The art of dining on Oahu

The Royal Hawaiian Hotel, affectionately known as the "Pink Palace," is a must-see on any trip to Oahu, as it was one of the first hotels built on Waikiki Beach. Photograph by Tor Johnson. Courtesy Hawaiian Tourism Authority.
“Aloha” from some of the island’s best restaurants.

Oahu, Hawaii, is a truly extraordinary place, where the beach scene and city life happily co-exist. I’ll never forget, for example, walking on the city streets, where you typically see someone crossing the avenue wearing nothing but a bikini (and carrying a surfboard). Oahu has a lot to love — including the impressive Royal Hawaiian Hotel. The “Pink Palace” is where I got married, and it’s de rigueur for any visitor. At this writing, Azure Restaurant at The Royal Hawaiian welcomes Shingo Katsura as the new chef de cuisine. He is introducing many new and exciting dishes, including chilled lobster, white truffle gnocchi and pan-seared scallops.

But there are other places that I like just as much. Here’s my “biting” commentary about Oahu’s vibrant restaurant scene:

When I first visited Oahu — that was 30 years ago — I didn’t know much about the island. But I got an eyeful when I went to dinner at Duke’s, located at the Outrigger Hotel right on Waikiki Beach, with spectacular views of Diamond Head. Duke’s is the embodiment of Duke Kahanamoku, the father of surfing and an Olympic swimming champion. The restaurant is filled with Duke memorabilia, and everything there relates to surfing. I have now, at this point in my life, dined at Duke’s so many times that I feel that I personally know Duke himself. The restaurant has great food and you can’t beat its location — just a stone’s throw from the water. Start with a legendary Mai Tai and the coconut shrimp, then top them off with the baked fresh fish Duke’s style — in a lemon-garlic-basil glaze with black rice. The spicy sesame-ginger roasted fish is excellent, too. By the time you leave, you’ll be inspired to hang 10.

I make it a point to dine at Alan Wong’s every time I visit Oahu. This acclaimed restaurant — which won awards in 2018 for Best Farm-To-Table and Best Tasting Menu from Honolulu Magazine — is always an extraordinary experience. Start with the lobster, shrimp and crab cakes with caper mayonnaise and follow with ginger-crusted onaga in a miso sesame vinaigrette. For dessert, the Iced Mocha is divine — Waialua chocolate with Cowboy Coffee ice cream and condensed milk granite — or perhaps you prefer the Chocolate Crunch Bars with bittersweet chocolate mousse and Hawaiian vanilla ice cream. You must also try one of the Hawaiian coffees. Trust me, when you’re done with dinner here, you’ll be counting the time until you can return.

If you’ve ever flown first-class on Hawaiian Airlines, you have undoubtedly enjoyed the fine cuisine of chef Chai Chaowasaree, who has masterminded the menus at the airline for the past several years. “I’ve cooked chicken 34 different ways in the past eight years,” Chef Chai says with a laugh. When I’m on Oahu, a visit to Chef Chai the restaurant is always on the menu. We started with a chicken satay, followed by a squash soup with duck tacos and smoked salmon and crabmeat. The pièce de résistance is the deep-fried shrimp in a coconut “nest” made of phyllo dough. For dessert, try the heart-shaped white chocolate gelato filled with raspberry sorbetto, served with raspberry guava purée, savored with a glass of sweet dessert wine. Chef Chai is a winner, any way you slice it.

Melissa Bow began Via Gelato with the idea of bringing local flavors to Italian-style gelato. She nailed it at her neighborhood gelateria in Kaimuki, where she churns out an ever-changing mix of gelato and sorbetto in flavors such as green tea Oreo, lilikoi (passion fruit), guava and the lava flow, a piña colada sorbet swirled with a fresh strawberry sauce.

Winner of 23 chocolate awards, Madre Chocolate is one of the island’s premier bean-to-bar makers, sourcing cacao beans from Hawaii and working directly with farmers around the world to ensure quality beans and fair prices to support their communities. In addition to 70 percent chocolate bars, Madre Chocolate also makes a tangy lilikoi chocolate bar and a smooth coconut milk and caramelized ginger chocolate. 

For a sensational sampling of local brews — and dynamite entrées — visit Cheeseburger in Paradise for the $14 burger served on a Hawaii-baked bun with Thousand Island dressing, and seasoned fries. It’s the delicacy that started the entire chain. I’ll also take the shrimp burger or the island fish tacos along with a piña colada. Or maybe you just want to try a craft draft such as the award-winning Blackstrap Molasses porter from Waikiki Brewing Company featuring chocolate and coffee flavors.

Honorable Mention: We saw the Trip-Advisor-recommended “Rock-a-Hula” show, and we were blown away by it. It’s Oahu’s best-kept secret — a performance featuring dynamic, true-to-life Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson impersonators, along with energy-packed tributes to surfboards, movies featuring Hawaii and a look at Waikiki through the years. It also showcases elements that you’d find at most luaus — fabulous hula dancers, gorgeous costumes and a fire-knife dancer. We can’t recommend it highly enough. Go for the dinner show (featuring lobster and salmon) and you’ll have an unforgettable night. Cue the “Hawaii 5-0” and “Magnum P.I.” music.

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