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5 Great Hawaii Neighborhoods to Head to When You’re Hungry

Posted on February 26, 2016

Story by Derek Paiva

Selection in a downtown Honolulu Chinatown district dim sum shop. Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/Tor Johnson.

Everyone who has ever spent any time in Hawaii’s world-famous resort mecca Waikiki knows it’s a locus of great places to eat no matter what your budget is.

From American steakhouses and a range of world cuisines, to hole-in-the-wall ramen shops and bar lounges with a view, to sushi bars, fine-dining resort restaurants and international chain eateries, if you’re hungry for something, chances are you’ll have your pick of it in Waikiki. Still, one of the most common questions visitors and out-of-town friends staying in Waikiki and other Hawaii resort areas ask me is: What are your go-to places when YOU head out to eat?

Translation: “Where do locals go when they head out to eat?”

The good news is that if you ask just about any Hawaii resident or frequent visitor for dining recommendations, chances are awesome you’ll get a great rundown of places to eat that won’t disappoint, plus an earful of reasons why they won’t disappoint (often in the form of specific menu items). Residents will also tell you that many of us really do often head to Waikiki and other resort areas like Wailea and Waikoloa to eat, too.

Most Hawaii neighborhoods and towns have a handful of places people who live there highly recommend. A select few ‘hoods, however, are local foodie destinations drawing residents from mere blocks away and dozens of miles away with interesting eateries that demand repeat visits.

Which is pretty much the gist of the rundown I’ve put together below. My choice of 5 great Hawaii neighborhoods to head to when you’re hungry. 

Beer-braised brisket sandwich and stout au jus, turkey salad and bacon jam sandwich, and daily special cereal bar dessert at Earl Sandwich in Kaimuki. Photos: Derek Paiva.

Kaimuki, Oahu
I don’t live in Kaimuki. But whenever I’m bound for this urban Honolulu residential and business district for anything, I near always make plans to stay afterward and eat. That’s how it is now in Kaimuki, which, in recent years, has become home to a number of new and inventive restaurants, brewpubs, take-out spots, dessert havens, bakeries and coffee cafés. A neighborhood that keeps new building heights low and preserves its older low-rise architecture, Kaimuki is also an easily walkable ‘hood should you want to search before you settle for lunch, or shop between eats.

Cool places: 12th Ave Grill, Town, Earl Sandwich, Via Gelato, Kaimuki Superette, Koko Head Café, Mud Hen Water, Asuka Nabe + Shabu Shabu, Café Miro, Chocolate+Vanilla Bakery, Otto Cake

Dry mein, the signature (and most popular) menu item at Sam Sato’s in Wailuku. Photo: Derek Paiva.

Wailuku, Maui
There are other great restaurant neighborhoods on Maui. Lahaina, situated just outside of the Kaanapali resort area, and Kihei and Wailea on the island’s south shore, for starters. Residents, however, always introduce visiting friends to this charmingly old world town neighboring bustling modern Kahului for its plethora of time-tested family-owned eateries and bakeries, many of them comfort food havens for generations upon generations of Maui residents.

Cool places: Sam Sato’s, Stillwell’s Bakery and Café, Tffany’s Bar & GrillTokyo Tei, Tasty Crust, Aria’s Restaurant & Catering, Wailuku Coffee Co., Maui Coffee Attic

Creole shrimp n’ grits from Scratch Kitchen & Bake Shop in downtown Honolulu’s Chinatown district. Photo: Derek Paiva.

Chinatown District, Oahu
Not all that long ago, few residents ventured into downtown Honolulu’s Chinatown district after dark unless they were bound for a show at the Hawaii Theatre, dinner at Indigo Eurasian Cuisine or, well, didn’t really want anyone to know why they were headed there. The success of a couple of pioneering bars and nightclubs opening on main drag Hotel Street circa 2005, and neighboring restaurants and retailers that followed their lead in the decade since, have changed all that. Indigo is sadly gone. But these days, Chinatown is the downtown office crowd’s first-choice destination for nearby pau hana (post-work) food and drink. All of this thanks to an eclectic, ever-growing mix of restaurants and bars, led by owners, chefs and bartenders hell bent on respectfully restoring and reoccupying the area’s century-old urban facades with cool and funky modern panache.

Cool places: The Pig & The Lady, Livestock Tavern, Lucky Belly, Grondin French Latin Kitchen, Bar 35, Tchin! Tchin!, Scratch Kitchen & Bake Shop, Smith & King’s, The Dumb Coq, Saigon Vietnamese Cuisine, Maguro Brothers, and (coming in April) chefs Chris Kajioka’s and Anthony Rush’s Senia

At Hilo Lunch Shop, you craft your own mixed plate from a large selection of local comfort food favorites. Photo: Derek Paiva.

Hilo, Hawaii Island
I can never find enough time these days to stop by all of my favorite places to eat in my former hometown. And that’s mostly because my list of faves keeps growing. From the comfort foods of venerable drive-ins and lunch shops, to fresh-caught fish and multi-ethnic comfort food, to loco moco, okazuya and farm-and-farmers-market-to-table, to inventive bakeries, pizza joint and taquerias, even a full week visiting my family in Hilo doesn’t give me enough time to nosh on everything I want to. My solution? Let’s just say my Hilo family sees a lot more of me these days.

Cool places: Moon & Turtle, Kawamoto Store, Hilo Lunch Shop, Lucy’s Taqueria, Suisan Fish Market, Café Pesto, Seaside Restaurant & Aqua FarmMiyo’s, Hawaiian Style Café, Takenoko Sushi, Moonstruck Patisserie, Café 100

The menu at Hamura Saimin is all about the noodles, grilled teri beef and chicken sticks and lilikoi (passion fruit) chiffon pie. Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/Tor Johnson.

Lihue, Kauai
Like Maui, Kauai can lay claim several good restaurant neighborhoods: Kapaa, and Kilauea and Hanalei, quickly come to mind. But Lihue is where residents go to eat. Admittedly, the good stuff doesn’t reveal itself easily in this town. I was lost about where to eat in Lihue on several day and overnight trips to Kauai until I talked story and shared my dilemma with locals. They were always quick to point out their faves – many of these, as with Wailuku on Maui, long-in-business, single-owner, go-to places big on comfort food from multiple cultures.

Cool places: Mark’s Place, Hamura Saimin Stand, Tip Top Motel Cafe & Bakery, Kauai Beer Co., Fish Express, Masa’s Sushi Restaurant, Deli & Bread Connection

About Derek Paiva: Derek Paiva is an editor and writer on the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau account team at Anthology Marketing Group. A lifelong Hawaii resident, Derek has enjoyed careers in magazine and newspaper journalism, and was editor-in-chief of Hawaii Magazine from 2010 through 2015. He has traveled extensively throughout the Hawaiian Islands, written about them exhaustively, and is always looking forward to exploring and learning new things about his home islands. He can be contacted at derek.paiva@anthologygroup.com.


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