This Kapahulu neighborhood bakery with the vintage neon sign has been serving malasadas and other sweet treats for more than six decades. The malasada is a Portuguese-influenced, Hawaiian-adapted, pear-sized fried dough similar to a doughnut hole, only bigger, softer, topped with granulated sugar and always served warm at Leonard’s. You can get the traditional unfilled style or opt for creamy fillings like guava, chocolate, coconut (“haupia”) or custard. Try Leonard’s early in your visit, because we guarantee you’ll want to go back.
Chef Chai Chaowasaree's 2013 reinvention of Chai's Island Bistro moves his flagship restaurant further inland to the Pacifica Honolulu, following a 15 year run at the Aloha Tower. That reinvention defocused nightly entertainment to refocus on the food itself, which has a noticeable focus on health. Butter is banned, leaner cuts of meat are favored, and herbs and spices prevail over fat and salt. Still delicious.
Don't let the grittier neighborhood scare you away from this popular bar and restaurant that attracts locals, renowned Honolulu chefs and even chef Anthony Bourdain, who filmed a segment here for No Reservations. And don't let the absence of pretension let you underestimate chef Colin Nishida's Hawaiian comfort food that features classics like sizzling kalbi beef, pan fried island pork chops and liliquoi (passion fruit) ribs. A newer location, Side Street Inn on Da Strip, has a similar menu with more upscale options.
First things first: this small, surfing-themed chain with three locations each in Hawaii and California is less about the food than the fantastic views. Facing Waikiki Beach behind the Outrigger Resort, it has sightlines to Diamond Head, surfing by day and gorgeous sunsets at night. Duke’s is named after Hawaiian surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku, who almost singlehandedly popularized the sport nearly a hundred years ago. Breakfast and lunch buffets keep the decisionmaking easy and offer an entry-level glimpse of Hawaiian cuisine, but we recommend late afternoon tropical drinks on the deck while taking in the live entertainment and a slice of hula pie big enough for two.
If upscale options are what you seek, then search no further than King Street for Alan Wong’s, the namesake restaurant of the James Beard award winning chef who literally defined Hawaiian Regional Cuisine. The menu is local and balanced (meat, fish and vegetable lovers will all be happy), the presentations are exquisite, the flavors are bright and the service is first rate. We recommend starting with the tomato salad that’ll have you rethinking how good they can be, followed by the chef’s signature ginger crusted onaga. Even if you pass up dessert, don’t pass up the estate coffees prepared in a French press.
For a taste of authentic traditional Hawaiian cuisine before it got reinvented by celebrity chefs, there’s no better example than this tiny, humble eatery on Kapahulu Avenue. The smoky kalua pork is juicier and far more tender here than at the hokey luaus, so be sure to visit even if there’s a line. And do not miss the lau lau that steams pork inside a taro leaf bundle until both are wiltingly tender. Starchy, gluey, taro-based poi makes a dipping condiment that you’ll grow to like. We promise.
A younger, more casual sibling to chef Russell Siu’s more ambitious 3660 On the Rise, this café at the edge of a shopping center adds sophistication—and local greens—to the classic Hawaiian plate lunch (one protein with one scoop each of rice and macaroni salad). The most heralded is the Chinese five spice shoyu chicken that combines slow cooking with ginger, garlic and soy. On Monday nights, Siu offers the “Table 13” experience that transforms the interior room for private, upscale dining paired with wines.
No longer technically in Honolulu after a recent closure, the 30 year old original in Haleʻiwa is still pumping out burgers on Kaiser rolls and healthier sandwiches like grilled ahi and mahi mahi with avocado. It’s a favorite of surfers, beachgoers and passersby such as President Barack Obama. Generous seasoning and a secret spray—rumored to be liquor-based, but if so, the alcohol burns off—give the burgers a unique “something extra” that makes them extra enjoyable after a day of water sports. This is another fast casual where the lines can be long, but the end result is worth the wait.
Another strong proponent of Hawaiian Regional Cuisine is Roy’s Waikiki, on the Waikiki Beach Walk. For lunch, it’s pupus on the lanai; at dinner, the dining goes more upscale with dishes such as Misoyaki Butterfish and Blackened Island Ahi, along with steaks and a wide range of pupus from crabcakes to ribs to sushi. “Roy’s Classics,” a 3-course tasting menu with optional wine pairings, is a greatest hits approach to chef Roy Yamaguchi’s most loved creations, including hibachi grilled Atlantic salmon, macadamia nut crusted opah and Szechuan babyback ribs smoked over local kiawe wood. A vegetarian prix fixe menu goes four courses deep.
This Japanese restaurant has modern white walls and furnishings, an open kitchen and a kaiseki (set menu) that changes monthly. It consists of five to seven courses, with an optional dessert course, each small but elegantly plated and explained in detail by enthusiastic servers. You’ll feel right at home from the moment you hear “Irrashaimase!” (“welcome”) as you walk in the door, and dietary special requests are handled with the utmost hospitality. Grab a stool with the best view of the chefs to get the “dinner and a show” experience as they turn local, high quality ingredients into edible art.