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Foodie alert: A trip to Hawaii doesn't have to be all luaus and pricey hotel restaurants.
I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right.
The immortal words of private investigator-cum-Ferrari-driving man of leisure Thomas Magnum weigh heavy on my mind as I step off the plane in Honolulu. I know what you’re thinking: why are you going to the most touristy section of Hawaii? Here’s why: that little voice inside my head told me that no matter how much I craved the white sand between my toes and the trade winds through my hair, I couldn’t abide another one of the Hawaiian buffets or insanely priced macadamia nut-encrusted onos that are de rigueur on the other islands. At home I go out of my way to seek new and eclectic restaurants, so why do I settle for pricey and soul-sucking choices the one week of the year I’m supposed to be having the most fun?
The simple answer is, it’s not the other islands’ fault—they’re just too small. Kahului, the most populous town on Maui, has a population of 26,000—that’s 5,000 fewer souls than those who live in Campbell River—so why should it provide night after night of amazing food? Honolulu, on the other hand, is a certified metropolis with almost a million people, and that means it has all the big-city accoutrements: freeways, outlet stores and, most importantly, a thriving food scene. I recently spent seven days exploring every nook and cranny of the city, from the packed beaches of Waikiki to residential neighbourhoods that tourists never see, to figure out how to score that elusive pairing: the foodie/beach holiday.
Goma Tei The very chi-chi Ala Moana Center seems an odd place for cheap eats. (The $295 prix fixe Vintage Cave, where the Obamas had New Year’s Eve, is just around the corner.) But this straightforward ramen shop (for the broth-averse, it has Japanese curries as well) offers a very quick and very grounded option between visits to Neiman Marcus and Tiffany & Co. The shredded pork rice bowl with Szechuan pickle is a $10.30 standout. Pair it with a $4.25 Longboard Lager and it’s a sublime cheap eat. gomatei.comMW Restaurant The husband-and-wife team of Wade Ueoka and Michelle Karr-Ueoka spent nearly two decades at the legendary Alan Wong, and they’ve learned a thing or two about impeccable service and presentation from the master. But their own spot feels both more neighbourhood-y and elegant than any of Wong’s rooms. The food is expensive—a miso-honey glazed butterfish with baby bok choy will set you back $35—but not overpriced for the effort. Desserts—Michelle’s domain—are a standout, so if nothing else, drop in for a late-night splurge. mwrestaurant.com
Amuse Wine Bar This spot, along with its sister restaurant, Stage, is oddly located on the second floor of the Honolulu Design Center, which means you walk through a furniture showroom to get there. Luckily, it’s a nice showroom—think Moooi and B&B Italia—so Amuse is one of the best-appointed rooms in town. They have more than 80 wines available by the pour—a surprisingly urban counterpoint to your beach holiday. amusewinebar.com
Marukame Udon For the past five years, Marukame has reigned as the people’s choice for Honolulu udon, helped by its proximity to Waikiki and its rock-bottom prices (spending more than $6 is a trick). The bitter truth is…it’s totally worth it. Its freshly hand-pulled noodles merit the permanent lineups, so if time is tight, you have two options: go for a ramen breakfast (which is a revelation) or head downtown to the new location on Fort Street. toridollusa.com
Bills Sydney A laid-back Aussie restaurant becomes so famous that it expands to Tokyo and is so beloved there that it expands to Honolulu—to service its Japanese fans. It’s not the normal path to building a mini-empire, but Bills seems to relish being different. It’s only a block off the beach, but as you enter into the expansive second floor, with its overhead ceiling fans and modern colonial decor, you’ll feel like you’re a million miles away from the hustle of Waikiki. The menu is a well-priced ode to healthy eating—a butter lettuce, shiso and avocado salad with lime dressing is a scant $6—and the coffee on the main-floor outlet is the best in the area. billshawaii.com
Morimoto at the Modern Hotel The legendary Iron Chef is famous for his meticulous approach to Japanese cuisine and the accompanying cost for such perfection. This spot in the Modern is breathtakingly beautiful: white sheets blowing in the wind and note-perfect lighting create a setting that feels more New York than tropical. The pricey menu—the omakase menu is $120/person—highlights the union between Japanese precision and the island’s natural bounty. morimotowaikiki.com
Where to Stay in WaikikiThe Modern, of course, with its “just lifted from South Beach and plopped down beside Waikiki” vibe. Undoubtedly the slickest rooms in town. Doubles from $369. themodernhonolulu.com
Lucky Belly This small, Asian-inspired room has been the table to score in 2015 (oddly, they accept reservations only until 6:30, then it’s all walk-in), but it’s worth the hassle—elevated ramen, lobster shumai and duck tataki are the types of items that will demand an Instagram or two. Wine list is limited but corkage is only $15, and it’s free if your wine is over five years old (so head to Tamura’s because they have a good selection of aged bottles). luckybelly.com
The Pig and the Lady No restaurant is more associated with the Chinatown renaissance than this Vietnamese spot, which started as a pop-up in 2011 and has since expanded several times. The mood is relaxed and even a bit goofy—the bathroom is plastered floor to ceiling with images from the 1986 Kurt Russell movie Big Trouble in Little China—but make no mistake, this is serious, well-executed food. A plus is one of the best cocktail programs on the island. thepigandthelady.com
Grondin The tile floors, bistro chairs and French press coffee signal that this is perhaps the sole outpost of a French brasserie on Oahu. But for those who don’t crave cassoulet when it’s 90°F (though their version is great), the menu dips its toes into more Latin waters, like prawn ceviche or a side of frijoles negros. When full, the small room is loud, buzzy and energetic and feels more like Montmartre than Maui for those looking for a Gallic vacation within a vacation. grondinhi.com
Where to StayIf historical Chinatown calls to you, then the only place for you is the circa-1927 pink expanse that is the Royal Hawaiian. They have the location, smack in the middle of Waikiki, you win when you get to pick first, and wandering the public spaces is like a trip back to when Oahu was a two-week steamship sail away. Doubles from $385. royal-hawaiian.com
Koko Head Café New York native Lee Anne Wong—the former Top Chef contestant with a resumé that includes stints working with Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Marcus Samuelsson—almost single-handedly brought tourists to the Kaimuki neighbourhood with this spot, which serves, hands down, the best breakfast on Oahu. Kimchi cheddar bacon scones followed by a miso smoked pork and green onion omelette followed by a nap on the beach. Chef Wong’s two-month-old dinner spot—the noodle house Hale Ohuna—is around the corner for when you wake up. kokoheadcafe.com
Town It’s easier finding a prime piece of beach on spring break than finding a true locals spot in Honolulu—and then you find Town. The Waialae Avenue spot is relaxed and lively and everyone seems to know everyone else. The menu—Italian-inspired might be the best description—is haute farm-to-table with casual pricing, and the wine list, dotted with bargains that defy the middle-of-the-Pacific location, may be the best on Oahu. townkaimuki.com
Where to StayThe Kahala, tucked away in the priciest residential neighbourhood in town, seems like a mirage when you come upon it. You’re driving along Kahala Avenue, gawking at the houses that start at $13,000,000 (for an empty lot) and buzz the $50,000,000 at the top end, and suddenly a hotel appears. It was the most expensive hotel ever built when it debuted in 1964, and the low-key approach to luxury and the distance from Waikiki have made this the choice of discreet, bold names ever since. Leaving the Mad Men Hawaii interiors is a chore, but Kaimuki is just a short drive away. Doubles from $395. kahalaresort.com
Fort Ruger Market This nondescript spot on a residential street tucked in behind Diamond Head looks like an abandoned gas station, but inside is a treasure of Hawaiian and Filipino take-out at rock-bottom prices. On Fridays, owner David Fan rolls out the smoker: in go beef briskets, Maui ribs and pork butts, and out comes the state’s best barbecue.
Tamura’s Fine Wines As a rule, we don’t condone buying raw fish from a liquor store, but Tamura’s has the best selection of wine between Seattle and Tokyo and its poke is the freshest possible, so put a chilled bottle of Alsatian riesling under your arm, order up some sashimi-grade ono with sesame and shoyu and you’re set. tamurasfinewine.com
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