“I cook like an Italian grandmother,” says the Honolulu-born chef Ed Kenney. It’s a statement at odds with his trim surfer frame, aloha shirt and year-round Hawiian tan, but as soon as the food comes out at his newest restaurant, Mahina & Sun’s, it’s easy to understand where one might draw the comparison: The platters brimming with family-style dishes such as salad with pohole, a native Hawiian fern, feel familiar even to someone who has never heard the word “pohole,” much less tasted one. Though the preparations are simple, each dish is filled with soul and a sense of place.
Mahina & Sun’s restaurant is a departure for Kenney. His other restaurants—MudHen Water, Kaimuki Superette, and Town (which has hosted everyone from Anthony Bourdain to President Obama)—are all located in Kaimuki, an under-the-radar residential neighborhood in Honolulu. Mahina & Sun’s, on the other hand, is inside a hotel in Waikiki, the center of tourist activity in Honolulu. But Kenney felt a connection with the spot from the very beginning.
“When I was first invited into this space by the owners, I was struck by this weird feeling that I had been here before,” says Kenney of the 1960s-era building. Later he discovered that the space had been a punk rock club back in the eighties that he used to frequent “as a rebel kid with a skateboard.”
As talks about opening a restaurant inside the new Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club progressed, Michelle Jaime, the hotel’s designer from The Vanguard Theory, showed Kenney her inspiration board for what the space could look like. There, in the lower right-hand corner, was a picture of a 1950s-era hula dancer with a hibiscus flower trucked behind her ear—and the dancer was Kenney’s mom. “It was pure coincidence, but it meant something to me,” says Kenney.
Kenney’s parents were well-known entertainers in mid-century Hawaii—his Dad was a Broadway crooner and his mom a well-known hula dancer. Growing up in Honolulu was as idyllic as it sounds, though different than the Honolulu his kids now experience. “It was a slower time. There weren’t many high rises or chain restaurants or stores in Hawaii yet,” remember Kenney. His challenge when he opened Mahina & Sun’s was to create a restaurant with the neighborhood vibes he grew up with, right in the middle of touristic-centric Waikiki.
He started by incorporating design details into the space that created personal connections: Hans Wegner wishbone chairs that reminded him of the ones he grew up with in his living room, lamps from local artist and personal friend Mark Chai that also hang at Kenney’s other restaurants, aloha-print fabric from the storied Tori Richard textile vault.
Then they tackled the food. By some estimates, Hawaii imports 90 percent of its food, but Kenney’s motto is “local first, organic whenever possible, with aloha always.” He wanted Mahina & Sun’s to be known for its fresh, local seafood and its family feast, a communal meal that centers around a whole local fish.
The day the restaurant finally opened, Kenney’s staff had a surprise in store: They unveiled a portrait of Kenney’s mother, painted by local artist Kamea Hadar, from the photo Kenney had originally seen on the designer’s inspiration board.
“I love that my mom greets everybody at the front of this restaurant,” says Kenney. “Maybe I’m just a hopeless romantic, but these connections make this place feel like home to me.”
Learn more about Mahina & Sun’s—and see our Family Feast party—in the video below.