Travel

The Flavors of Aloha — From Food Trucks to Fine Dining

History, Hawaiian foods, and where to rest your head: A four-part series exploring Oahu

By Natalie Compagno and Greg Freitas April 11, 2023

Delectable at restaurant Fête, Chinatown Honolulu, Hawaii

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Seattle Magazine.

This is the second of four travel stories on exploring Oahu, Hawaii.

Flavors of Aloha

Hawaiian food has deep cultural, spiritual, and historical significance. The taro plant, which gives us poi, is fundamental to the Hawaiian creation myth, known as the child of the sky god and the older brother of Native Hawaiians. Food is, in essence, part of their family tree.

For food lovers, Hawaii is also a haven of delectable and unique culinary traditions. Hawaiian food is a fusion of the different cuisines that have influenced the islands during the centuries, including Polynesian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, and Filipino. The result is a delightful mix of flavors, textures, and colors that reflects Hawaii’s diverse cultural roots.

On the island of Oahu, food enthusiasts can enjoy a wide variety of Hawaiian cuisine, from classic plate lunches to upscale fine-dining experiences. These top chefs and restaurants have earned a reputation for excellence in Honolulu and a bit beyond.

Oahu Classics

Brunch is everyone’s favorite weekend pastime and eating it beachside beneath the shadow of Diamond Head makes it even better. Follow a warm, lazy morning with a meal at The Hau Tree at Kaimana Beach Hotel. The kitchen crushes every brunch item you could dream of, from crab cake Benedict to French toast to shakshuka. Their motto is “rosé all day” and the cocktail menu is wildly inventive. Check out the pineapple coconut Negroni; it’s out of this world. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote beneath the 150-year-old trees during his time in Waikiki between 1889 and 1893. Given RLS’s affinity for gin, we like to think he may have imbibed said cocktail under those trees as well.

Brunch at restaurant Hau Tree

Courtesy of the Kaimana Beach Hotel

As one of the pioneers of Hawaii Regional Cuisine, Peter Merriman has been at the forefront of the island’s culinary scene for more than three decades. He owns several restaurants on Oahu, including Merriman’s Honolulu and Monkeypod Kitchen in Kapolei, and is known for his commitment to using fresh, locally-sourced ingredients to create innovative dishes that showcase the flavors of Hawaii. A new Waikiki location of Monkeypod will open in 2023 at the Outrigger Reef Resort.

Kani Ka Pila Grille at Outrigger Reef is the place to go for live Hawaiian music on the island. Each night from 6-8 p.m., guests and locals sway to island rhythms while dining on fresh poke, huli huli chicken, and fresh seafood. This is not a Don Ho “Tiny Bubbles” nostalgia tour. Each musical guest has been lovingly curated by the director of cultural events for the relevance and contribution to innovative Hawaiian sounds.

Ukulele performance

Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Daeja Faris

 

For a mix of art, culture, and a delicious meal, head to the café at HoMA. For more than 50 years, it’s been a great spot for a casual lunch or snack while exploring the excellent museum. The food is fresh, tasty, and reasonably priced, and the outdoor seating among the garden and art is magical. Afterward, stroll the galleries to enjoy many iconic pieces such as Nick Cave’s “Soundsuit 8:46” or the immersive experience “Awakening” by Rebecca Louise Law plus the many local Hawaiian artists and Asian art.

Salmon Crostini at the HoMA Cafe

Courtesy of the Honolulu Museum of Art

 

HoMA front entrance

Photo courtesy of the Honolulu Museum of Art

Chinatown & Kaka’ako

Those who haven’t explored Honolulu in a while are in for a treat. Just outside Waikiki, several neighborhoods have been revitalized and filled with wonderful places to eat and drink, perfect for a quick getaway or an extended walk.

The Pig and The Lady is a Vietnamese-inspired restaurant in Chinatown. The restaurant is known for its delicious banh mi sandwiches and pho. Chef Andrew Le graduated quickly from pop-up dinners to farmers markets to two restaurants with his bold dishes that pay homage to Vietnamese street food.

Just around the corner, Fête restaurant explores seasonal menus using island ingredients with global influences, from Korean fried chicken to Kauai coconut prawns. In 2022, chef Robynne Maii — who trained under Rocco DiSpirito at Union Pacific in NYC — became the first Hawaiian chef in 20 years to win a James Beard Award, and the first native Hawaiian woman ever.

Delectable at Fête

Photography by Sean Marrs

Fête in Chinatown, Honolulu

Photography by Sean Marrs

Local Delicacies

Plate lunch is Hawaii’s comfort food, and it also tells the story of the islands. In the late 1800s, plantation owners imported labor from China, Japan, Korea, Portugal, and the Philippines, and strictly enforced the language barriers to prevent unionization. The plate lunch grew from workers sharing their food with each other as their only common language.

Go on a short excursion to eat like a local! Rainbow Drive-In is a Marination-lover’s dream, with enough spam musubi, loco moco, and linguica to conquer the heartiest of appetites. If there’s any room left, make a beeline to Leonard’s Bakery, celebrating eight decades of malasadas, the Portuguese doughnut without a hole.

Malasadas, a sugar coated Portuguese donut

Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson

Meals with a View

Seattle Ballard Elks and Fremont Elks members don’t forget your membership cards! Elks Lodge 616 in Honolulu has the best pau hana (literally “after work” but same as happy hour) on the island along with a private pool and ocean-front views and swimming. Enough work is everyone’s vacation mantra. Magnum P.I. fans will notice the valet and dining room look a lot like the King Kamehameha Club.

DECK is a trendy rooftop restaurant located on the Queen Kapiolani Hotel, with views of Diamond Head that make diners feel as if they could reach out and touch the top of the peak. Creative cuisine focuses on Hawaiian and Asian-inspired dishes, and the craft cocktail menu makes it the perfect spot for a pit stop before a night on the town in Waikiki. Happy hour runs daily from 2-4 p.m., because it really is always Pau Hana somewhere.

View from the DECK restaurant atop the Queen Kapiolani Hotel

Photography by Hiko Arasaki

Dining at DECK

Photography by Hiko Arasaki

Italian food with a Hawaiian twist, served up by a master chef from Japan in a lush, romantic garden setting: now that’s the spirit of Aloha. Chef Ryo Takatsuka trained in Italy, but he infuses his menu with a global outlook at Noe at the Four Seasons Ko Olina. Try the whipped ricotta with truffle honey on house made focaccia, but beware—it is highly addicting.

 

At the same property, Mina’s Fish House hosts a raucous happy hour daily from 3-5pm. Don’t miss local style puu puus with that Mina touch, sunset ocean views, tiki torches, and a celebratory conch shell blowing to mark the end of another wonderful day in paradise.

 

Mina’s Fish House, Four Seasons Resort O’ahu at Ko Olina

Photography by Christian Horan

MIna’s Fish House, Four Seasons Resort O’ahu at Ko Olina

Photography by Christian Horan

 

Read more about exploring Oahu and the North Shore in the first of this four-part series here.

Natalie and Greg have written for Travel + Leisure, Fathom, Food52 in addition to Seattle magazine. They’ve been to 117 countries combined. Inbetween trips they live in a houseboat on Seattle’s Lake Union.

Follow Us

Whale Watching is Extremely Popular

Whale Watching is Extremely Popular

New study pinpoints visitors, dollars in Washington state

A study for the Pacific Whale Watch Association by Martin Associates finds that whale watching expeditions in Washington state create $119.1 million in economic value and support 1,125 jobs...

You Better Belize It

You Better Belize It

Fly nonstop from Seattle and enjoy the jungle, the sea, and everything else the country has to offer

With its colonial past as British Honduras, Belize is the only English-speaking country in the region. But the blend of European, Central American, Mexican, Spanish, and Caribbean influences doesn’t even begin to describe Belize’s unique potpourri of cultures. The landscape is dotted with numerous Mayan temples, both ready to visit and still under excavation. The

Direct, Connect, Reflect

Direct, Connect, Reflect

It’s easier than ever to reach these sun-splashed sensations from Seattle

Need to escape Seattle this winter? Need some inspiration to pack a carry-on and cash in those miles? Here are four nonstop flights for nonstop escape. In June, Alaska Airlines announced new nonstop service to Nassau, Bahamas, beginning Dec. 15. Board one of these flights at 9 a.m. and land just six hours later. Even…

Winter Escapes

Winter Escapes

These cold destinations are pretty hot this time of year

Winter in Seattle is a magical time for holiday lights, cool walks with hot beverages, and the occasional dusting of snowfall on our beautiful parks. Winter is also, paradoxically, the ideal time to get out of town. As the skies darken and the days get shorter, the lure of adventure tempts. Here are some ideas