For most of the previous century, Honolulu was a town whose take on fine dining was shaped by decades of catering to military brass and regiments of tourists. A big night out meant fried frozen shrimp, mainland steaks, and flambéed desserts. Locals dug into heavy, traditional plate lunches: a multicultural comfort-food affair of Japanese-style fried chicken or Filipino pork adobo surrounded by heaping scoops of sticky rice and macaroni salad.
Hawaii's pride in being the state with the highest per capita consumption of Spam lingers even today—locals still enjoy it in Spam musubi, a brick of rice topped by a slice of the canned meat and a drizzle of teriyaki (see our surprisingly tasty, lightened version: Pineapple Musubi Rolls).
That said, the islands were not immune to mainland trends. By the 1970s, island-bred chefs were venturing forth and bringing back what they learned, while food wizards from far-flung places were alighting on Oahu to share their skills—and discover the fantastic supply of local fish and produce. As the food revolution has heated up, Honolulu has emerged as a genuinely interesting destination in its own right. A newfound desire to highlight those amazing ingredients is gaining popularity, altering how Hawaiians eat—and it's increasingly evident in the fresher, lighter food served in the very places where your only previous option was the thudding heft of a classic plate lunch.
The evolution of the dining scene here can be credited to the chefs who pioneered the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement 20 years ago. The idea, characteristic of any local movement: Start with fresh ingredients instead of frozen, flown-in foods. Many of these chefs are now internationally known food celebrities. George Mavrothalassitis (owner of Chef Mavro), Roy Yamaguchi (Roy's), and Alan Wong (Alan Wong's) are all James Beard Award winners and are all still upping the eating ante in the islands today.
The menus at Chef Mavro are on par with those at elite restaurants in any major city and might include Hawaii-raised shrimp dusted with garam masala and served with a hearts of palm and green apple rémoulade or poached lobster with curried Pirie mango. At Alan Wong's, the emphasis is on Pacific fish. Onaga (long-tail red snapper) is crusted with ginger and served with a velvety miso-sesame vinaigrette, while for opakapaka (pink snapper), the Chinese treatment of ginger and pork hash is turned on its head with truffle nage and tapioca pearls. Chris Garnier, executive chef at Roy's, features a daily-changing menu of Hawaiian fusion cuisine, including a duck confit served with a passionfruit-and-mango sauce.
"Hawaii's rich cultural and ethnic composition lends itself to flavors and food preparations that are unlike anywhere else," says Joan Namkoong, coauthor with Roy Yamaguchi of Hawaii Cooks and author of the Food Lover's Guide to Honolulu. "While East-West fusion cuisines are common, Hawaii's is different. We—and Hawaii Regional Cuisine—started with ethnic dishes, then added European techniques and flavors, compared to the usual—adding Asian flavors and techniques to a European base. Our flavors are bolder, exciting, and true to their origins, but with finesse."
Inspired by Hawaii's food pioneers, Chef Kevin Hanney of 12th Ave Grill offers a spin on contemporary American cooking that updates local comfort foods, such as pork chops with apple chutney and chicken glazed with ginger and honey from nearby Manoa Valley. Hanney also takes international cues: He smokes ahi to make a salty-sweet spread for bruschetta with pickled vegetable relish.
Recent arrival Quinten Frye, a Texan whose résumé includes Austin's Shoreline Grill, is chef de cuisine at Hanney's new tapas-and-wine joint Salt Kitchen and Tasting Bar (808-744-7567). The sliver of a stylish space opened in June and has been packed with people hungry for a taste of Frye's squid stuffed with housemade chorizo.
Cheap and cheerful spots are jumping on the high-/lowbrow bandwagon, too. Located across from the United Fishing Agency auction house, where the island's top chefs get their fresh catches, Nicolas Chaize gives the artery-blocking plate lunch a healthy upgrade at Nico's at Pier 38. Order the pan-seared ahi with ginger-garlic-cilantro sauce, and a simple green salad replaces the usual side of macaroni salad—all for about $9.
Wine bars are also part of the new guard. At Vino, the food holds its own against stellar selections by master sommelier Chuck Furuya; Chef Keith Endo blends contemporary Italian cuisine with island ingredients, filling ravioli with Japanese kabocha pumpkin and Molokai sweet potato, and putting roasted mushrooms and Parmesan atop asparagus from the North Shore, an area generally better known for its world-class surf.
On the other side of the island, in a waterside shack in Kaneohe, Chef Mark Noguchi, an alum of famed Chef Mavro, uses indigenous ingredients, such as taro, from a local wetlands restoration project to spectacular effect at Heeia Pier General Store & Deli. Salty fishermen and island chowhounds alike sit on worn park benches and enjoy dishes such as a salad of pa'i 'ai (hand-pounded taro) and shoots of ho'io (a Hawaiian fern) brightened with a sesame dressing, along with a healthier hash made from corned brisket, breadfruit, onions, and palula, which are young sweet potato leaves.
You might guess that Honolulu's cultural mix would yield lots of international eating options, but up until five years ago, eating "foreign" largely meant Japanese. With a population that's about one-fifth Japanese, that archipelago's cuisine still figures large in local menus. At Matsugen (808-926-0255), buckwheat is ground at the restaurant to make nutty, light noodles that are delicious simply dressed with a light, cold broth, or made heartier in a warm soup dotted with tender pieces of duck. Fans wait on the sidewalk to get a seat at Sushi Izakaya Gaku (808-589-1329), where the fish is impeccable. Diners dip crisp squares of nori right into the spicy hamachi tartare, no rice needed.
Building on the international trend, a recent influx of cooks and entrepreneurs from around the world are adding new flavors. In the revitalized Chinatown district—now the international nightlife nexus of Honolulu—is Soul de Cuba Cafe, Honolulu's first Cuban restaurant, which gives a Caribbean accent to native opakapaka, topping the light fish with a mix of cilantro, tomato, white wine, and garlic. At Himalayan Kitchen, Suman Basnet, who hails from Nepal, offers tasty Nepalese and Indian specialties, such as momo (steamed pork dumplings) and Himalayan curries.
Even with the multiculti infusion and an abundance of local produce (a tropical fruit bowl spritzed with lime can be pure heaven), vegetarian options are still admittedly few. Peace Café is one of the standouts. The cozy room features a country-rustic communal table and well-prepared vegan dishes such as hearty miso-tahini-flavored spinach and tofu cubes on ciabatta and fragrant Moroccan-inspired chickpea stew.
BREAKFAST AT CAFÉ KAILA
The quintessential Hawaiian breakfast includes eggs, two scoops of rice, and fried slices of Portuguese sausage or Spam: Island diners like old-school comfort in the morning. But a new generation of cheery breakfast spots is serving freshened-up favorites. There is always a line outside sunny Café Kaila (808-732-3330), where fans can enjoy their signature salty-sweet buttermilk pancakes. Owner-chef Chrissie Kaila Castillo made countless batches of batter ("My mother had to eat so many pancakes," she says) before arriving at this winning recipe.
Go there: Café Kaila (808-732-3330)
Make it at home: Whole-Wheat Buttermilk Pancakes with Orange Sauce
LUNCH AT TANGO CONTEMPORARY CAFÉ
Finnish chef Göran V. Streng makes clean, modern versions of traditional favorites such as Cobb salad and a grilled mahimahi sandwich served on a nori-flecked bun. But what makes Tango stand out in Honolulu are the references to Streng's Scandinavian background, such as the popular open-faced gravlax sandwich with Boursin, egg, and mustard-dill sauce, and the open, airy space punctuated with Marimekko wall hangings. Salmon, by the way, may be a key part of Scandinavian cuisine, but it's also featured locally. In the 1800s, western sailors introduced a salted-salmon-and-tomato salad that is now part of the Hawaiian-food menu and is known as lomi-lomi salmon.
DINNER AT TOWN
At Town, Chef-Owner Ed Kenney puts a Mediterranean spin on local produce—even the steaks are from island-raised beef. On the daily-changing menu you might find house-cured wild boar sausage, mussels in a Cinzano-spiked broth, or pan-roasted Hawaiian onaga topped with a vinegary sauce gribiche. This casual spot, with art by Oahu artists on the walls, was the de facto canteen for the Lost cast. It's a safe harbor for Honolulu's trendy arts crowd.