Exposed brick walls, moody chandeliers, and a chef’s table right at the kitchen pass. Dishes like beef tartare, foie gras gyoza, chicken liver mousse. The mood and the menu at Fête are straight out of New York, but we couldn’t be further from that concrete jungle. Instead, just down the street are swaying palm trees and the Pacific Ocean. Hawaii has come a long way from the days of food trucks and shrimp shacks, and although beloved by locals and tourists alike, these old-school eateries are joined by a new wave of restaurants, cafes, bakeries and juice bars carving a new path for Hawaiian cuisine. We take a progressive tasting tour of the islands of Hawaii.
As one of the world’s busiest beach strips, Waikiki has no shortage of eateries catering to the tourist crowd. But it’s beyond the beach that you will find the true treasures. Fête is one of them: the Brooklyn-inspired restaurant in downtown Honolulu has attracted a cult-like following for its New American meets Hawaiian menu. Owners Robynne Mai’i and Chuck Bussler describe Fête as their “Hapa baby”, blending Hawaii and Brooklyn into dishes like a twice-fried Ludovico chicken that’s attracted a mainland following, along with local market fish that comes straight from the boats at the harbour each day. Fête sits in the heart of downtown Honolulu’s trendy district, surrounded by small bars and speakeasies.
At Bar Leather Apron, security guards direct lost and thirsty travellers down the corridors of the Topa Financial Center to the mezzanine, where serious cocktail mixology takes place. Step inside and enter old world New York – the small space is decked out in heavy leather armchairs and high bar stools, while the walls are lined with one of the island’s best whiskey collections. The team take their craft very seriously. Beakers, smoking tiki jars and distilled essences are just the beginning. The signature Farm to Glass cocktails feature local, organic produce from the region. Mari’s Garden is a delicate blend of cucumber, watermelon and yuzu, with gin, soda and celery bitters, while the Taketsuru Smash brings the flavours of red and green micro shiso herbs to life with lemon and Japanese whiskey.
It’s no secret that Hawaiians have a sweet tooth, and at Chinatown’s Sing Cheong Yuan Bakery, Hawaiian produce is showcased in traditional Chinese sweets. The bakery’s signature macadamia sesame squares are displayed in the window in large trays – it’s a no-frills experience where you can stock up on treats for the coming days. Back in Waikiki, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel Bakery is also capturing the sweets market. The hotel’s executive pastry chef Carolyn Portuondo has taken the island’s coconut cake and turned it into a bite-sized Snowball taking the locals by storm. Layers of coconut sponge and Royal Hawaiian’s signature pink icing covered in coconut flakes make this a sweet treat to remember.
A land of dramatic shorelines, remote rainforests and one of the world’s most spectacular canyons, Kauai is considered the prettiest and least commercial of Hawaii’s islands. No building can be taller than the nearest coconut palm tree, and there is just one main road running through the island. The pace of life is considerably slower, but by no means lacking.
At the Waipa Foundation, on the northern edge of Hanalei Bay on the island’s north, the team are dedicated to bringing the connection to the land back to the Hawaiian people, and the Westin Princeville has partnered with the non-profit organisation to educate guests, too. Several times a month, the foundation opens the 647 ha property to Westin guests for a farm-to-table experience called He ‘Aina Ola (a nourishing feast). The evening includes a tour past the vegetable garden and the pineapple patch, a crop that takes nearly two years to mature and will this year yield its first harvest, before crossing over the road to the beachfront wetlands the foundation has painstakingly restored. As dusk descends, guests gather at the open-air terrace for a three-course feast prepared by the Westin’s enigmatic head chef. Produce from the foundation, local meat and matching wines are served – macadamia-nut-crusted fish with fresh watercress, Hawaiian Portuguese bean soup – which the foundation describes as ‘table to farm’ rather than ‘farm to table’. Guests also have the luxury of eating surrounded by the lush valley and the land, the Aina that feeds the foundation.
The Westin’s sister property, the St Regis Princeville Resort, brings the best of local produce to the table in a setting that is more suited to fine dining. Its restaurant, Kauai Grill, changes its menu to suit seasonal produce, but also to showcase local Hawaiian suppliers. The whole Kona lobster with young beets and crystallised ginger vinaigrette is a showstopper. On the southern side of the island, the Sheraton’s RumFire restaurant offers a unique concept where guests can give back. Table 53 is one of the best seats in the house and is stunning at sunset with a private booth looking straight out at the ocean. And you’ll want to linger until well after dark as all proceeds from food and drink consumed at this table go to the Children’s Justice Center of Kauai.
One of the first chefs to elevate the ‘farm to table’ concept to fine dining in Hawaii was Tylun Pang. While Pang, the longstanding head chef at the Fairmont Kea Lani Maui Resort’s Kõ restaurant, grew up in Hawaii, he cut his teeth in restaurants across the United States, Asia and South America.
Kõ showcases the cultural melting pot of Hawaii through dishes like Korean BBQ pork, Japanese tempura, Chinese fried rice, Filipino spring rolls and Hawaiian poke. His support of small-scale local Maui producers like Surfing Goat Dairy and Moloka’i venison gives his menu a breadth and variety that has won it many awards. Looking out across the Fairmont’s tranquil adults-only pool and sprawling grounds, Kõ is a popular spot for sunset cocktails. Come morning, Kõ’s bar is transformed into a juice bar, as part of the Fairmont’s Inspire your Energy wellness program. Well-balanced green juices and cold teas made from local produce like Molokai sweet potato, beets and celery are served grab-and-go style, often featuring herbs from the hotel’s own kitchen garden.
The Fairmont sits on the manicured oceanfront of Wailea, the resort region in Maui’s south famous for crystal-clear water where guests can see whales breach from their balconies. To the north, the landscape changes dramatically. The 100 km Road to Hana hugs the coastline, but winds its way through dense rainforest, past dramatic waterfalls and towering eucalyptus trees. With more than 60 one-way bridges, the road is not for the faint-hearted but yields to visitors a glimpse of Maui’s wild heart. Roadside food trucks and cafes have popped up to cater to roadtrippers, but you’ll find locals filling up the picnic tables, too. Braddah Hutt BBQ Grill, just beyond the town of Hana, is legendary for fresh pulled pork tacos, drizzled in homemade BBQ sauce. Huli Huli Chicken, down at Koki Beach, is another favourite. Interestingly, the road is famous not just for its tight turns and stunning vistas: shacks selling banana bread do a steady trade in miniature loaves made fresh each day. There is fierce competition among bakers, but you’ll find some of the best at the cheery Halfway to Hana stand.
More commonly known as the Big Island, Hawaii Island is a place of extremes. With the world’s most active volcanoes rising up from the ocean floor, the island is split into two sides: Hilo, prone to almost constant rain; and Kona, famous for its black-sand beaches and endless sunshine. Mega resorts have popped up along the Kona coast, but it’s across on the Hilo side that you’ll find a slice of old-school Hawaii. Hilo’s downtown harks back to the 1920s, with many of the buildings a study in the style of Art Deco architecture. Organic food stores sit side by side with charity shops and record stores. The Big Island Juice Co. is one of the bright spots in the small town, its big blackboard of smoothies like Tan Lines, Monkey Fuel and the Big Kahuna, are a tongue-in-cheek take that proves they don’t take themselves too seriously. Using fresh local fruits, they’re a hearty meal and a great way to start the day. Acai bowls overloaded with banana, granola and macadamia butter are a very healthy start to the day. On the other end of the spectrum, Hilo’s most famous eatery is Ken’s House of Pancakes. Open 24 hours a day, this old school diner’s claim to fame isn’t just super-sized servings and seriously good pancakes. The wall over the till is covered in signed celebrity photographs, with several by actor Dwayne Johnson (a.k.a. The Rock), whose uncle owns the diner.
Whether you’re after fine dining that takes your tastebuds to the cutting edge of cuisine, simple fare that showcases the freshest the ocean and the farm can offer, or comfort food that hits the spot, Hawaii’s islands are a foodie paradise. •
Photography by various establishments.
Hawaiian Airlines is Hawaii’s largest and longest serving airline and operates direct, daily non-stop services from Sydney to Honolulu and four times weekly from Brisbane. For passengers visiting the outer islands including Hilo and Kona, the carrier offers nearly 160 connections daily from Honolulu. hawaiianairlines.com.au
Where to stay
• Aqua Aston has properties on Oahu, Kauai, the Big Island and Maui. astonhotels.com
• Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa: maui.regency.hyatt.com
• Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort & Spa: waikiki.regency.hyatt.com
• The Kahala Hotel & Resort: kahalaresort.com
• Trump International Hotel Waikiki: trumphotels.com/waikiki
• He ‘Aina Ola Farm Dinner, Waipa Foundation: westinprinceville.com/princeville-kauai-dining
• Kauai Grill, St Regis Princeville: princevilleresorthawaii.com/kauai-grill
• RumFire, Sheraton Kauai: rumfirekauai.com