Thirty years ago, in the middle of sleepy Haleiwa Town, a surfer diner was opened by Duncan Campbell, a board shaper, and his wife Jacqueline, a good cook. The Campbells liked this excellent location for their lifestyle. As they raised children, their restaurant evolved into the perfect family-friendly place. Recently, under the impetus of their daughters, Megan and Noelle, Café Haleiwa, long renowned for its breakfast (banana pancakes, home fries) and lunch, added dinner to its repertoire, with a menu that changes monthly in sync with the availability of fresh ingredients from local farms.
“The chef, Nicholas Bowman, and I are inspired by the high quality ingredients to create dishes we want to eat,” says daughter Megan Campbell, 30, who started helping at the Cafe as a youngster. Bowman was formerly an apprentice to Pascal Vignau chef/owner of Savory in Encinitas, California. In addition to providing a venue on the North Shore for people who are interested in learning about food and wine, Campbell says, “our goal is to maintain integrity, be creative and continue to support the community through buying from local food producers.” Ingredients are sourced from growers such as Pupukea Farms, North Shore Farms and Meleana Farms.
The customers are predominantly local, too. Because the North Shore is a tourist destination and a weekend getaway, it too often feels like a scene. But for any resident of this small surf town, entering Café Haleiwa is like walking into Cheers: Everyone knows your name, and most likely, your business. The tables are aglow with candles and accented with fresh roses, but the real warmth emanates from the familiar faces smiling, talking and sharing their food.
It’s the perfect place for a relaxed date, married or not. Young couples and families from Haleiwa and Waialua surround us. As we sit down, my husband lets out a sigh of relief, saying how nice it is.
Next moment,though, we are advised by those around us that we must get up and go next door to Bonzer Front Wine Cellar to pick out our beverage. Co-owned and run by Megan Campbell and her sister Noelle Hayes, the wine cellar, named for their dad’s most famous surfboard design, the Bonzer 5-Fin, is a natural evolution of the family business. Prices range from $10-$170 for wines, with no $10 corkage fee. Spirits and beer are also sold; the Cafe has no liquor license.
Back at our table, the ‘ulu (breadfruit ) hummus with whole wheat pita bread ($11) arrives. The cuisine is New American, or “Neo-American,” as Campbell puts it–and very healthy. A friend from the next table leans over and says, “That’s from the tree in my yard. My sister made that!” The hummus still has a hint of garbanzo accented with smoked Spanish pimenton (think paprika) but nicely showcases the subtle, starchy goodness of ulu. The Raw Tuscan Kale Caesar Slaw with sieved hard boiled egg, parmesan and croutons ($11) and the Red & Golden Beet Salad with gorgonzola cheese and glazed walnuts served atop Pupukea mixed greens with a guava-mustard vinaigrette ($11)–were garnished with edible nasturtium flowers. Good food is like art, Campbell says. “You can love it before you even taste it because of the color or thoughtful execution.” And what a novel idea to cut kale into such tiny pieces that not only can it soak up the dressing flavor better, but is a joy to consume compared to the rough and chewy forms experienced in salads elsewhere.
Among the entrees, i recommend the pan-roasted chicken breast ($18), moist and seasoned lightly with salt and pepper, came with buttery mashed potatoes and sauteed kale, tomato, and macadamia nut. The homemade potato gnocchi was accompanied by roasted kabocha squash, mushrooms and sage with amaretto-cream sauce ($17). While the gnocchi had the requisite eggy-doughy goodness, the cream sauce seemed a bit too rich.
For dessert, the flourless chocolate cake, richer than fudge, with fresh whipped cream, will disappear too fast if you have a chocolate lover at your table. Toasted coconut-lime rice pudding is the best this connoisseur has ever tasted; and the tangerine Bavarian pie served with bay leaf syrup and candied tangerine zest had the consistency of flan and a truly original flavor.
Enjoy it all while it’s still here! Disappointment has been voiced by guests who find the menu has already changed when they return to have their favorite item or try other dishes they saw on the menu on their last visit. Campbell says that, while she appreciates this, her commitment to fresh produce and supporting local farmers outweighs the desire to have consistent menu items. “We are always learning more about executing good food and want to.”
Each menu item resonates further in the natural dialogue that occurs between the patrons and knowledgeable wait staff, for whom this is clearly more than just a job. “If someone loves doing something, I want to give them a venue to do it,” Campbell says. She explains that the wait and cook staff are all young food enthusiasts who are passionate about creating high quality food in a casual dining experience and supporting local food producers.
The takeaway: good food, good drink, good vibes.