With Hawaii being one of the closest tropical destinations, there is a lot of culinary exchange between here and Honolulu, the state’s capital (and most populated) city. Honolulu has a booming food scene, one filled with buzzy restaurants, flavorful dishes, cheap eats, and pedigreed chefs. Many of those pedigreed chefs are San Francisco-trained, so there is a level of familiarity that makes dining out in Honolulu equal parts exciting and comfortable — so long as you step outside the touristy areas. Use this guide to do just that, and start tackling the island with these spots to quickly get to the heart of Honolulu’s rich and varied cuisine.
According to Eater contributor and Hawaii-born Kathy YL Chan, “there has never been a better time to eat in Honolulu.” That’s because the food scene is ever-expanding, with many global cuisines and influences and expertly-trained chefs keeping everyone at the top of their game. You’ll find all the Honolulu requisites — spam, poke, shave ice, poi, lomi lomi — alongside world-class sushi, izakayas, barbecue, and more. Familiarize yourself with the most essential Honolulu restaurants here.
So Hot Right Now
You’d be surprised at how often restaurants open in Honolulu, considering it’s a city of under 350,000 people. But don’t be fooled — there are certainly hot spots, and they are very varied. From a Michael Mina restaurant (yup!) to pristine, Hawaiian-inspired sushi, here’s where to eat right this very second.
Can’t Miss Spot
Honolulu is teeming with pedigreed chefs, and many with SF restaurants on their resumes. The top one to watch right now is chef Chris Kajioka, a former Mourad sous chef who has branched out on his own to open the very-recently debuted, fine dining-inspired American restaurant Senia. He and chef/partner Anthony Rush (they met while working at Per Se in New York City) are now running the top restaurant that San Franciscans absolutely can’t miss. Why’s that? Because if there’s anyone who can cater to SF tastes while evoking Hawaiian ethos and using the best ingredients available, it’s Hawaii-born Kajioka. Make this reservation now.
All of those aforementioned pedigreed chefs are eating out, too, and where they dine is often a predictor of where you want to be going. Kajioka shared his picks for the best late-night hangs, morning meals, and drinks he and his industry friends crave most during their time off. Head here for his expert tips on what to expect, what to order, and generally how to succeed at dining at these under-the-radar places.
Ravi Kapur’s Recommendations
If there’s anyone to trust when it comes to dining in Honolulu, it’s local star chef Ravi Kapur. Kapur’s wildly popular Liholiho Yacht Club pulls influence from his Hawaiian heritage and childhood on the island, where he formed strong opinions on the best places to eat. Here are his top picks:
Helena’s Hawaiian Food: Open since 1946, Helena’s was recognized by James Beard in 2000. According to Kapur, the pipikaula (salted and dried beef similar to beef jerky) is the must order here. 1240 N. School St.
Ono Hawaiian Food: Not to be confused with the barbecue chain of the same name, this homestyle Hawaiian spot is where to go for salt beef watercress, Kapur says. 726 Kapahulu Ave.
Alicia’s Market: “Roast meats and poke are stand outs” at Alicia’s Market, which is a glorified grocery store with some excellent prepared food. 267 Mokauea St.
Tamashiro Market: Another grocery store with a “great fish selection,” Kapur says, which equals “great poke.” 802 N. King St.
Gulick Delicatessen: This old-school okazuya (a place to get rice-accompanied dishes) is Kapur’s pick to grab food on the way to the beach. 1512 Gulick Ave.
Koko Head Cafe: Known for its “bomb” brunch, Kapur especially recommends the loco moco. 1145C 12th Ave.
Duke’s Waikiki: Kapur has very specific recommendations for visiting Duke’s, located inside the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort: “Go to see the band Maunalua play. Mai tais, Hawaiian music, sunset ... what!?” 2335 Kalakaua Ave. #116
Mud Hen Water: Chef Ed Kenney opened this globally-inspired restaurant by putting “his childhood memories on a plate,” Kapur says. 3452 Waialae Ave.
San Francisco Transplants
While it’s usually best to eat things you can’t at home while on vacation, if you’re feeling a little homesick, make your way over to International Market Place in Waikiki. That’s because in an interesting twist to Honolulu’s dining scene, two big-name San Francisco chefs (separately) opened outposts there in 2016. Pastry chef Belinda Leong has expanded B. Patisserie, partnering with Kona Coffee Purveyors, while Mina chose his Stripsteak concept for the island. Mina also has plans to open a food hall called The Street in the same space this spring, which will include an International Smoke, Ayesha Curry’s global barbecue concept.
Local Hawaiian fare — poke bowls, plate lunch, shave ice, spam musubi, mochi, malasadas (doughnuts, above), and more — are your best bets for not only cheap fare, but also the most authentic. Eat like a local and head to any of these affordable spots.
Where to Drink
This is Hawaii, after all, so you can of course find plenty of mai tais and drinks in coconuts accompanied by live music and leis. But the cocktail scene goes way beyond that, with speakeasies, local dives, and everything in between. Here’s your breakdown on where to experience buzzy island vibes in Honolulu.
If there’s one thing to take away from this guide, it’s that there is an abundance of incredible food in Honolulu right now — you just have to go a little out of your touristy way in Waikiki to find it.
Did we miss your favorite island spot? Comment below to let us know.