Hawaii, and specifically the popular Honolulu neighborhood of Waikiki, is a dream destination for the discerning traveler looking for surf and sun. As a foodie, however, it’s important that I add Waikiki’s great local restaurants to that list of attractions. There are several out-of-the-way spots that I’ve discovered which offer some of the most downright mouth-watering dishes you’ll likely to have on your trip.
Where do the locals eat in Waikiki? Below is a list narrowed down to a handful of the very best:
● Karai Crab
● Sweet E’s
● Mahina & Sun’s
● Uncle Bo’s
● Side Street Inn
● Rainbow Drive Inn
● Doraku Sushi
● Sansei Seafood Restaurant & Sushi Bar
● Ahi and Vegetable
● Maui Brewing Company
● Morning Glass Coffee + Café
● Leonard’s Bakery
That’s a long list of favorites you might be saying. It’s true that each of these local restaurants offers something wonderful, but deciding which will satisfy isn’t as hard as you might think when you look at the three factors all of us consider when dining out: menu, ambiance, and price. Let’s see how these establishments compare before you head out to get a taste of Waikiki.
What kind of cuisine do you want?
The first thing to acknowledge is that Waikiki is a peninsula, surrounded by the waters of Waikiki Bay and the Ala Wai Canal. As you can imagine, seafood is a staple of the local cuisine, and that reflects in many of the restaurants listed above. That being said, fish is never just fish. As with any food, preparation makes all the difference.
In restaurants like Doraku Sushi, Sansei Seafood & Sushi Bar, and Ahi and Vegetable, the Asian influence on Hawaiian culture shines through in every rice-packed entree. All three of these well-liked restaurants are regular destinations among Waikiki residents.
Concerning variety, however, Doraku Sushi has a slight edge over the others by providing an expansive menu. Catering to a slightly more upscale customer, Doraku gives itself the freedom to switch things up with imaginative food designs worthy of a modern art museum, if you could resist the urge to gobble up each roll quickly.
Ahi and Vegetable also serve great sushi, but their business model is more for the casual diner. Their food is made to order, but they also have containers of pre-made sushi if you just want to grab something delicious and go.
Maybe you’re not in the mood for sushi, but you still want to get your seafood fix. If so, pay a visit to Mahina & Sun’s or Karai Crab. Both local restaurants will have you raving for entirely different reasons. While Karai Crab has an inviting surf and turf vibe, Mahina & Sun’s offers a more gourmet style food selection. Choose wisely.
If seafood doesn’t move you (no judgment here), visit one of the neighborhood bar & grills that residents make sure to frequent. Uncle Bo’s offer fantastic drinks along with some of the best bar food you’ll ever have. They also provide a bit of cultural flavor, so if you stop by, make sure to get the Thai-Style Steamer Clams.
For the beer lover, your journey through Waikiki’s local scene wouldn’t be complete without sitting down at the Maui Brewing Company. If you guessed that their specialty was beer, you’d be 100% correct. They offer much more, however, in the form of American food with a Waikiki twist.
Finally, for those with a sweet tooth, Sweet E’s Cafe and Leonard’s Bakery are your safe havens. Leonard’s Bakery is known throughout the area for their spectacular malasadas (a donut-like confection of Portuguese origin made from small balls of fried yeast dough). Stuffed with various sweet from haupia (coconut) to dobash (chocolate) these treats, along with their many other pastries, makes Leonard’s a requirement.
Sweet E’s, on the other hand, focuses on delivering mouth-watering breakfast foods like stuffed French toast and the Kalua Egg Benedict. I would give both a try.
What’s the decor like?
Eating out is an experience that engages more than one of your senses. Although the taste of the food is paramount, the local restaurants of Waikiki also work to provide different settings to enjoy all that tasty food. Before you settle on where to visit, make sure the look of the establishment matches what you’re seeking.
On the more casual side of things, you’ll find Rainbow Drive-In and Leonard’s Bakery. Though they serve their own distinctive foods, both are relatively small, with Leonard’s Bakery having most of its seating outside. Rainbow Drive-In, as the name suggests, is set up to be a no-frills, traditional Hawaiian food restaurant that’s not too far from the main Waikiki strip. For these two locations, your goal is to get something yummy. That’s it.
While still on the casual side, establishments like Morning Glass Coffee + Cafe, Sweet E’s Cafe, and Side Street Inn give you a little more in the way of style. Morning Glass and Sweet E’s bill themselves as brunch spots so expect that kind of laid-back feel. Unadorned furniture and light colors are used to create a warm vibe perfect for drinking afternoon coffee or sitting in awe of the natural beauty of Waikiki (as visitors tend to do).
When it comes to having a night out with friends and being surrounded by a charming atmosphere, visit Doraku Sushi or Maui Brewing Company. Starting with Doraku, I can tell you, having visited Japan, that this place is the real deal. The chefs wear Japanese bananas and cut your fish fresh as you sit at the sushi bar or at your table. You can also choose to sit in sectioned off wooden booths that offer an authentic Japanese flair.
Maui Brewing Company gets bonus points just for being so large. With two floors they give you an upscale bar & grill setting, a great view, and games! There’s shuffleboard, foosball, and if you catch them on the right night, you might see a live performance from their stage area. I can’t give you any guarantees, but it’s possible.
As you might guess, this brewing company makes beer, and they’re more than willing to give you a tour through their facilities. Take the time to see the magic behind their beverages while trying a glass or two yourself.
While deciding on the right space for your outdoor eating keep in mind that many of these locations are pretty small, and like any hidden treasure, they may be hard to find. Some are sandwiched between residential homes, so keep an eye open for them as you walk.
How much for all this great local food?
None of the restaurants listed will break your bank. Go in expecting to spend anywhere between $9 to $31, depending on how hungry you are. As with any restaurant, the more extravagant the food and atmosphere, the more money you’ll have to shell out. There are some tips to keep in mind though if your wallet is traveling light.
Sansei Seafood & Sushi has a great happy hour that runs on every Tuesday to Saturday, from 5:30 pm to 7 pm. They offer $2 off all cocktails, glass wine, and beers. In addition, vodka is $4. To sweeten the deal, you can catch the sunset or Friday night fireworks at the Hilton Village at around 8:00 pm.
The Maui Brewing has a flight menu. A flight is a sampling of beers–in this case four. In the case of this distinctively Hawaiian brewery, you can get try beers named, “Coconut Hiwa,” “Lahaina Town Brown,” and “Imperial coconut.” They’re a great bang for your drinking buck.
Where can I get some traditional Hawaiian foods?
One of the best places to get traditional Hawaiian food is located off the beaten path and requires a bit of travel time from Waikiki. Helena’s Hawaiian Food offers traditional dishes like squid luau, kalua pig, lomi-lomi salmon, and poi. Their prices range from $10 to $30.
Are most Waikiki restaurants walk-in friendly?
Many of the establishments in Waikiki, because of their small size, require you to make reservations. Their numbers are readily available on their websites, and it is suggested that you plan some time in advance if you have a large party.