When people ask what will bring local people back to Waikiki, forget gambling. Better to look back at what used to draw us there and why we stopped coming.
It’s true that all popular venues eventually lose their lustre to be replaced by new trendy spots. But Waikiki’s allure seemed timeless: Stream-fed Mamala Bay, where the great ahupua‘a of Manoa Valley met the sea, had drawn everyone from commoners to royalty.
What happened? In a word, overbuilding. Developers, state and city, walled off and privatized the shoreline, building the hotels right up to the highwater mark, and cordoning off not only the views but the breezes, the openness, the graciousness, the welcome and the inclusiveness that was the restful, restorative legacy of the place. Good luck finding one of the right of ways guaranteed to citizens by Hawaiian law without feeling as if you’re trespassing through a luxury hotel. Dining out or hearing music? Not without the parking and being treated like a tourist.
Only one open stretch remains, where Kapiolani Park rims the sand from Kuhio Beach to the New Otani Hotel, and this is far from what it was. There is a lot missing, notably the Queen’s Surf Restaurant and Bar, a gorgeous pink elephant of an Italianate palace built in 1916 and acquired by the city in 1946, when the former beach home of a Fleischmann’s Yeast heir became a city concession leased to the Spencecliff Corporation. As the Queen’s Surf Restaurant and Nightclub, it drew families to the beach bar, and everybody to the evening music played by the likes of Eddie Kamae, Gabby Pahinui and others until it was shut down in 1969 by Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi following a lease dispute, and then torn down in 1971.
After decades of desuetude, enlivened only by conga drumming in the ruins of the colonnade, a smaller building was finally erected alongside a new waterfront walkway, and a beach concession reopened, but because the park was filthy and felt gloomy and dangerous after sundown, nothing took. The eatery closed a couple of years ago.
Then, in late 2011, there were stirrings of life, and a buzz. The beachfront terrace and bathrooms had been cleaned up. Now there is a real restaurant–a seaside café, with bright-red umbrellas over picnic tables and grass fronting a large covered lanai, its high ceiling supported by graceful pillars; the kitchen, and the windows where you order and pick up your food, are at the back.
Fresh Air, Fresh Food The new, thirty-something managers are Kekoa Ornellas and Sakara K. Blackwell, and their business model emphasizes fresh local produce, fish and meats. The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and snacks daily, but for dinner only Thursday through Sunday. In addition to the regular menu, don’t miss the specials on the chalkboard and the separate menus that you can have cooked to order on the big black grill that smokes and sizzles in the open air to one side of the lanai, adding to the festive, ‘ohana picnic-in-the-park atmosphere.
On Thursday evenings, the special menu is made-to-order pasta with your choice of clams linguine, meatballs or vegetarian pomodoro. The Friday and Saturday grill offers steak, pork chops, ribs, ahi or shrimp & vegetable skewers; scallops, oysters or lobster are sometimes served depending on market availability. All grill dinners are $14.95 with the exception of lobster ($19.95) and steak/lobster ($29.95). They include a buffet with all the salad, bread and rice you can eat. Sampled on a recent visit, the shrimp were impeccably grilled, cleaned and, with their shells still on, full of juices; the peppers, broccoli and onions were crunchy and flavorful and the salad has healthy romaine lettuce, carrots and other botanical accents, such as orchids. Desserts, as of this writing, are not house-made: syrupy smoothies come from cartons, but the local macadamia nut ice cream, served rock-hard in its individual cup, brings back sweet childhood memories.
Fish, bought by Blackwell’s father at the fish market daily, is served from breakfast onward (as are pancakes, etc.). If you care about freshness more than sauces, pay the extra couple dollars for seafood grilled-to order rather than the fish on the regular menu, although it’s good. The first time we tried the grilled ahi, it was as leftovers served as pupu by friends, who’d brought home what they couldn’t eat the night before. There wasn’t a trace of day-old taint. “The two of us could have been satisfied with just one ahi steak,” said our friend, John Callahan, who also raved about the entertainment. In the tradition of the old Queen’s Surf, there is live music–Hawaiian on Thursday and Friday evenings and Sunday afternoons, jazz on Saturday night.
“Where else can you get oceanfront dining in Waikiki, with huge portions perfectly grilled to your specs–witness this tender, not overcooked pork chop–great live music, and a view of the Hilton Fireworks on Friday night, for $15 each?” Callahan asked as we dined there last month and ran into local friends at a luau (the space is rentable for catered private parties), celebrating a birthday on the lanai. A piano restorer and tuner, Callahan noted that Art Kalahiki sang and played guitar “in perfect tune.” Another night, we heard Buzzy Kealoha on bass and Kaipo Dabin on acoustic guitar; Kealoha had played at the old Queen’s Surf as kid, and for a moment we looked at the torches along the esplanade and inhaled the sea breeze, remembering Kui Lee, a headliner in those days, singing “I’ll Remember You” and “The Days of my Youth.”