You’ve trekked across the Pacific Ocean and have landed in paradise in Hawaii. So, what’s on the menu? Maybe a heaping pile of Waipoli greens dressed in Liliko’i vinaigrette. Or, a juicy burger from Parker Ranch and grilled, sweet Maui onions.
We’re all about sunny beach days and walks through lush tropical greenery, but if you ask us in Hawaii (like other destinations on our must-visit lists) paradise is found between the pages of a menu.
Today, restaurants in Hawaii that celebrate the island’s regional and farm-to-table ingredients (lucky for discerning foodies like us) are pretty status quo. But that was not always the case.
The History Of Hawaii's Food Scene
In the 1920s Hawaii took off as a tourist destination as scores of visitors arrived by steamer ship and the majority of hotel menus appealed to their tastes. Dining in Hawaii in this era meant eating dishes that were popular in Europe, a style of food known as continental cuisine. In Honolulu for example, they’d check in to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel – one of the first hotels built along iconic Waikiki Beach – and be served lamb or chicken likely accompanied by a creamy sauce.
These days Hawaii’s food scene is earning a reputation for more than shave ice and poke, and events like the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival – not to mention local chefs using their national media attention to speak up for Hawaii’s food scene, like Sheldon Simeon – shine a light on the innovative things coming from the state’s top kitchens.
But, how did Hawaii go from ignoring its own ingredients to celebrating them? Here’s a little background for you:
Then Came Along Hawaii Regional Cuisine
Until the early 1990s much of Hawaii’s restaurants focused on ingredients shipped in from outside the islands. Quality local agriculture did exist, of course, and once a dozen chefs banded together to partner with local producers (we’re talking the farmers, ranchers, fishermen and others), Hawaii’s local food scene took off.
These chefs called what they were doing Hawaii Regional Cuisine (HRC), and the twelve chefs include internationally recognized names like Roy Yamaguchi – yep, of those Roy’s restaurants across the country – and Alan Wong. They, along with Chef George Mavrothalassitis – or, Chef Mavro – are currently Hawaii’s only James Beard Award winners.
In Hawaii Regional Cuisine, local ingredients – like fresh tomatoes from Ho Farms on Oahu or sweet Kauai Shrimp from The Garden Island – get the local cooking treatment; think Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Portuguese, Puerto Rican (to name a few) flavors and cooking techniques.
For example, Peter Merriman of Merriman’s restaurants in Maui, Big Island, Kauai and a new location on Oahu serves a kalua pork and sweet onion quesadilla with house-made kimchee and mango-chili sauce. Or, Chef Bev Gannon’s Hali’imaile General Store on Maui’s pork chop with portuguese sausage and mushroom cornbread. Both chefs, who’ve been around since the 1980s are founders of the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement.
Like Merriman and Ganon, a handful of HRC’s original chefs are still at it. On Kauai, JO2 by Jean Marie Josselin in Kapaa hosts a daily prix fixe dinner. And on the Big Island, Sam Choy’s Kai Lani restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner using local greens, beef, and seafood. Mark Ellman still operates several restaurants on Maui, including Mala Ocean Tavern and Honu Seafood & Pizza.
Now There's A New Generation Of Hawaii Chefs
These days the next generation of local chefs are branching out and evolving Hawaii Regional Cuisine by adding their own signature. A few names to watch include Michelle and Wade Ueoka’s (formerly of Alan Wong’s) MW Restaurant in Honolulu where you’ll find pickled local beets with Big Island Goat Cheese or ahi poke with Hamakua mushrooms.
Then there’s Ed Kenney’s restaurants, including Town and Mud Hen Water, located in Honolulu’s burgeoning foodie-centric Kaimuki neighborhood. There, dishes feature greens and produce from Ma’o Organic Farms and beef from Kuahiwi Ranch, among others.
And in the years that Hawaii Regional Cuisine has been doing its thing, evolving consumer tastes – the kind of tastes that wants to know where their food comes from and is interested in unique, local experiences (like the trips we curate around the world) – have helpedntp ensure that the focus on local eats will stick around.
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