When the Hawaiian Islands’ premier culinary talents are looking to hang a shingle, they often choose Downtown Honolulu. Why? Charismatic old structures beckon for a buildout in Chinatown, and over in Kakaako, the urban art scene blooms, and hip new condo buildings continue to rise.
This compact, historic waterfront has become the don’t-miss district for foodies, no matter what type of cuisine you’re chasing.
If You’re a Locavore …
For more than 30 years, Chef Peter Merriman has been committed to showcasing island-grown and -raised products. He happens to be one of the 12 original founders of the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement and has already had success with his namesake restaurants on Hawaii Island, Maui and Kauai.
At Merriman’s Honolulu, the design aesthetic is a bit different, with more of a neighborhood bistro feel. He’s also scored the talented chef Jon Matsubara, who shook things up so well at other local restaurants, as his executive chef.
Honolulu-born Robynne Maii is the executive chef and co-owner at the buzzy Fête, where chic locals and visitors in the know come to enjoy a seasonal New American menu. She connects with an impressive number of local farmers to source ingredients such as Niihau lamb, local beef, Kauai shrimp and Olokai Sea Asparagus.
If You’re a Gourmet …
Chef Chris Kajioka and Chef Anthony Rush are both alumni of Per Se in New York City, so when they opened Senia on North King Street, it was highly anticipated. Upon arrival, a surprisingly un-tropical, urbane dining room greets you. Then the food starts to come to the table, and it’s equally surprising. Moans and laughter and gasps of delight — oh, my.
The menu changes frequently, but a “Poke” Cracker certainly got raves on a recent visit. Insider’s tip: There’s a prix fixe lunch and an eight-seat Chef’s Counter Tasting Menu to consider in addition to a standard dinner reservation.
Just next door you’ll find The Pig & The Lady, which chef and owner Andrew Le often describes as having a Vietnamese focus. At the restaurant — which is a true family-run affair — the flavors, techniques and ingredients of Vietnam’s cuisine serve as a strong backbone for what becomes an inspired global menu, where Italian pastas happily share the room with duck pho.
If You’re a Cocktail Enthusiast …
One of the best bars in the world is inside an office building in Honolulu? Yes, and Bar Leather Apron lives up to its hype. Now, what to sip while here: Farm-to-glass cocktail creations, high-end whiskeys, and yes, try the mai tai. There’s a two-drink minimum, and you should make reservations well in advance for this intimate spot.
The drink names alone are half the fun at Livestock Tavern, where recent offerings included “Blazing Saddles” references and ingredients such as locally produced rum and a turmeric cordial. But stay tuned, as this bar/restaurant swaps out the menu — and even the decor — every three months.
If You’re into History* (*and tequila) …
Look around, history buffs: Encore Saloon is inside an 1886-built building that is one of the few survivors of two devastating fires in Chinatown history. (There was a smaller one in 1886 and a 17-day conflagration in 1900.)
Now, smarty, head straight through to the saloon’s back lanai, where communal tables and a colorful decor provide a lively, urban oasis under the open sky. The Mexican-inspired food here is pleasingly modular; take, for example, the beer battered Baja fish, which can be ordered as a taco, burrito, bowl or plate. And you need to order the Papas Fritas. Probably a second Mezcalrita, too.
Bonus No. 8: If You Have an Emergency Pizza Situation …
There is no shame in pizza and beer, only in bad pizza and beer. Find the good stuff at J.J. Dolan’s, which is a charming pub with excellent East Coast–style pizza.