Dallas chef Dean Fearing at the 2011 Hawaii Food and Wine Festival on Oahu// © 2011 Travis Okimoto
For the hungry visitor to Oahu, the days of forgettable continental cuisine in pricey Waikiki restaurants are long gone. Instead, the island now offers a colorful, creative cornucopia of dining options from casual carry-outs to swanky sit-downs, and it seasons them with festivals, farmers’ markets, food tours and other appetizing activities for clients to savor.
The recent Hawaii Food and Wine Festival, held in Honolulu from Sept. 29 to Oct. 1, exemplified the destination’s return to fresh local foods by presenting three signature dining experiences peppered with cooking demonstrations, wine tastings, culinary workshops, industry seminars and field excursions.
“Oahu was the perfect culinary hub to host 32 top chefs from Hawaii, the U.S. mainland, Asia, Australia and Canada, along with four master sommeliers, top-tier winemakers and mixologists,” said the festival’s director Denise Hayashi.
Growing numbers of farmers, chefs, restaurants and consumers are dedicated to buying and using island products and helping cultivate Oahu’s farm-to-table movement. In the past year alone, several new farmer’s markets have popped up around the destination, and community-supported agriculture programs are more popular than ever.
“Oahu’s farmer’s markets are a great way to interact with locals and see the diverse range of products available on the island,” said Oahu Visitors Bureau senior director of sales and marketing Noelani Schilling-Wheeler.
Clients don’t have to eat at expensive restaurants to experience Oahu’s farm-to-table cuisine. Several low-key restaurants, such as Side Street Inn, Downtown and Kakaako Kitchen offer fresh, island-inspired dishes at reasonable rates. Then there are the food trucks where visitors get their money’s worth on everything from tropical shave ice to fresh shrimp. Travelers can also time their vacations with one of Oahu’s annual culinary events.
At the other end of the spectrum await restaurants where clients can feast on five-star cuisine in attractive surroundings. The island is home to such James Beard award-winning chefs as Roy Yamaguchi, Alan Wong and George “Chef Mavro” Mavrothalassitis, each renowned for his distinctive take on Hawaii Regional Cuisine and expert use of local ingredients. When the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement began in 1991, most of its founding members were based on Oahu, and they have helped raise Hawaii’s culinary profile around the world.
The island continues to draw culinary stars to this day. Nobu Matsuhisa and Laurent Tourondel have opened eateries on Oahu, and Masaharu Morimoto runs a restaurant in the rebranded Modern Honolulu.
Schilling-Wheeler said that more and more travelers are discovering the depth of culinary offerings on the island.
“Many visitors are excited to discover that the cuisine here is as unique as the many different races and ethnicities of people who make up the island,” she said. “Visitors could easily eat their way through Oahu for weeks, tasting a range of foods and not sampling the same flavors twice.”
Honolulu lays claim to several neighborhoods that are well known for a certain kind of dining. The higher-end experiences offered by Alan Wong and Chef Mavro can be found on King Street. The hub called Kaimuki is popular for down-home restaurants like Town, 12th Avenue Grill and Maguro-Ya. Kapahulu Avenue is the place to go for inexpensive meals at landmarks like Ono Hawaiian Food, Irifune and Rainbow Drive-In. Downtown Honolulu restaurants on the must-visit list include Chai’s Island Bistro at Aloha Tower Marketplace and Indigo in Chinatown.
Waikiki, meanwhile, boasts the island’s most sophisticated dining scene. For a special meal, clients can’t go wrong with Azure at the Royal Hawaiian, Bali Steak and Seafood at Hilton Hawaiian Village, La Mer at Halekulani, Beachhouse at the Moana and Roy’s Waikiki, to name just a few.
If all of these choices sound a little overwhelming, clients can let Hawaii Food Tours take charge. During the tour operator’s Hole-in-the-Wall tour, participants munch their way through some of Honolulu’s local, ethnic and mom-and-pop eateries.
“Oahu has no shortage of options for the epicurean traveler,” said Schilling-Wheeler. “Locally, we are foodies, and we love to share our passion for island foods with Oahu visitors. So if you leave hungry, you’re doing something wrong.”