Throughout its centuries-long history, Lahaina has been many things to many people: a royal residence, a missionary post, a hard-partying harbor town, a tourist trap. For some, it was simply home.
The fire that reduced the historic town to ash on August 8, 2023 was unsparing. It took the lives and livelihoods of so many of our community members. Around 50 restaurants went up in smoke that day. As the former dining editor for Maui Nō Ka ‘Oi magazine, I can name 30 without even trying. It’s an unfathomable loss for the industry — one that feels particularly cruel after everyone worked so hard to survive the pandemic.
For many, it’s still too early to talk about rebuilding. Even apart from the grief and mourning that still hangs in the air, on a very practical and tangible level, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates it will take months just to clear away the literal toxic debris. Before the fire, Lahaina’s world-famous Front Street was little more than a patchwork of wooden shacks held together by layers of paint, cooking grease, crusty sea salt, banana sap, and gossip. Some restaurants will certainly reopen in new locations, but that unique patina that made the place so compelling is gone.
And some restaurants will never reopen, including Nagasako Okazuya Deli, the oldest and arguably most beloved eatery in Lahaina. For 120-plus years, the Nagasako family served the West Maui community, and it started with Mitsuzo Nagasako, who opened a candy store on the corner of Front Street and Lahainaluna Road in the early 1900s. With each successive generation the business evolved — into a supermarket, then a grocery, and finally an okazuya, or deli. Lahainaluna boarding students crowded the okazuya counter before school each day to stock up on the deli’s special Spam musubi: meat in the middle, fried in teriyaki sauce. Families stopped by before and after the beach for shoyu chicken and breaded teriyaki steak. A week after the fire, the Nagasakos announced through a heartfelt post featuring photos of all six generations of the family that they would not reopen. This is one of the many threads to Lahaina’s past that has now been lost.
The Pioneer Inn was Lahaina’s first hotel, built in 1901. Over the years it housed a saloon, stage, and movie theater. Most recently it was home to Papa‘aina, chef Lee Anne Wong’s wharf-side restaurant. Originally from New York, Wong came to Maui by way of Honolulu. She learned to cook Hawai‘i-style cuisine at Koko Head Café, her brunch spot in Honolulu’s Kaimukī, and perfected it at Papa‘aina, where she served breakfast ramen and mapo tofu loco mocos. A few years ago, Wong hosted a dumpling workshop in the Inn’s courtyard, drawing lessons from her cookbook, Dumplings All Day Wong. With her son on her hip, she taught us to roll and pinch our dough into crescents and dip them into boiling broth, much as local cooks had for the past 100-plus years. Whether or not Papa‘aina will ever reopen is unknown — right now, Wong is focusing on relief efforts for the thousands of displaced people.
Not long ago, at Kimo’s Maui, I had lunch with Paris-born artist Guy Buffet, who had immortalized the Front Street restaurant in a painting that captures the euphoria of dining there on the waterfront. When Rob Thibaut and Sandy Saxten opened Kimo’s in 1977, it was the beginning of their T S Restaurants empire, which now includes Dukes Waikīkī, Hula Grill, and Leilani’s on the Beach, among others. A trip to Maui was hardly complete without tackling a mammoth slice of Hula Pie at sunset while surfers caught the last ankle biters of the day at Breakwall. The owners have already pledged to rebuild their landmark restaurant.
Two doors down from Kimo’s, passersby could peek through a porthole into the Lahaina Yacht Club. Lahaina’s second-oldest restaurant was invite-only — but more in the piratical than prissy sense. Before transpacific sailor Floyd Christenson opened the beloved Mama’s Fish House in Kū‘au, he and a few other old salts founded the mariner’s club in 1965. They transformed a Front Street laundry into a clubhouse and contracted Hawaiian artist Sam Ka‘ai to design the club’s pennant, or burgee: a white whale on red backing. Colorful burgees from yacht clubs worldwide hung over the open-air dining room, where commodores traded navigational tips and tossed back shots of Old Lahaina Rum. If you rang the ship’s bell, you were buying the whole restaurant a round.
Across Honoapi‘ilani Highway, the Sly Mongoose boasted no view whatsoever — instead, Maui’s oldest dive bar advertised air-conditioning. Since 1977, “the Goose” had lured patrons indoors with its jukebox, goldfish crackers, and happy hour featuring $2 Jager Spice and “free beer tomorrow.”
These are only a fraction of the restaurants lost; entire chapters could be written about Lahaina Grill, Pacific’o, Feast at Lele, and Fleetwood’s on Front Street, where the Mad Bagpiper serenaded the setting sun on the rooftop every night. Restaurants weren’t the only places to find sustenance in Lahaina, either. There were food trucks, farmer’s markets, and even temples that served specialty snacks. During Chinese New Year, the Wo Hing museum offered crispy gau gee samples and moon cakes imported from Hong Kong. During the summer Obon festival, Lahaina Hongwanji and Jodo Mission hosted nighttime dances with chow fun booths. The outdoor kitchen at Jodo Mission overlooked the ‘Au‘au Channel and the steam from the boiling noodles wafted out to sea along with lanterns to remember the dead.
Lahaina old-timers will remember the little mango stand across from 505 Front Street. For years a local woman sold pickled mango there in little plastic sacks. Kids biked over after baseball games for bags of mango and sodas. In the summer, Lahaina’s mango trees were laden with the orbs of fruit. And before there were mangos, there were ‘ulu, or breadfruit, groves. Lahaina’s ancient name, Malu ‘Ulu O Lele, refers to the ‘ulu trees that once grew so thick you could walk for miles beneath their shade. Perhaps those trees will grow again.
As enormous as this disaster was, the community’s response was even greater. The day after the fire, Maui’s chefs sprang into action. The team of the grassroots project Chef Hui mobilized at the UHMC Culinary Arts campus to do what they do best: feed and nourish their community. In the first six days, they served over 50,000 hot meals to survivors of the fire. Despite losing her Maui restaurant, Wong has been at the campus every day plating up bentos, along with Isaac Bancaco, who lost both his home and his workplace at Pacific’o. Jojo Vasquez lost his home, too, and was forced to temporarily close Fond, his restaurant in Nāpili. That didn’t stop him from messaging his Chef Hui colleagues: “Tag me in coach, I stay ready.” Joey Macadangdang turned his restaurant, Joey’s Kitchen in Nāpili, into an emergency shelter the night of the fire and has been cooking for his displaced neighbors every day since.
Hawai‘i’s restaurant owners and workers are a tight-knit crew, battle-tested and resilient. Long before this fire stretched them thin, Maui’s restaurateurs, chefs, and servers were always at the island’s innumerable charity events with knives and generators ready. I had often wondered how they kept their doors open while donating food and staff to all these causes. Now is our chance to repay them for their decades of nourishment and for helping to knit together Lahaina’s fabric — layers of history laid down by Native Hawaiians, whalers, missionaries, plantation laborers, locals, transplants, and tourists to create the Lahaina in which we lived, loved, and dined.
Shannon Wianecki is a Hawai‘i-based writer and editor who specializes in natural history, culture, and travel.