There’s no shortage of tourist-friendly spots in Honolulu, but when we touched down for our Spring Open Kitchen feature with Mahina & Sun’s restaurant at the Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club, the first thing we wanted to know was where the locals ate, drank and shopped. Luckily, when chef Ed Kenny invited a few of his friends over for a mahalo meal, they were brimming with off-the-beaten-path advice for this buzzing—and quickly changing—city.
“Until about five years ago, Honolulu was generally—and cozily—about 10 years behind major American cities,” says Lesa Griffith, Communications Director at the Honolulu Museum of Art. “With a huge re-gentrification and building boom under way, it is now catching up fast.”
Here’s where Hawaii’s most in-the-know locals like to eat, drink shop and visit in this celebrated city.
Ed Kenney, chef and owner of Mahina & Sun’s
“The neighborhood of Kaimuki is where I like to hang out. The contrast of old school haunts such as The Crack Seed Store and W&M Burgers with recent arrivals such as Breadshop and Leahi Health provide an authentic taste of Honolulu as it is today. Home to thrift shops, coffee houses, yoga studios, trendy boutiques, restaurants, bakeries, and bars, Kaimuki offers a feast for the senses. The community is located in close proximity to picturesque beaches, perfect surf, and lush hiking trails making it a favorite of Honolulu’s healthy, outdoorsy set.
“Almost any day of the week you can find a bustling farmer’s market. My favorite of the week is the Hale’iwa Farmers’ Market at Waimea Falls Park on Thursdays from 2:00pm-6:00pm. It’s a lively, family friendly, community gathering place with the island’s freshest produce, delicious prepared foods, and uplifting entertainment. A mere 45 minutes from Waikiki, it’s a perfect stop for an early dinner while on a circle island adventure.
“I’m not particularly fond of sweets but recently had the most decadent buttery ball of sweet, flakiness I’ve ever experienced, at Kona Coffee Purveyors in Waikiki. Home to Oahu’s first outpost of San Francisco’s b. patisserie, they offer Chef Belinda Leong’s famous kouign amann pastry. When I ate one with a perfectly prepared flat white, I was in heaven.”
Michelle Jaime, co-founder and design director of The Vanguard Theory
“One of my favorited spots to get a bite to eat is MudHen Water in Kaimuki. It’s a couple of blocks from my office and the GM, Jordan, is always there making me feel like I’m part of the family. The weekend brunch is pretty amazing too. Their banana pancakes are my favorite.
“To get a great cocktail, I’ll visit Johnny at Encore Saloon in Chinatown. They have a deep shelf of mezcal you can’t get anywhere else on the island. I’ve been into mezcal negronis lately, and Johnny makes a great one.”
Natalie Aczon, general manager at Mahina & Sun’s
“The Honolulu Museum of Art Spalding House in Makiki Heights is a beautiful spot for lunch, either in the cafe or a picnic on the lawn and under the huge tree with a view of Diamond head. I love the deviled eggs, kale salad, Mediterranean platter, and pasta special. Their iced Thai coffee is so decadent (or you can BYOB!).
“I’ve been eating at Town restaurant for the past 12 years. My favorites are any appetizer on pa’i’ai (it changes daily) and the side fries (the best fries in Hawaii), the gnocchi special, and the seasonal fish beurre blanc, because the fish is cooked to perfection, the vegetables under the fish is fresh, sweet, and delicious. My drink here is the Basil Gimlet.
“To me, Lucky Belly in Chinatown has the best ramen and the best people. My favorites are the oxtail dumplings, beet & spicy greens, chicharron & watercress, and the shrimp kimchi bowl. My drink here is a glass of rosé.”
Parker Moosman & Ali McMahon, co-owners of Olive & Oliver
“Prima is a great locally owned restaurant with the best wood-fired pizza on the island. They also serve great tasting and thoughtful small plate dinners and desserts.
“There are no street signs for Tchin Tchin, a rooftop wine, cocktails & tapas bar. (Note: If you want to find it, head to 39 Hotel Street and look for the stairs.) We love the ambiance and their selection of Vermouth.
Buzz’s in Kailua has a fun indoor/outdoor atmosphere, strong mai tais, and a great pupus menu. It helps that we live walking distance.”
Tyler Gregorka, owner of Retrospect Designs
“I’m a fan of OMG Burrito, Tex Mex style food made as you pick out your ingredients.Their location closed down on King Street, but I’m really looking forward to their new location opening up soon in Waikiki.
“When I’m surfing up in North Shore, I always have to stop at Beet Box cafe. They have my favorite Acai bowls, and awesome vegetarian food. I can get super full there and still feel guilt free.
“Makapuu on the East coast of O’ahu is my ultimate chill spot. Something is magical about that area, with the high-energy water to rinse off all of my day-to-day thoughts and stresses, plus an awesome shore break to drop knee on.”
Derrik Parker, MA’O farm co-manager
“I love ending a long hard day of work at Monkeypod Kitchen in Kapolei enjoying their exceptional beer selection! But when I’m craving pono (good, right) food, I always head to Town restaurant in Kaimuki.
“I also love working out, but it’s especially great when I’m at Unkoz Garage in Kapolei, a gym that promotes progress simply by the environment they provide.”
Kanye Killbrew, sustainable jewelry designer at Mi Nei Designs
Mark Cunningham, World Bodysurfing Champion
“I really love the little stretch of shopping/dining in Kailua on Hekili Street. It’s newly developed, but not a mall—just a simple street that runs behind Whole Foods with surprise new stores still popping in all the time. It has something for everyone at local boutiques like Island Bungalow and Guava Shop and tasty treats at The Local…so great for a casual stroll to see what’s new.
Another other fun stop would be at SALT, a a culture and shopping center in Kakaako. There are more new places opening all the time with amazing restaurants and local boutiques like Milo and Paiko.”
Ashley Watts, CEO and co-owner of Local I’a
“Pig & The Lady is a local favorite restaurant that started out as a farmers’ market vendor and is now located in Chinatown. Their hip new spinoff, Piggy Smalls, has amazing fusion dishes to delight your palette and fill your belly. They source local ingredients as much as can, and try to use uncommon items, such as some of the fish our company sources!
“Right near Piggy Smalls is Kealopiko, a little boutique located in the Kakaʻako area near Piggy Smalls where I love to shop. They carry all kinds of locally made products as well as their own line of Hawaii made and designed clothes and bags. They employ women of Molokai to make their products, designing graphics and Hawaiian phrases to help us make the connection with relationships found in nature.
“The Kona Brewery location in Hawaii Kai is on the water and has a very relaxing atmosphere. They have an awesome selection of their locally brewed beer as well as menu with ono grinds for decent prices.”
Robert Bidigare, lead bartender at Mahina & Sun’s
“With 86 flavors of cheesecake to choose from, you can’t beat Otto Cake in Kaimuki. Otto is a dear friend and amazing baker! The original plain is my favorite and will always hold a special place in my heart because it was our wedding cake.
“Barrio Vintage is a wonderfully curated vintage shop in Chinatown that specializes in vintage aloha and retro pieces.
“The Doris Duke Theatre at the Honolulu Museum of Art is a great spot for independent, art house and documentary films.”
Casea Collins Wright, director of experience at Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club
“Since I work in the heart of Waikiki, I love heading to nearby Diamond Head beach for a post-work surf or sunset swim. It’s secluded and makes me feel like I’m nowhere near the hustle and bustle of town.
“I love hanging out in Chinatown. The energy there is kind of ramshackle meets avant garde. It’s filled with some of my favorite food, shopping, and galleries in the city. Head to Roberta Oaks boutique for the ultimate aloha shirt, then to the chef’s counter at Senia for dinner. I’m obsessed with their charred cabbage and yummy wines.”
Lesa Griffith, director of communications at the Honolulu Museum of Art
“When I want to slow things down and get a taste of the city’s old-school soul, I round up friends for a session at Anyplace Cocktail Lounge where on a given night a women’s softball team might be celebrating a victory and old-timers perch at the bar watching sports on the TVs and chatting with the servers who have worked here for decades. I always order the hamburger sandwiches—crisp patties on sliced white bread with ketchup, just like my grandmother used to make—and the sesame-heavy poke is my favorite.
“I’m the director of communications at the Honolulu Museum of Art, so this might seem like a shameless plug, but honestly, before I worked there, it was where I would go for Sunday brain and soul food—and I still do, even though I’m there all week. It’s a mini Metropolitan Museum of Art, with works spanning from Roman sculpture to Impressionist masterpieces (Monet and van Gogh!) to installations by Hawai‘i’s top contemporary artists as well as internationally known artists.
“For impromptu hanging out, I make a beeline for Encore Saloon in Chinatown. It’s a stylish, slim space of a bar with a great back outdoor space with picnic tables—and a well-edited menu of tacos and things like kalua pig nachos (I order those a lot). They’ve also got an alcoholic daily-changing slushy machine—I like the frozen negronis—and the best lineup of mezcals in town.
“When it comes to serious eating, you can find me in the dining room (as opposed to the eight-seat, reserve-a-month-in-advance chef’s counter) at one of the best best restaurants in town—Senia. Co-chefs Chris Kajioka, a local, and Anthony Rush, a Brit, have a special relationship that produces the best chicken liver mousse in town, melting kurobuta pork with harissa, and inventive vegetable sides that can be a meal in themselves.”
To learn more about Mahina & Sun’s—and get a behind-the-scenes look at Ed Kenney’s mahalo meal with friends—watch the video below.