With its flatscreens blaring ESPN, worn booths occasionally patched with duct tape, and copious beer paraphernalia, Home Bar & Grill is the quintessential sports bar, like one you would see anywhere in the U.S. The clientele is mainly blue-collar — after a long day of work, you’ll almost always see construction workers or off-duty line cooks having drinks during happy hour. The lights are hard fluorescence, the room is loud, and the bathrooms have a piece of paper taped over the urinals asking customers to please only flush once. Like most American sports bars, Home Bar reps a football team — in this case, the Seahawks, one of maybe three West Coast football teams locals support — and is decorated accordingly.
Unlike most American sports bars, Home Bar is mostly frequented by people of Asian/Pacific Islander descent. And the menu of bar snacks is one of the best examples of what people from Hawai‘i call local food: seared ‘ahi sashimi, Parmesan truffle fries with pepperoni chips, togarashi-spiced chicken wings, chilled tofu, chicken gizzards, and crinkle fries. The ‘ahi poke is marinated in shoyu with onions, scallions and limu (seaweed). And it’s served the way it’s supposed to be eaten: as a snack for a group of friends, shared over a beer or three. It was never a dish that you gorge on over rice alone at your desk as a salady alternative to a Hot Pocket. Whatever — enjoy your poke bowls, I guess.
Hawai‘i is the only state with a non-white majority, but everyone is welcome at Home Bar (though snobby mainland attitudes are not). Pretty much everyone in Hawai‘i speaks with some degree of a Hawai‘i accent (or in Hawaiian pidgin English) and everyone eats the local cuisine, no matter what the color of their skin is. I don’t think it’s possible to understand the local culture of Hawai‘i without experiencing it, and I don’t think there’s a better place to do that than Home Bar.
I grew up in Hawai‘i, my family’s been there since the 1800s, and I quickly learned that people from the mainland all have preconceived notions about my home — and they’re almost always wrong. As a kid I remember travelling to a ranch in Jackson, Wyoming, and other kids asking me if I lived in a little grass shack or if I had ever been in America before. Sadly, there are precious few habitable little grass shacks in Hawai‘i (thanks, Industrial Revolution) and Hawai‘i has been occupied by the United States since the 1800s (but that’s a whole other issue).
Island paradise? Sure, it can be. Outsiders believe life there is one endless, luxurious beach day — but it’s not this way for the locals. Honolulu, on O‘ahu, is just like any other major city in America: the same overcrowding, insane traffic, and suburban sprawl. Some 1.4 million people live in the great state of Hawai‘i, and of that, roughly a million people are squeezed onto O‘ahu — an island that you can drive around the circumference of in about two hours. There are class differences and racial tensions. Homelessness is a major issue, and there are divisive policies that separate pretty much everyone. And much like any other city, it is food that brings Honolulu together.
What sets Hawai‘i apart — as a state and as a culinary force — is the richness of cultural exchange between the many different immigrant groups that have been living around each other for centuries. It’s not just that the state has great Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Hawaiian, and Filipino cuisines — they’ve also been mixed with classic, maximalist Americana, the results of which have never been on better display than at Home Bar.
To experience pan-Asian cuisine on steroids, start with their kimchi fried rice. The base is Korean, but the execution is distinctly fusion: peas, Portuguese sausage (linguica), a lot of garlic, and a few over-easy eggs on top. Next, get the kalbi fried noodles, sliced short ribs served on the bone marinated in shoyu and sugar over Japanese-style fried saimin noodles. And the tater nachos, listed on the menu as “Because Chris ‘The Situation’ Tai Wanted It,” are a magnificent pile of tots drowned in nacho cheese, olives, scallions and jalapenos, enough to make Guy Fieri swoon. The plates are enormous; in Hawai‘i, it’s like we overcompensate for the size of our island with the portions of food we eat. It might not be sustainable but it sure is a lot of fun.
The liquor to drink in Hawai‘i is Crown Royal. Locals don’t really drink mai tais and tiki drinks — we’re here for that 80-proof Canadian whisky, available in every local bar. And although craft beers are becoming more and more popular in Hawai‘i, this is a state where ordering a Blue Moon or a Stella Artois is considered a classy move and Heinekens will always reign supreme. The ratio to green bottles to non-green bottles in Honolulu’s recycling plants must rival the ratio of Priuses to non-Priuses on any given L.A. freeway — it’s embedded in Honolulu’s aesthetic.
There isn’t a lot of nightlife in Hawai‘i, and Home Bar is where many locals come to have fun at night. Most people show up in shorts and flip-flops, which is acceptable in restaurants across the island (we call them slippers in Hawai‘i — saying flip-flops is a dead giveaway you’re not from the islands). Locals of a certain age are guaranteed to see old friends and acquaintances, and definitely went to high school with at least one of the servers. In a corner, newly 21-year-old guys play darts in snapback hats while working up the courage to talk to the people they’re crushing on from across the room, as throwback ’90s hits like “Return of the Mack” blast on the sound system.
People can find the same food items and a similar vibe at the nearby and better-known Side Street Inn, but it’s not the same. Home Bar is louder in every way possible, from the actual chatter to the way food is prepared: more garlic, more salt. Home Bar grinds both high and low culture down to their base essentials and plates them up without caring about the differences — because at Home Bar, as in Hawai‘i, the differences are beside the point.
Sundays are a holy day with football on all of the screens across the bar — and a breakfast menu because football starts at 7 a.m. Hawai‘i time. I’ve never woken up that early on the weekends — but watching the second half of the “afternoon” games around noon, hung over as hell and snacking on five different breakfast plates engineered to pack as much umami as possible? It’s the best way to watch a game in Hawai‘i. Home Bar is unique in how ordinary — how American — it is. Every trope from every great sports bar is checked off here. But it’s the local spin that pushes Home Bar over the top. It’s the grimy atmosphere juxtaposed with the outrageously conceived foods and rowdy group of people. For many, Home Bar & Grill is just that — it’s home.
Scotty Kan is a shooter / editor at Eater.
Kent Nishimura is a photographer based in Honolulu and Los Angeles.