9 Restaurants You Have to Try in Honolulu
Robynne Maii's hometown favoritesLeah Koenig
February 27, 2020
Honolulu-born chef Robynne Maii opened her first restaurant Fête, along with her husband Chuck Bussler, in 2015. Over the past five years, Fête’s approach to seasonal New American cuisine (think: meyer lemon gnocchi and grilled local lamb chops with mint pistou) has made Maii a star on and beyond the island.
Now, she and Bussler are set to open three new dining concepts this summer—a restaurant and two bars—at the White Sands Hotel in Waikiki. The restaurant, Heyday, will be inspired by Maii’s memories of the grand “continental cuisine” of her childhood. The bars, meanwhile, will be a tiki-esque (“though we aren’t really calling it that,” she said) pool bar and a petite lounge. In short, this busy chef is about to get much busier. But we bet she will still make time to visit the handful of Honolulu restaurants that have her heart. Here’s a peek at her local favorites.
There are a few places that I would categorize together—institutions that have been going for years where you get a delicious plate of food from people who really stand behind what they are doing. The first is a Greek restaurant called Olive Tree Cafe. I typically get the local catch souvlaki, which is usually mahi mahi grilled and tucked into pita with tzatziki.
There’s also Helena’s Hawaiian Food, which is the only restaurant in Hawaii that has a James Beard America’s Classics Award. They are only open Tuesday through Friday, but it is the best Hawaiian food in the state! They are known for their short ribs which have a super-secret marinade. The owner’s brother is one of my best friends and he says, “I don’t even know what is in the marinade!” But it is definitely soy sauce–based and has lots of sugar. It is a dive-y, cafeteria-style place, and everything is excellent.
The last restaurant in that category is Alicia’s Market, which is as close to a bodega as you can get in Hawaii. It has a little deli in the back where you can order food, and I always get the poke. I feel like 75 percent of people do poke really poorly—throwing all these flavors on it, which hides the fish—so I don’t eat it often. But at Alicia’s it is very fresh, very straightforward, and made in small batches. There’s often a wait, and it is a grocery store, so there is no place to sit at all. But the food is so good, it is worth sitting in your car to eat it.
Another place I love is Bac Nam. There are probably 100 Vietnamese restaurants on Oahu. I’ve been to many, but I continue to go back to Bac Nam, which is run by a Vietnamese couple. I get the pho with brisket and rare beef, and I always get an iced Vietnamese coffee. The husband always says, “Don’t drink your coffee before you eat your soup or you’ll get too full!” He’s right—with all that delicious sweetened condensed milk, it is very filling.
Just outside of Honolulu, in Kailua, is my favorite brunch spot Over Easy. It is not your typical diner food—the owners use a mix of local ingredients to elevate everything. The egg bowl with avocado is great and the pancakes are fantastic—very fluffy and very large. They are even delicious cold, and I have eaten the leftovers cold more times than I care to share. They do seasonal flavors like blueberry or carrot cake with cream cheese. And I always get their homemade sausage, which is sweet. At first, I wasn’t sure if I liked it, but then I couldn’t stop eating it!
In the same neighborhood is a Mexican place called Taqueria El Gallo Rosa, which opened in October. This place is all about the tacos, and they are freaking awesome. The fish tacos are particularly fantastic, and I love the nopal/cactus salad which comes tossed with tomatoes, onions, and Mexican cheese.
If you’re talking about a great splurge dinner, we like Sushi Izakaya Gaku. There is a lot of good sushi in Hawaii, but this place is the best. It is also wildly expensive. The rice is amazing—whatever they are doing to it, whatever temperature they cook it at, whatever seasoning they use, it is just perfect every time. And beyond the sushi, every single bite on the cooked food menu is delicious. We typically get the omakase sushi and then we order something fried, like tempura.
Our neighbor, Yakitori Hachibei, is so good—just really proper yakitori. We go there because the food and service are super high quality, but also because it is so fast. They have this amazing grilled meatball and we always get this egg custard dish which they serve with dashi and Kewpie mayo. It hits all of the umami and bright flavor notes. We’ve never had a disappointing bite there.
The last place I have to mention is La Vie, this very charming French restaurant that opened recently in the Ritz Carlton. The dining room is beautiful. It is elevated so the view is great and it is open, so it is super airy—like being outside. The menu is prix fixe so you can choose either three or five courses. The food is composed and elegant with touches of local Hawaiian ingredients, but completely unpretentious. You don’t feel like they are hovering obsessively over each plate in the kitchen.
Robynne Maii’s Honolulu Dining Guide
Alicia’s Market (Poke)
267 Mokauea St; 808-841-1921
Bac Nam (Vietnamese)
1117 S. King St; 808-597-8201
Fête (Seasonal New American)
2 N. Hotel St; 808-369-1390
Helena’s Hawaiian Food (Hawaiian)
1240 N. School St; 808-845-8044
La Vie (French)
The Ritz-Carlton Waikiki, 383 Kalaimoku St; 808-729-9729
Olive Tree Cafe (Greek)
4614 Kilauea Ave, Suite 107; 808-737-0303
Over Easy (Brunch)
418 Kuulei Rd, Suite 103, Kailua; 808-260-1732
Sushi Izakaya Gaku (Sushi)
1329 S. King St; 808-589-1329
Taqueria El Gallo Rosa (Mexican)
108 Hekili St, Suite 107; 808-262-8226
Yakitori Hachibei (Yakitori)
20 N. Hotel St; 808-369-0088
Leah Koenig is a food writer, author of several cookbooks, including her latest, The Jewish Cookbook (Phaidon), and cooking instructor living in Brooklyn, NY. Follow her on Instagram at @leah.koenig.