Hawaiian dining once meant pig-in-the-pit, poi and umbrella drinks. But in recent years there’s been a quantum leap in culinary refinement. The new cuisine, like the islands themselves, is a synthesis of native and world cultures, created by chefs who passionately support local fishing, ranching and farming. Each island offers its own unique charm and superb restaurants — from award-winning classics to offbeat gems.
It’s usually smart to dine where the locals do — especially when that local is President Obama. At this restaurant near his old neighborhood, the president likes todig in to twice-cooked short ribs with gingered shrimp, and indulge in “The Coconut,” haupia sorbet in a chocolate shell amusingly presented to look just like its name. Located in an office building, it’s not beachfront views that keep Alan Wong’s at the top of best restaurant lists — just an amazing dining experience.
1857 S. King St., Honolulu, 808.949.2526
A new executive chef, Isaac Bancaco, is transforming this always reliable restaurant into a dazzling one. Bancaco worked for several years with Chef Ming Tsai at Blue Ginger in Boston — and helped him beat Bobby Flay on “Iron Chef America” — before returning to his native Maui. His style combines refined presentation with layered textures and flavors, as in the caprese salad with macadamia nut pesto and basil granita dressing. The must-have dessert is pineapple upside down cake, exquisite to look at, sublime to taste.
200 Kapalua Drive, Kapalua,808.669.9600
BIG ISLAND OF HAWAII
Holuakoa Gardens and Café
A winding mountain road will take you through Kona coffee country to this delightful garden restaurant graced with stone statuary and lush tropical foliage. Chef Wilson Read’s locally sourced menus change seasonally. The gnocchi is homemade, and fresh local pork is used from “nose to tail,” so you can find adventurous dishes like braised “trotters” with fresh tagliatelle. After your meal, take a stroll through town and enjoy the galleries featuring local artists.
76-5900 Old Government Road, Holualoa, 808.322.2233
In a little shack on a rural hillside is a restaurant whose menu warns: “Relax! If you’re in a hurry, you’re on the wrong island.” But, oh, is the food worth the wait. The guava baby back ribs wow even the most jaded connoisseurs. The ono sautéed in lilikoi butter and wine is divine. And local musicians play for their supper almost every night. No credit cards, no reservations and BYOB — no corkage fee.
102 Farrington Ave., Kualapu’u, 808.567.9655
Lanai City Grille at the Hotel Lanai
This charming restaurant, built in 1923, offers a taste of old Hawaii — with a dash of truffle oil. Entrées on Chef Warren Seta’s menu range from fresh fish to venison. But the surprise hit is his comfort-food classic: rotisserie chicken with truffled macaroni and cheese. Friday is let-your-hair-down Pau Hana night, when you can join the locals dancing to live music on the patio.
828 Lana'i Avenue, Lana'i City, 808.565.7211
The Beach House Restaurant
This may be as close to the dream of a Hawaiian paradise as you can get — open-air dining at Prince Kuhio Beach and cuisine that’s a sensual delight. No wonder the Beach House has earned the gold Hale Aina award as Best Kauai Restaurant for the past 12 years in a row. Gaze out at a tropical sunset while you savor Chef Marshall Blanchard’s catch of the day over black coconut rice with red curry sauce and green papaya salsa. Aloha happiness.
5022 Lawai Road, Koloa, 808.742.1424
—Maxine Nunes, Custom Publishing Writer