Welcome to The Greats, a series on the restaurants around the country that define their cities. Here now, a guide to the Honolulu Greats.
Honolulu is a city of contrasts. Of sand and sea, yes. But the palm-fringed Hawaiian capital is also known for a rich and complex food scene, swirled with Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, and Filipino flavors, among others. Even when the names of the dishes they serve are recognizable, the city’s best restaurants shine by creating one-of-a-kind renditions.
A James Beard Award-winning chef in downtown Honolulu—the first Native Hawaiian woman to receive that honor—dishes up pristine fish plates and bavettes. Cantonese fare gets the island treatment at a longstanding King Street cafe. Crowds flock to a chic Italian restaurant in Kahala for its signature uni pasta.
New hits and old faithfuls define Honolulu’s eclectic dining scene. Read on for a guide to the 13 restaurants essential to Hawaiʻi’s largest city.
House Without A Key (Waikīkī)
It’s hard to imagine a more quintessentially Waikīkī setting than House Without A Key. Located in the historic Halekulani hotel in Waikīkī, the restaurant’s patio is set against a dramatic swoop of sand and sea leading up to majestic Diamond Head. The New American menu is equally iconic with the signature mai tai and cloud-like coconut cake and dishes such as char siu coconut baby back ribs and herb-crusted skirt steak, not to mention. Open-air dining is at the heart of the House Without A Key experience so diners can appreciate the cool Hawaiian tradewinds. Choose between the fully covered main dining room, newly opened Earl’s for a seat in front of the bartender, or the lānai (patio), which brings people closest to the main stage for nightly Hawaiian music and hula dancing. The scenic spot is popular for sunset drinks and pūpūs (small plates), though it’s also open for full-fledged lunch and dinner.
In 2022, Hawaiʻi received its first James Beard award in 19 years with Robynne Maii’s Fête. Set in Honolulu’s trendy Chinatown district, Fête combines a Brooklyn-inspired approach (New American techniques, farm-to-table fare) to food with local flavors. The acclaimed menu is focused on sustainable, locally sourced ingredients from community partners. Chef Maii’s signatures include pristine housemade pastas, fish plates, and beautiful bavettes.
Helena’s Hawaiian Food (Honolulu)
Locals and tourists have filled this casual Kalihi dining room, furnished with vinyl-covered stacking chairs and laminate tables, since 1946. They’re here for the pipikaula—a version of Hawaiian-style short ribs that’s lovingly aged and then grilled until it’s hot and smokey. These legendary ribs are served alongside traditional Hawaiian fare such as kālua pig, pōʻi (taro), haupia (coconut pudding), or lau lau (salted meat bundled into ti leaves and steamed until tender and silky). The time-honored approach has earned Helena’s top honors through the years including the American Classic award from the James Beard Foundation in 2000 and a place on The New York Times’s 50 most exciting restaurants in America list in 2021.
Merriman’s Honolulu (Honolulu)
Peter Merriman (one of the original pioneers of the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement) has an impressive restaurant empire that stretches across Oʻahu, the Big Island, Kauaʻi, and Maui, all with a focus on locally sourced ingredients. His Honolulu outpost is located in Oʻahu’s trendy Kakaʻako neighborhood, a sunny spot for the dining room’s floor-to-ceiling windows. Find local classics on the menu, such as macadamia nut-crusted fish, and house specialities including tako (octopus) served escargot-style with toasted slices of baguette and cognac-parsley-garlic butter. To all that, add an acclaimed wine list—Merriman’s was singled out as one of Wine Enthusiast’s best restaurants in 2019—and you’ve got the formula for an evergreen hit.
MW Restaurant (Honolulu)
Husband-and-wife duo Michelle Karr-Ueoka and Wade Ueoka are the forces behind this Honolulu mainstay. The elegant Ala Moana dining room entices diners with its sophisticated local dishes. Go for the five-course tasting menu or the a la carte option that features the MW’s signature mochi-crusted Kona kampachi. Don’t miss pastry chef Karr-Ueoka’s impeccable desserts, including feathery mango shaved ice and decadent chocolate cake.
Original Roy’s, Hawaii Kai (Honolulu)
Today, you’ll find Roy’s Hawaiian fusion restaurants sprawled across the mainland in California, Arizona, and Florida. But it all began in this original breezy dining room in Hawaiʻi Kai. As one of the founding members of the Hawaiʻi Regional Cuisine movement in the early 1990s, chef Roy Yamaguchi celebrates the melting pot of cultures in Hawaiʻi, mixing Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, and Filipino flavors, among others. The results include blackened ahi and crispy whole tai snapper, which you can still order today.
Mud Hen Water (Honolulu)
Mud Hen Water is lauded chef Ed Kenny’s love song to Hawaiian food. The decades-long restaurateur (who earned local cred via Honolulu magazine’s Haleʻaina awards) remains steadfast in his commitment to a farm-to-table philosophy and adds modern twists to traditional dishes. Kenny’s riffs on familiar Island favorites include Molokaʻi venison lau lau and preserved akule (a local shallow-water ocean fish). During the day, the sun-drenched dining room and breezy outdoor lānai—ideal for a leisurely pancake brunch—make for one of the prettiest perches in town.
La Mer at Halekulani Hotel (Waikīkī)
La Mer belongs to a vanguard of high-end places that define fine dining in the Islands. Today, it is Hawaiʻi’s only AAA Five Diamond and Forbes 5 Star restaurant. Classic French food graces tables with shimmering seaside views at sunset. Expect an elaborate symphony of kampachi tartare, filet de canard roti, souffles, and a cavalcade of cheeses as you listen to the gentle roar of the ocean. Opt for the full tasting menu experience—complete with caviar supplements and wine pairings—or choose your own way on the equally celebrated a la carte menu.
Golden Duck (Honolulu)
Golden Duck is part of a fading breed of chop suey joints on the Islands. The menu traces its origins to traditional Cantonese fare brought by immigrants—but adds a uniquely local take.
Golden Duck dishes up the kind of food you can only find at Chinese restaurants in Hawaiʻi, such as crispy gau gee (deep-fried dumplings stuffed with pork) and won tun min (soft won tuns in noodle soup), to name just a few. Enjoy it all in a vinyl-covered booth—the group-friendly dining room is known to become boisterous during dinner service.
Zippy’s is a Honolulu fixture that opened its doors in 1966. Since then, it’s served as a backdrop to seniors enjoying peaceful breakfasts, politicians brokering deals, and night owls refueling. Locals grow up relying on Zippy’s (it has locations all over O’ahu) for fast, affordable plates scarfed down onsite and in takeout form. True fans know the prolific menu by heart and will tell you that must-orders include wun tun min (steamed wonton dumplings and noodles in a simple broth with with a piece of uzumaki fish cake and sweet pork char siu), breakfast bentos with Portuguese sausage and spam, and Zippy’s show-stopping chili and rice.
Sushi Sasabune (Honolulu)
“Trust us!” claims a sign at Sushi Sasabune. With no menus, no set prices, and no soy sauce on the tables, the restaurant’s sign foreshadows what’s to come. Diners are encouraged to sit back and enjoy the ride with chef Seiji Kumagawa as their unflinching guide. Kumagawa creates a customized omakase course for each guest, typically spanning 13 to 15 courses, with a focus on nigiri using local fish. Though it’s set against bustling King Street, Sushi Sasabune is a cozy retreat in Honolulu. Seats are limited, so be sure to reserve well in advance.
Arancino at the Kahala (Honolulu)
Since owner Ichiro Inamura opened its original Waikīkī location in 1998, Arancino has won hearts as a crowd favorite, most recently earning OpenTable’s Dinerʻs Choice Award (in addition to other distinctions including Honolulu magazine’s Hale’aina Award for best Italian food). Japanese-owned Italian restaurants are part of a well-loved dining genre in Hawaiʻi, and Arancinoʻs Kahala location is one of the Island’s most elegant examples of it. The menu is equal parts comforting and playful with dishes such as a signature uni pasta with white wine and tomato cream sauce and cacio e pepe presented tableside in a flaming pecorino wheel. Though Arancino’s Honolulu location came first, the restaurant has since expanded to Osaka and Kyoto in Japan—a testament to its popularity.
Yakitori Hachibei (Chinatown)
An open-fire charcoal grill provides the dramatic centerpiece for Yakitori Hachibei. The restaurant’s hearth uses traditional Japanese techniques to dole out yakitori—succulent morsels of chicken, pork, beef, and vegetables grilled on wooden sticks. Find typical skewers such as chicken breast, quail eggs, and tsukune (minced chicken with chives and onions), alongside Hachibei specialties including foie gras and beef sukiyaki. Ending a meal with a bowl of paitan ramen is practically mandatory. In addition to the spectacular Japanese fare, Hachibei’s softly lit interiors and exposed brick walls make it one of most sought-after dinner spots in town.
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Noelle Chun is a freelance journalist who writes about food, cocktails, and wine in Honolulu and San Francisco. Follow her on Instagram at @noellechun.