La Mariana Sailing Club
Image: Patricia Chang

La Mariana’s romance endures, as time goes by...

La Mariana Sailing Club / When people walk in to La Mariana Sailing Club for the first time, you can see it on their faces. “Is this for real?” Yes, everything is very much real—from the grumpy parrot and wild blowfish lamps to the dark wooden tiki-adorned columns and years of dust. La Mariana’s selling point is its quirk—there is nowhere else like it. Hidden away on Sand Island Access Road, this venerable spot—50 years now—remains a secret to many.

Facing the water, the restaurant began as a clubhouse for the sailing club. Originally 50 yards away, this Honolulu treasure began as a pile of dirt and plastic chairs. Having survived a tsunami, Hawaii’s commercialization and the Japanese economic boom on the island, La Mariana stood the test of time. Its beloved and now-deceased owner, Annette La Mariana Nahinu held on to her dream with sheer willpower and determination. After years of struggling she finally secured a 35-year lease on the land in 1979. Since her death last July many thought La Mariana would shut its doors for good. A local newspaper printed a story proclaiming just that. However, La Mariana is still open everyday for lunch and dinner. The lease doesn’t expire until 2014 and the restaurant still turns a profit. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why it should bid farewell just yet. Upon her death, Nahinu placed LMSC in a trust ensuring that it would never be given to any one sole individual to control.

You could come here just to sit and stare in awe at all the spectacular decorations. Parts of it, like the chain curtains surrounding the booths, look as if they were taken from the rubbish yard and other parts, like the wood carvings, mostly made for Nahinu by sailors coming home, are beautiful pieces of original art.

No surprise, then, that people usually come here more for the ambiance than the food. The food is good at most but not mouth-watering delicious or interesting.

La Mariana’s drink menu is small but the Mai Tais and Rum Punch are said to be worth ordering. For pupu, I ordered the jalapeño poppers ($7.25) and calamari steak strips ($9.25). The poppers came breaded and deep-fried. The insides of each jalapeño were stuffed with a dollop of cream cheese, making each bite a satisfying oozy mess. Ranch dip is offered on the side but I think it tastes too creamy and heavy with the cream cheese. I was happy to see that La Mariana serves big, meaty slices of calamari and the strips are definitely more seafood than breading. I washed my pupu down with my umbrella-adorned Lava Flow and got ready for my entrees.

I recommend the stuffed eggplant au gratin for $18.75. Mind you, I absolutely hate eggplant but the dish description on the menu sounded downright savory. The eggplant was breaded and fried then topped with generous pieces of mahi mahi, juicy shrimp and scallops with a white wine cream sauce and a side of linguine. The crispiness of the breading was a good texture component to the squishy eggplant and the seafood in cream sauce added another dimension to the dish.

The angus prime rib was served with au jus, horseradish and mashed potatoes. Though I ordered my meat medium it came a little too well-done, making it too tough and unenjoyable—no matter how much au jus I used, the meat still tasted bland. The potatoes, however, were delicious and were probably the end product of a whole lot of cream and butter, but how else could it pack this much flavor? The dish was $18.75 and I kind of wish I had pocketed it.

Perhaps it’s my penchant for fried foods but I also enjoyed La Mariana’s porkchop—two gigantic pieces of pork breaded and fried served on a bed of mushroom sherry sauce. For an extra $3 I substituted the mashed potatoes with the fried brown rice. Friends, save the $3 and stick with the potatoes, maybe even try the baked potato, just don’t bother with the rice. It was less than memorable—with its big chunks of carrots and peas, the rice was crumbly and dry, completely lacking the fluffy, light texture fried rice is supposed to have. On another note the porkchop was delectable—crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside. I couldn’t get enough of the mushroom sherry sauce. Next time I’ll ask for more of it so I can drizzle extra on my meat. It had just enough richness to make yet another breaded and fried dish enjoyable without allowing the dish too feel too oily or too fatty.

The rest of the menu was comprised of been-there-done-that food, like chicken a la parmigiana, garlic steak and salads. For fish lovers looking for something different, they might enjoy the Cajun spiced ‘ahi (market price), which is 6 ounces of sashimi grade ‘ahi, flavored with Cajun spices, seared and sliced and served with a side of rice. For seafood lovers the seafood brochette might be a good choice. Shrimp, scallops and mahi mahi are skewered with tomatoes, onions and green peppers and served over linguine.

If you want to impress a certain special someone this Valentine’s Day (get on it, it’s this Saturday) consider La Mariana. It’s casual dining but the atmosphere allows guests to dress it up—she can wear a nice dress and he can don a nice collared shirt. The lighting is dim and it’s right on the water. It’s pretty quiet minus the occasional jet engine (it’s off Nimitz, what can you expect?) and the multitude of colored string lights and glass blow-up lamps make it such a cute little date spot that it will be sure to make both of you smile. You can even request a booth next to the waterfall if you prefer because it’s more intimate than the tables. Take note that Tuesday through Saturday there’s live music provided by a blind piano player who loves to interact with customers. One of the best reasons this is a perfect date spot is that you could never run out of talking points at La Mariana. The décor and eccentric atmosphere make it easy to start conversations and avoid awkward silences. There’s even a platter for two that’d be an ideal romantic date dish—two 8 oz. NY steaks and mahi mahi florentine served with a stuffed baked potato, grilled tomatoes and steamed veggies on the side. At $39.95 it won’t damage your wallets too much. The desserts are not made in house but are good nonetheless.

La Mariana is not just a great spot for pupu and drinks—it’s a great spot, period. I know many that go there just for a drink, to kick back and forget the day’s stress. Because it is so isolated and away from everything, the atmosphere harks to times gone by—perfect for romance any day of the year.

La Mariana Sailing Club

50 Sand Island Access Road
(off Nimitz Hwy)
848-2800 for reservations and private parties.
Hours: 11am–10pm daily