 2012 at 5:23 pm

Good to know about the Oceanarium, Sere, thanks. If I go, maybe I’ll just go for a drink. 🙂

Sere April 12, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Your point about the prices of Hawaii was something I noticed as well. I know I have been to many a restaurant in Tybee Island or the Florida Keys or Savannah that were the same price as the ones we went to in Hawaii. I would agree with you that I did not think the prices were as expensive as I was led to believe. One disappointing meal is not bad. I only had one bad meal in Hawaii as well and that was at The Oceanarium at the Pacific Beach Hotel in Honolulu. Pricey food and really not good at all. The only reason to eat there was to watch them feed the fish haha.

Gray April 12, 2012 at 11:19 am

Oh, there are many reasons to go to Hawaii other than their beaches, Goody. For sure.

Goody April 12, 2012 at 8:54 am

To be honest I’ve never wondered about typical food in Honolulu, but reading your post it seems that Honolulu has nothing to envy to other destinations know for theit cuisine as Itay or France! Another reason why to go to Hawaii above its white sand beaches!

Gray April 12, 2012 at 8:44 am

There was a tiki statue not far from where I was sitting. 🙂 You can see it here: http://solofriendly.smugmug.com/Travel/Honolulu-Restaurants/21808615_8Fc92Q#!i=1738847563&k=M5L6jMX&lb=1&s=L

Christine | GrrrlTraveler April 12, 2012 at 6:46 am

Wonderful post Gray! It’s a nice listing of some places in Waikiki.

Did the Tiki Grill have anything Tiki about it? I’m a sucker for kitsch Hawaii places. And Singha Thai has live Thai performances? Pretty cool.

Still love the chopsticks moment.

Gray April 11, 2012 at 5:22 pm

One disappointing meal is pretty good for any trip, Tracy. I mostly enjoyed my meals in Hawaii very much. Aww, thanks for the Vermont diner-love. Yeah, we have some good ones. My favorite, unfortunately, is 2 hours away from where I live. Needless to say, I haven’t been there in a while.

Tracy Antonioli April 11, 2012 at 7:54 am

Why am I reading this before breakfast!?! It all sounds so good! Seems to me–just by the food you had–that it was a pretty great trip. But then, I’m a huge fan of food. My husband asked me what I’m most looking forward to on my next trip, and I said ‘eating, of course’!

Sorry to hear that you had one disappointing meal. But really, you can’t try to top Vermont diners. I had breakfast at a little place in Bennington years ago that I still remember…so good.

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