On Oahu, 20 places for great meals for less than $20
By Rosemary McClure
Oct 21, 2018 | 5:00 AM
Grab your Hawaiian garb and join us for cheap eats Oahu, where the best way to catch the aloha spirit is to dine like a local. It's time for another installment in our “20 for $20” articles that examine a score of restaurants where you can eat nicely for an Andrew Jackson or less.
About a decade ago, we canvassed the islands to bring you lists of inexpensive restaurants on Oahu, Kauai, Maui and Hawaii Island, focusing on great meal deals at places locals frequent. You loved it. In fact, you’re still reading those articles nearly 10 years later.
Things change, of course, so we’re doing a bit of updating. In April, we ran a new list of Kauai faves. Now it’s Oahu’s turn.
With the help of local experts, we identified some new — and some returning — favorites and tried them, concentrating on restaurants that feature inexpensive and, often, traditional Hawaiian fare. We included a few places to splurge where the ambience is pure tropical paradise.
For the most part, the restaurants are clustered in Oahu’s main tourist areas, including Waikiki, the North Shore and Honolulu proper.
Because Hawaii is a melting pot of cultures. our picks include Hawaiian, Japanese and Chinese favorites. You’ll also find a couple of restaurants that specialize in desserts.
Many of the restaurants are family-owned and accept cash only. Some are hidden gems, and we mean that literally and figuratively. Always check hours and directions.
Bogart’s Cafe & Espresso Bar
Leave chaotic Waikiki behind and take a stroll along the Pacific and through Kapiolani Park to this small storefront cafe near the base of Diamond Head State Monument. You’ll enjoy the scenery on the way and find tasty breakfast and lunch fare waiting.
Bogart’s, named for a friendly Labrador, is known for its acai bowls, pancakes and waffles. You can order breakfast all day and sit at inside or outside tables.
It’s an unassuming place in a small strip mall but is popular with locals who rave about the food, especially Moma’s Fried Rice ($10.50); waffles with strawberries, whipped cream and Nutella ($12); and the avocado and spinach Benedict ($10).
Insider tip: Arrive early (it opens at 6 a.m.) or after 2 p.m. to avoid the long lines that form outside in midmorning and early afternoon.
The Chart House, founded by surf pioneer Joey Cabell, isn’t part of the Chart House chain. It’s independently owned by Cabell and is a favorite with islanders, thanks to beautiful harbor views, a great steak and seafood menu, and a lively bar.
The restaurant is too pricey to make our list for dinner, but try the late-night Happy Hour menu, which begins at 9:30, for some real gems.
For instance, a plump New York steak with soup or salad and sides is $17. Other full meals start at $12.75.
You’ll find a buoyant crowd here at night, and there are usually drink specials.
Insider tip: Take an evening stroll along the boat harbor after dinner.
Honolulu’s Chinatown, once an infamous red-light district, has evolved into a multicultural arts hub and is full of hole-in-the-wall restaurants and boutiques, lei stands, grocers, a noodle factory and souvenir shops.
Visit its markets in the morning to see a tantalizing display of fresh seafood, unusual fruits and vegetables.
This popular tiki bar is a fun place to have an umbrella drink, watch surfers and dine without paying big bucks.
The restaurant, named for Hawaiian surfer and Olympian Duke Kahanamoku, is on the lower level of the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort. Lunch prices are reasonable, and you’ll find deals any time of the day in the Barefoot Bar, where you can eat under a palapa, enjoy a beach vibe and gaze at Diamond Head.
If you’re hungry, try the luncheon buffet, $19, offering teriyaki chicken, seafood stew, a large salad bar and made-to-order pasta. Or order chowder, $9, baby back ribs, $17, or seafood tacos, $19.50, in the Barefoot Bar.
Insider tip: Duke’s Waikiki offers entertainment most nights. Order a local brew in the bar and watch a brilliant sunset.
To market, to market — which may be the ultimate way to save money on vacation here — at the new Foodland Farms Ala Moana.
This isn’t just any supermarket; it’s a foodie’s fantasy store: a 47,395-square-foot facility packed with hundreds of kinds of prepared foods, including more than two dozen kinds of poke, 34 hot-bar items and a wine bar.
Stock up on staples when you arrive to stash in your hotel room: cereal, breads, peanut butter and jelly. Then pick up some grab-and-go items for lunch or dinner.
Insider tip: Foodland is in a newer section of massive Ala Moana Center. The store will hold your groceries while you shop elsewhere in the mall, then deliver them to your car.
The state’s best market is open 7:30-11 a.m. Saturdays at Kapiolani Community College, on the back side of Diamond Head Crater (a 10-minute drive from Waikiki).
You’ll find a cornucopia of tropical fruits and veggies, snacks such as sweet potato and taro chips ($4), sugarcane juice ($5), banana bread ($5) and mochi ice cream (three for $3).
But if you’re staying in the tourist zone, try the Waikiki Farmers Market, 4-8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays on the ground-floor mall connected to the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort and Spa, 2424 Kalakaua Ave.
Insider tip: Check out the unique souvenirs at the market.
If you’ve never had made-from-scratch Chinese noodles, don’t miss Lam’s Kitchen, a hole-in-the-wall diner in Chinatown that’s always crowded with locals. You won’t see many tourists here, but you will see plenty of aunties and uncles chatting in Cantonese.
Lam’s has only 12 tables, and the restaurant is so popular that you may have to wait in the back for space at a communal table. But it’s worth it. The chow fun (homemade noodle dishes) are Hong Kong authentic.
You’ll find soups, rice dishes and specialties such as beef flank look fun soup ($8.50), which has broad flat noodles, big chunks of beef and lots of veggies. It’s ideal for a rainy day or, really, any day.
Insider tip: Don’t worry about communicating; menus are in English.
Mainland kids may dream of wolfing down chocolate chip cookies, but island kids fantasize about Hawaiian coco puffs — and we’re not talking about the cereal.
These coco puffs are the creation of the Liliha Bakery: cream puff pastries filled with chocolate or other puddings, topped with a macadamia nut frosting.
They aren’t the only reason to visit. Its two locations have cheery cafes that feature comfort foods such as meat loaf ($13.95), fried chicken ($13.75) and a to-die-for dessert menu chock-full of homemade pastries.
Liliha, which opened in 1950, notes on the menu that “Some things never change, and that’s a good thing.” We agree.
Insider tip: Skip the long lines at the bakery counter. Dine in and order coco puffs to go from your server.
Info: Liliha Bakery, 580 N. Nimitz Highway; (808) 537-2488, and 515 N. Kuakini St., Honolulu; (808) 531-1651
Moana Surfrider Beach Bar
Budget travelers may think they need to win the lottery to fund a visit to Moana Surfrider, one of Hawaii’s most beautiful oceanfront hotels. No need. You can live it up on the cheap at the hotel’s Beach Bar, which offers several items for less than $20.
You’ll also hear live music, see hula and dine on a lovely patio under the hotel’s 133-year-old banyan tree. Order a mai tai and watch catamarans and surfers on the beach nearby.
You’ll find burgers, sandwiches, pizzas and pupus (appetizers). Our faves were the roasted veggie grilled wrap ($17) with eggplant, peppers, zucchini, hummus and yellow squash, and the Japanese-style Okonomiyaki hot dog ($16), both served with fries.
Insider tip: Catch free entertainment 12:30-2:30 p.m. and 5:30-10 p.m. daily.
If you're looking for the freshest fish in town, try Nico’s Pier 38, where fish are caught in the morning and served to diners by afternoon.
This busy restaurant and fish market, owned by French chef Nico Chaize, is on Pier 38, also the home of the Honolulu Fish Auction, where about 55,000 pounds of just-caught seafood is sold daily to restaurants around the world.
Nico’s has a nice island ambience, and its plate lunches and dinners are excellent. Furikake pan-seared ahi ($13.25 lunch, $18.50 dinner), one of the most popular items on the menu, is our favorite dish. Sit outside and watch fishing boats in Honolulu Harbor while you dine.
Insider tip: It’s a drive from Waikiki; if you don’t have a car, request a ride share or catch the hop-on, hop-off Waikiki Trolley, which stops here.
It’s called a saloon, but don’t try to order a beer. Don’t try to order anything you might consider pioneer grub either. But if you’re looking for a great Japanese plate lunch with giant portions, this is the place.
Pioneer Saloon has some of the trappings of an Old West watering hole, including deer heads and old wood planks lining the walls, but it’s actually a funky cafe where “Japan meets Hawaii,” manager Anthony Apolencia said.
You’ll find an extensive menu of plate lunches, rice bowls and curries, all reasonably priced. For $11, you can chow down on a large helping of rice, salads and substantial entrees such as salt salmon, shoyu pork or teriyaki chicken.
Insider tip: If you’re a fan of Hawaii's loco moco (fried egg, gravy, rice and meat), try Pioneer’s variation, made with rib eye instead of hamburger patties.
There’s something to be said for exclusivity, especially when you can’t afford it.
If you had a pot of cash, for instance, you might rent a hotel cabana at the Royal Hawaiian hotel and spend the afternoon cavorting with friends, paying a $350 minimum charge for a few hours of eating and drinking in your very own— for the moment — cabana.
But don’t give up on the idea. You can afford exclusivity.
Across the street from the Royal Hawaiian at the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani, you can rent a poolside cabana for a $100 minimum charge. Gather five of your friends, order $20 each of food and drink, and you have an exclusive experience all your own.
Try the short rib lettuce wraps for $15 or a vegetarian triple-decker sandwich, also $15. Hang out, enjoy the pool and pretend you’re a millionaire.
Insider tip: Order from the Splash Bar menu (11 a.m.-11 p.m.) for the best deals.
There’s no corporate connection, but Zippy’s does for Hawaii what Denny’s does for the mainland: offers comfort foods at reasonable prices. Menu items, however, tend to be Hawaiian, Korean, Japanese and Chinese.
You can get Spam, saimin and many of the other specialties that make Hawaii a smorgasbord of flavors.
You’ll find Zippy’s restaurants around the islands; we tried the Kahala cafe, which was clean and homey-looking, like the chain as a whole.
Insider tip: Zippy’s has an 18-page menu, so it’s hard to choose. Popular dishes include teriyaki beef and fried chicken, both $10 or less, and the chili and chicken mixed plate, $11.55.
At one time Hawaii was the big kahuna in pineapple production, exporting more than 80% of the world’s canned pineapple. The industry fell on hard times in the late 20th century, and the last cannery closed in 2006.
But you can get a taste — literally — of Hawaii’s pineapple era at the Dole Plantation.
Yes, it’s a tourist trap. But it’s a fun stop on the way to the North Shore. Where else would you find pineapple-shaped toys, ornaments and aprons, not to mention free restrooms?
And you can taste the famous Dole Whip, a Hawaiian specialty ($5.75), or try a chili dog with pineapple ($12.95) or other light fare at the cafeteria.
Insider tip: There are lots of things for kids to do here: ride a train, feed fish, tour a pineapple field. Most cost money, but parking is free.
Our pick is Giovanni’s, which is actually a truck, rather than a food stand, and is as colorful as it is delish, but they’re all good.
Shrimp scampi is the most popular dish; for $14, customers get a dozen shrimp marinated in olive oil, garlic and lemon butter, with two scoops of rice. Or try lemony or spicy versions, or a garlicky hot dog ($4.50). You can eat at a picnic table or take it to go.
Insider tip: Giovanni’s, launched in 1993 in an old bread truck, is known as much for its graffitied look as its shrimp. You can add your name to thousands of others, then shoot a selfie to memorialize your visit.
Holy smokes! Kono’s 12-hour, slow-roasted kalua pork is a standout. It wins our top award for tastiest on-the-cheap meal on Oahu.
Not that we’re surprised. Kono’s, which has three island locations, has won awards from Food & Wine, USA Today and Honolulu Magazine.
We stopped at the original cafe in the surf-crazy town of Haleiwa on the North Shore, where visitors might rub shoulders with internationally known surfers. The place is not much to look at, but the flavorful pulled pork is melt-in-your-mouth tender, and the breakfast bomber burritos ($8.99) really are the bomb.
There are also sandwiches, plate lunches and 16 delectable milkshake flavors such as Kono’s Mud Pie, Orange Creamsicle and Cinnamon Roll ($6.95).
Insider tip: You probably won’t get a table inside this tiny, strip-mall restaurant; get your food to go and head for nearby Sunset Beach or sit at one of the tables outside.
If you’re a local, you know all about Ted’s Bakery, home of the original chocolate haupia (coconut) cream pie.
This addictive dessert is made of layers of dark chocolate custard and creamy coconut pudding, topped with whipped cream.
People drive to the North Shore location of Ted’s from all over the island to wait in line for this heavenly pie, which dates to the late ’80s.
The bakery is also a great spot to grab breakfast or hot sandwiches for lunch, including burgers, barbecue chicken, teriyaki beef and mahi-mahi. Or splurge on a shrimp plate ($15.81), which comes with a slice of pie.
Insider tip: Ted’s Bakery is across from Sunset Beach State Park. Get the food to go on your way to the shore.
Watch the pros surf while you chill out at the North Shore’s Turtle Bay resort. This beachy, laid-back, surf-scene hub will leave you feeling like you have a million dollars to spend instead of only $20.
Turtle Bay, which opened in 1972, feels like a part of the North Shore landscape.
Visit for lunch or in the evening, when you can hang out at the Point, the resort’s poolside cafe overlooking Kuilima Cove.
Almost everything on the menu is less than our $20 limit; you can have rib, pork, fish or chicken tacos for $15-$17, or try the Buddha bowl for $12. Top it off with a mai tai for $16 if you don't mind blowing the budget.
Insider tip: Listen to live music most nights between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m., an ideal time to watch the sunset.
Info: The Point, Turtle Bay Resort, 57-091 Kamehameha Highway, Kahuku; (808) 293-6000
Waiahole Poi Factory
If you want to taste real Hawaiian food in a real Hawaiian setting, this is the place. Waiahole Poi Factory, on a quiet stretch of Kamehameha Highway, is about as far removed from Waikiki as you can get. Instead of hotels and restaurants, you’ll see soaring green mountains, lush vegetation and a few plantation-era buildings.
In the 1970s this family-owned business flourished as a poi factory. Today it still serves hand-pounded poi but offers other traditional Hawaiian dishes too.
Order a lau lau plate (pork wrapped in taro leaf) for $9.50, or choose from other classic dishes such as kalua pig (slow-roasted pork shoulder), lomi salmon (salted salmon mixed with onions and tomatoes) and haupia, a traditional coconut milk-based Hawaiian dessert. All cost less than $12.
Insider tip: The restaurant offers an hourlong poi and Hawaiian food demonstration and tasting several times a week; $32.50 for adults and $24.95 for kids.
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