Nico's Pier 38 Price: $6.95 to $10
Downtown workers, fishermen and savvy tourists have a favorite seafood restaurant in Honolulu: Nico's Pier 38. And we agree. The seafood here is so fresh, you know it just came off the boat. Actually, the Honolulu Fish Auction is next door; each day, owner Nicolas Chaize chooses what he'll serve that day. Try the pan-seared ahi ($8.45) or the succulent opah ($8.15); the seafood plates are accompanied by fresh organic baby greens and rice. Order inside and eat on the busy patio or at a picnic table near the fishing boats.
We loved. . . the freshness of the fish.
We didn't love. . . the lack of air conditioning on the patio.
Nico's Pier 38, 1133 N. Nimitz Highway, Honolulu; (808) 540-1377, www.nicospier38.com.
Uncle's Fish Market & Grill Price: $5.95 to $15.95
There's only one seafood restaurant we like as well as Nico's, and this is it. Conveniently, it's next door, so if one has an overflow crowd, try the other. Uncle's is the new kid on the pier -- open three months -- with an open kitchen and lively, sea-oriented, casual décor. The menu here is larger than at Nico's, offering more types of fish, plus pastas, salads, deli foods, sandwiches, burgers and chicken. As at Nico's, customers are served a huge fillet of fish.
We loved . . . the décor, the freshness of the fish and the variety of the menu.
We didn't love . . . using a public outdoor restroom (although it was clean).
Uncle's, 1135 N. Nimitz Highway, Honolulu; (808) 275-0063, www.unclesfishmarket.com.
Helena's Hawaiian Foods Prices: $2.25 to $15.65
If you're looking for aloha spirit, Helena's is the place. This funky hole in the wall is a Honolulu icon. Locals come here for real Hawaiian food; visitors in the know skip the hotel luau and drop by to taste kalua pig ($2.90), poi ($2.25), squid luau ($3.15) and fried butterfish collar ($3.95). The James Beard Foundation called Helena's "a regional classic."
We loved. . . the friendly staff.
We didn't love. . . the run-down neighborhood, which includes a radiator shop and a feed store.
Helena's Hawaiian Foods, 1240 N. School St., Honolulu; (808) 845-8044.
Mei Sum Dim Sum Prices: $1.95 to $3.15
Dim sum isn't just for breakfast or lunch at Mei Sum. This popular Chinatown cafe serves it from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Steaming carts make the rounds displaying dumplings ($2.35), spareribs ($2.35), barbecued pork ($2.35), spring rolls ($1.95) and baked treats. Around you, other diners are gossiping, conducting business, socializing and drinking hot tea. You may have to wait for a seat here, but it's worth it.
We loved. . . the tastes -- and the low prices.
We didn't love. . . seeing shark's fin soup on the menu, which reminded us of the millions of sharks killed annually to bring this delicacy to the market.
Mei Sum Dim Sum, 65 N. Pauahi St., Honolulu; (808) 531-3268.
Little Village Prices: $4.50 to $16.95
Little Village ranks high on many best-places-to-dine-in-Chinatown lists, as well it should. The emphasis at this busy noodle house is on healthful, tasty food, with vegetarian substitutes available for all dishes. Murals, bead curtains, statuary and other Asian décor give the restaurant more character than many Chinese cookeries. It's not for the indecisive, though: The menu lists more than 100 items, with most dishes priced at about $7.50.
We loved. . . the pecan spinach salad ($6.25) and the honey walnut shrimp ($13.95), both house specialties.
We didn't love. . . waiting 45 minutes for a table.
Little Village, 1113 Smith St., Honolulu; (808) 545-3008, www.littlevillagehawaii.com.
Vino Prices: $7.50 to $16.95
Wine connoisseurs will raise a toast to this trendy tapas and wine bar on Honolulu's Restaurant Row (which isn't a row at all but a group of restaurants in a downtown commercial building). The grape is the king here, with a menu that's one page of food and three pages of wines. Sommelier-owner Chuck Furuya hasn't sold dining short, however. Try the seafood ravioli ($9.95) or gourmet pizza ($9.95). The restaurant won a 2004 award of excellence from Wine Spectator magazine. Flights are $2.50 for 2 ounces and $5.50 to $12.50 for 5 ounces.
We loved. . . the stylish look of the restaurant and the helpful waiters.
We didn't love. . . the limited menu.
Vino, 500 Ala Moana, Honolulu; (808) 524-8466.
Side Street Inn Prices: $6.50 to $20
Side Street Inn is wildly popular with locals, especially local chefs. No one is more surprised than owner Colin Nishida, who likes to remind diners, "We're a bar that serves food. We're not a restaurant that serves alcohol." So go there to kick back with a few beers or to watch a game; the rambling, unassuming bar has 11 TVs and video screens. Nishida's creations arrive at the table in large dishes meant for sharing. Try the BBQ baby back ribs ($15) or the special fried rice ($10).
We loved. . . the happy clamor and local atmosphere.
We didn't love. . . finding the place. It's on a side street (natch) near Ala Moana Shopping Center.
Side Street Inn, 1225 Hopaka St., Honolulu; (808) 591-0253.
Seoul Garden Yakiniku Prices: $8.95 to $22.95
Honolulu is known for its Asian cuisines, and if you enjoy Korean food, Seoul Garden Yakiniku is the place. The restaurant, near the Hawaii Convention Center and Ala Moana Hotel, caters to office workers at lunch ($5.95 to $8.95) and tourists at night. Owner Yun Hee Im opened the comfortable, clubby-looking restaurant five years ago. Try the yakiniku (bite-sized morsels of grilled meat), grilled corvina ($14.95) or oxtail soup ($8.95). And if you're a novice, just ask a waitress to explain the cuisine.
We loved. . . the helpful waitresses.
We didn't love. . . the neighboring businesses, including Betty's Love Boutique and a strip club.
Seoul Garden Yakiniku, 1679 Kapiolani Blvd., Honolulu; (808) 944-4803.
Shirokiya This Japanese department store in giant Ala Moana Shopping Center is a giant in its own right and another unusual place to grab a meal. You can visit the store to buy electronics, but once you venture onto the food floor, you might be distracted for hours. Shirokiya has dozens of things for customers to taste: sliced octopus, seasoned squid with eggs, fried sardines. OK, so maybe none of these appeals. But there's also a snack bar and deli with such things as ramen noodles, sockeye salmon and great tempura. We tried the salmon bento box ($6.70) and curry udon ($7.45). Both were hits.
We loved . . . the unusual fare.
We didn't love . . . the scarcity of seating.
Shirokiya, 1450 Ala Moana Blvd., Honolulu; (808) 973-9234.
Well Bento Prices: $8 to $10.50
Aloha food may be tasty, but it can be salty and high in fat and carbs. To balance our 20-under-$20 list, we visited Well Bento, where healthful meals are the only thing on the menu. This tiny takeout joint isn't much to look at -- a small kitchen on the second floor of a commercial building -- but beautiful plates of organic fruits, vegetables, seafoods and tofu are produced inside Tod Brown's hole-in-the-wall eatery. Try the grilled salmon plate, served with salad and brown rice ($9.30) or the Zen macrobiotic ($8), a vegetarian plate with boiled root vegetables.
We loved. . . the fresh veggies and dedicated staff.
We didn't love. . . the heat in the kitchen. This is takeout only.
Well Bento, 2570 Beretania, No. 204, Honolulu, (808) 941-5261.
Pane y Vino Prices: $13 to $24
Bon giorno, Waikiki. This year-old wine bar is a budget surprise amid the pricey restaurants here. Hidden on the second floor of an old motel, Pane y Vino transports diners to Italy with Roman cuisine and more than 25 wines that can be purchased by the glass. Chef Fabrezio Favala describes the food as "a cross between the north and the south of Italy -- not too much cream, not too much tomato." Try the caprese ($9), grilled chicken with pesto sauce on a spring salad ($15) or eggplant parmesan ($16).
We loved. . . the servers and the inventive décor.
We didn't love. . . the difficulty we had finding the entrance.
Pane y Vino, 408 Lewers St., Waikiki; (808) 923-8466.
Halekulani's House Without a Key Price: $9.50 to $19.50
Locals recommend sitting down at a table here exactly at sunset, but even if you miss that precise window, be sure to get here between 6 and 8 p.m. The attraction, besides a spectacular setting overlooking the Pacific, is elegant Kanoe Miller, a former Miss Hawaii who dances a graceful hula every night except Sunday in front of the setting sun. The venue is an indoor-outdoor restaurant and lounge at the Halekulani Resort, one of Waikiki's premier hotels. Have a seat and order a glass of wine ($7.50) and appetizers, or perhaps a Caesar salad ($10), spaghetti ($12) or dessert ($7.50), and watch Miller wow the audience. She's accompanied by various groups playing traditional Hawaiian music.
We loved . . . everything -- the setting, the dancing, the music.
House Without a Key at the Halekulani, 2199 Kalia Road; (808) 923-2311, www.halekulani.com.
Duke's Canoe Club Prices: $6.95 to $14.95
This Waikiki landmark is too pricey to make our list for dinner, but try it at lunch (buffet $12.95) or for late-night meals. Inside, the motif is South Seas casual; on the Lanai patio, the view is 100% only-in-Hawaii: glowing tiki torches, waves curling slowly along the beach, the Waikiki skyline. Order a mai tai ($6.75) and a Beachside burger ($7.50), soak up the tropical ambience and pity your co-workers trapped at home in an office cubicle.
We loved . . . the vibe and the live music.
We didn't love. . . the line at breakfast.
Duke's, at the Outrigger Waikiki Hotel, 2335 Kalakaua Ave., No. 16, Waikiki; (808) 922-2268.
Fatty's Chinese Kitchen Price: Most dishes $6.50
This tiny takeout or eat-in Chinese cookery is behind the International Marketplace, an easy-to-reach location for the Waikiki tourist set. Tourists often miss it, but locals don't. They line up for the Cantonese stir-fry that's cooked as they watch. The restaurant, which has been in the same location below the Miramar Hotel for 27 years, has nine plastic chairs outside and 11 stools at its well-worn counter inside. Among the popular dishes are chicken and mushroom stir fry, beef curry over rice and a sea bass plate.
We loved . . . watching the food being prepared and cooked in a wok.
We didn't love . . . being told to come back later in the day for sea bass. When we did, we were told there was no sea bass that day.
Fatty's Chinese Kitchen, Miramar at Waikiki, 2345 Kuhio Ave.; (808) 922-9600.
Price: $12 to $28
In the mood for a big meal? Perhaps some sumo-sized pancakes or maybe a tureen of the Japanese soup saimin? Take a seat at MAC 24-7, a new Waikiki restaurant in the Hilton Prince Kuhio Hotel. Any time of day or night, diners find a diverse, well-priced menu with some special XXL offerings. Choose Mac Daddy pancakes ($12) in combinations such as banana, walnut and chocolate chunk or the Elvis, peanut butter and bacon. The flapjacks are bigger than a dinner plate. In the mood for pasta? Order the white cheddar mac and cheese ($12).
We loved . . . the sweet and smoky pulled pork kalua sandwich ($12) and the "killer" cupcakes (our favorite was the warm macadamia nut bread pudding cupcake for $6.)
We didn't love . . . that the three meals we ordered arrived at different times.
MAC 24-7, 2500 Kuhio Ave.; (808) 922-0811, www.mac247waikiki.com.
LuLu's Prices: $8.99 to $23.95
The surf's always up at LuLu's, which has a five-star view of Waikiki Beach and its wave action. The casual, open-air diner has an unobstructed second-floor view of the beach. Counters along the beach-facing walls allow customers to belly up to a bar and watch the surf. The restaurant is cute, with knotty-pine paneling, surfboards and outrigger paddles decorating the walls. It's open 22 hours daily. Burgers are the specialty; try the Magnum P.I. with bacon, cheddar and guacamole ($9.95).
We loved. . . the view: palm trees swaying in the breeze, with brilliant blue sky above and blue water below.
We didn't love. . . the food, which is average. But the view and ambience may make up for it.
LuLu's Waikiki, 2586 Kalakaua Ave., Honolulu; (808) 926-5222, www.luluswaikiki.com.
Diamond Head Market & Grill Price: Sandwiches about $6
Five minutes from Waikiki, you'll find one-stop shopping at Kelvin Ro's Diamond Head Market & Grill. It's a great place to pick up a picnic lunch. Choose among gourmet takeout, healthful plate lunches, deli foods or fresh-from-the-oven blueberry and cream-cheese scones ($2.40). Among the terrific sandwiches are grilled portabello ($5.25) and turkey with cranberry chutney ($6.50). Ro says, "My real job is as an instructor at a culinary college," but part of his job is making some of Hawaii's traditional foods more healthful.
We loved . . . the scones, the portabellos, the gourmet boxed sandwiches and salads.
We didn't love. . . that the only seating available was in the sun, so eating on-site wasn't very pleasant.
Diamond Head Market & Grill: 3158 Monsarrat Ave., Honolulu; (808) 732-0077, www.diamondheadmarket.com.
Farmers Open Market Step right up to the produce stand: The state's best farmers market takes place from 7:30 to 11 a.m. Saturdays at Kapiolani Community College, on the back side of Diamond Head Crater (a 10-minute drive from Waikiki). You don't need access to a kitchen to appreciate the bounty here. The booths include many stocked with prepared foods. On the Saturday morning we visited, we ogled blue lotus oxtail soup ($5), garlic shrimp "scampi" ($7), a beef curry bento box ($6) and ended with a blueberry bread pudding with vanilla sauce ($3).
We loved . . . becoming a part of this colorful community event.
We didn't love . . . trying to find a parking place.
Farmers Open Market, 4303 Diamond Head Road, Honolulu.
North Shore shrimp trucks Prices: $8 to $11
Cast a wide net for lunch or dinner the next time you drive to Oahu's North Shore. Scattered along Kamehameha Highway, from Haleiwa to Kahuku, are trucks selling barbecued shrimp, chicken and steak plates, most served Hawaiian plate-lunch style, with steamed white rice and salad. One of the first of the dozen or so trucks you'll encounter is Big Wave Shrimp Co., where a billboard of a surfboard-riding cartoon shrimp welcomes customers. You may run into the crew of the TV show "Lost" here; they film nearby and drop in occasionally for lunch. Several more shrimp trucks, some of them converted RVs, can be found past Turtle Bay Resort, including Giovanni's Aloha Shrimp, one of the best known. It's at 59-565 Kamehameha Highway.
We loved. . . the convenience and price.
We didn't love. . . the flies that wanted to share our lunch.
Shrimp trucks, Kamehameha Highway, North Shore.
Pah Ke's Price: $6 to $18
If you're planning to drive around the island, don't miss Pah Ke's in suburban Kaneohe. It's in an aging strip mall. The restaurant itself looks much like any local Chinese cookery. But Pah Ke's modest surroundings can't hide the creativity of chef Raymond Siu. Siu specializes in Chinese-Hawaiian regional cuisine, using as many local ingredients as possible. Pah Ke has an extensive menu -- 148 items -- but that doesn't stop Siu. Tell him the kinds of things you like, and he'll whip up something special for you.
We loved . . . the attitude: You name it, they make it for you.
We didn't love . . . the ragged commercial neighborhood.
Pah Ke's, 46018 Kamehameha Highway, Kaneohe; (808) 235-4505.
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