The island of O’ahu will always be the place I think of as home, not only because my entire family lives there, but because it’s the place that raised me. In Hawai’i, we really are raised by the many cultures that come together there — it’s a plantation culture that, in many ways, continues to influence the ways we relate to each other there.
With a million ono (delicious!) places to eat in Honolulu and on the island in general, these are my top picks:
Tango Cafe :: Euro Bistro Local Style
My parents (who have exquisite taste) introduced me to Tango last year. I’ve only been for breakfast, but those breakfasts have been to die for. Pancakes are divine, but if you want something with more of a Hawaii twist, try the Loco Moco Eggs Benedict or the Fried Rice with Portuguese Sausage & Egg. And yes, they have Marimekko on the walls, which, in my opinion, makes it even more fabulous.
Town :: Organic Local Bistro
Kaimuki is a neighborhood of Honolulu that’s well-known for great eateries, and Town is my favorite. Their philosophy is what attracts people, the food is what keeps them coming back: “Local first, organic whenever possible, with Aloha always.” The menu changes daily to keep up with the freshest ingredients, but the burgers are divine and the apple-banana (small, tart banana) cream pie is heavenly.
Ailana :: Shave Ice
Shave ice is just what the name implies — people on the mainland call it “snow cone” but every snow cone I’ve had has had a different, harder consistency. These are fluffy and light, and the ice covers a scoop of ice cream and, if you’re feeling adventurous, a sweet red bean called azuki. Ailana makes their own syrups, which gives them incredible flavor. My favorite, the Strawberry Milk flavor, actually has strawberry seeds in the syrup! It’s a hole in the wall, but you’ll be glad you ventured out of Ala Moana for this.
Liliha Bakery :: Diner & Bakery
Liliha Bakery is a staple in Honolulu — it’s a place that my dad frequented as a teenager growing up in town, and it’s always been known as the place with the best cream puffs in the state. Come here for traditional island favorites like sweet bread French toast; Portuguese sausage and over easy eggs on rice; and beef curry.
Coffee Talk :: Coffee & Tea
Just a few blocks from Town, Coffee Talk is a regular hangout for many of the neighborhood’s residents. There’s something vaguely 90s about the place, but the people are great and you won’t be bothered if you sit down to read a book. They have a killer acai bowl and great, strong coffee.
Happy Days :: Chinese & Dim Sum
My sister got married inside Happy Day Chinese restaurant, but that’s not the only reason to love this place. The portions are huge and the dim sum is fresh, fresh, fresh. Most people don’t like to venture outside of Chinatown for dim sum, which means that you probably won’t have to wait in line to get a table. Tip: in Hawaii, we call char siu bao “manapua”.
Honolulu Academy of Art Cafe :: Sophisticated Casual
The Honolulu Academy of Art is one of my favorite places in Honolulu (as is its sister site, The Contemporary Museum), both for its beauty and its history. The cafe offers al fresco dining surrounded by gardens and sheltered by a giant Monkeypod tree. Food is simple — sandwiches and salads with the glam factor turned up a notch. Favorite: Market Salad (fresh Waimanalo greens, couscous, and golden curry chicken).
Wai’oli Tea Room :: Afternoon Tea + Sophisticated Casual
Don’t judge this place based on the website — it’s really one of the most beautiful spots on the island. Nestled into the base of a mountain in Mano’a Valley, the Wai’oli Tea Room is in a charming old house with lush gardens, stone fireplaces, and amazing food. I highly recommend coming for afternoon tea service, which is a full service English-style event. You might want to skip lunch that day.
Andy’s :: Very Casual
When my family used to come here when I was little, I’d order minestrone soup. In 80 degree weather. This, I think, was an indicator of the climate I wished to be in (Hello, London, Boston, Portland!). Andy’s is about the size of a shoe box, but the sandwiches are made with love, and somehow you can taste it in every bite. Or sip. This place has the best smoothies I’ve ever tasted in my life.
Pizza Bob’s :: Pizza…what else?
Pizza Bob’s is the place I’ve always gone either before or after hitting the beach in Hale’iwa. The pizza is delicious, but my favorite thing is definitely the Hale’iwa Veggie Salad. Their house dressing is the stuff of dreams. Don’t let the hot wait staff intimidate you — they’re always really nice, as surfers usually are.
Matsumoto’s :: Shave Ice
Everyone has been to Matsumoto’s, as documented by the many (fading) pictures on the walls. This is the most famous shave ice shop on the island, which is why there’s probably going to be a ridiculous line when you arrive. If the line is unbearable, Aoki’s (next door) is equally good. Just make sure to pick up some T-shirts from Matsumoto’s before leaving.
Coffee Gallery :: Coffee + Tea
All the beans at the Coffee Gallery are roasted by hand, and that labor of love is evident in the flavor of the coffee. Also a great stop for smoothies or bakery items, if you have a sweet tooth. Free Wi-Fi and hippie viewing.
Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck :: Food Truck
This place is literally world famous. Giovanni’s existed before food trucks were all the rage, and they’ll be around as long as people are coming to the North Shore. The shrimp comes in three flavors: garlic, hot & spicy, and lemon butter. Served over “two scoops rice” plate lunch-style. Fresh fresh fresh.
Phuket Thai :: Thai
I try to like other Thai restaurants, I really do. The thing is, they just don’t compare to Phuket Thai. At Phuket Thai, everything is really fresh and not overly oily. The Phuket Salad is topped with a delicious, mysterious salad dressing that I dare not attempt to make myself. Everything here is amazing, though I’ve only been to the Mililani location so I can’t vouch for the other ones.
Boots & Kimo’s :: Homestyle
Banana pancakes topped with a whipped vanilla/butter/cream sauce and a sprinkling of macadamia nuts. Nuff said.
Get here early — you technically can’t buy anything until the horn blows at 7:15, crazy people (that’s you, Mom & Dad) get here around 6:45am and put dibs on the produce they want. This is the best place to get everything from fresh lettuce to avocados to papayas. You can also get delicious baked goods, spam musubi, and other local goodies. My favorites: strawberry mochi, fresh guava juice, and the most amazing jams you’ve ever tasted.
A tiny boutique (get it?) carrying small independent lines, including the local line Fighting Eel. There are often really good sales, and the woman who owns the shop is about as nice as they come. Always on my must visit list when I’m home.
When I was little, Cinnamon Girl was just a kiosk owned by a woman who designed cute sun dresses. Now, the line has five storefronts and it’s a household name in the islands. The dresses are easy and sweet, with tiny versions for little princesses.
Momi Chee fell in love with yoga after college and fused this newfound passion with a love of design to create her yoga wear line, Lily Lotus. These aren’t clothes you just wear to the gym and change out of right away — they’re things you’ll want to live in all day long. Lily Lotus also carries the wonderful Vanilla Moon line of jewelry, of which you’ll want every single delicate piece in stock.
Travel to Japan without leaving Hawaii.