It wasn’t long after opening in downtown Calgary in 1955 that Hy’s Steakhouse became synonymous with Alberta food culture. The province’s cattle farms are known worldwide for the quality of their meat, accounting for half of Canada’s beef production; they’re a major part of the area’s agricultural industry and broader culture. The late Hy Aisenstat made his restaurant into a midcentury nexus for that carnivorous culture.
Stiff-collared businessmen flocked to Hy’s for lunch meetings and happy hours, making deals from thickly upholstered chairs in the low-lit, wood-paneled dining room. Underneath an ornate canopy, the restaurant’s chef cooked steak after steak on a chalice-shaped grill, a focal point verging on a shrine.
The restaurant eventually expanded with locations in Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Whistler, and beef is still a big deal in Alberta. But Calgary’s dining scene has moved on in the past 15 years, evolving beyond its cow town reputation — and the luxurious trappings of machismo that defined Hy’s. The vibe is completely different at newer icons of the Calgary dining scene like River Café, which opened in the ’90s, where the kitchen’s local, sustainable ethos is echoed in a naturalist aesthetic of tall windows, wiry farmhouse chairs, and an expansive patio. In the decades that have followed, places like Alloy (decorative cherry blossoms, pink walls), Model Milk (airy, multilevel dining areas), and Sukiyaki House (sushi counter displaying seafood flown in from Japan) — which offer experiences devoid of steak and ornate dark wood — have continued to change what diners expect of fine dining.
Though special occasions bring guests back to Hy’s for tableside steak Diane prepared by servers in butcher jackets, the Calgary restaurant has had to keep up with the times with a new look. After shuttering following a final New Year’s Eve in 2006 when its lease ended, the restaurant returned eight years later in the downtown core as a “contemporary” steakhouse. Gone are the library-esque rooms, replaced by a sleek, mostly black interior, modernist light fixtures, double-height plush banquettes, a glass-enclosed prep area, and a few TVs. The only evidence of the old vibe is an accent wall in the lounge covered with framed vintage photographs and newspaper clippings.
But one location, much farther west, has remained stubbornly true to Aisenstat’s original vision: Hy’s Steak House in Waikīkī, Hawai‘i.
Originally opened in 1976 as a partnership between Aisenstat and restaurateur Rod Gardiner, the tropical location of the chain followed the initial success of another co-owned business venture, Kobe Japanese Steak House, also in Waikīkī, which closed in 2020. (The restaurateurs operated both Hy’s and Kobe in Los Angeles and Palm Springs, respectively, as well.) According to Aisenstat’s son, Hy’s current president and CEO, Neil Aisenstat, Hy Aisenstat simply loved Honolulu, as popular a travel destination for families in British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan as the mainland U.S.
Like the Canadian Hy’s, the Hawai‘i location offers a taste of yesteryear, with a variety of steaks, midcentury classics, and dishes prepared tableside. The options include nods to local tastes and ingredients: a sashimi platter, a Coco Aloha cocktail, meat cooked over local kiawe wood. In the 1970s, the menus cross-pollinated; a Canadian menu from the time advertised grilled mahimahi as a “superb Hawaiian fish, treasured by gourmets the world over.”
The design of the Hawai‘i location is striking; it has avoided the updates that diluted the Canadian locations. Today the Honolulu restaurant — designed by Arthur Fishman, also behind the original Calgary and Vancouver locations — appears charmingly frozen in time. It still sits at its original home, at the base of the Waikiki Park Heights Hotel, and the interior is largely unchanged.
“The phrase ‘time capsule’ is a wonderful way to describe the interior of Hy’s,” says Bob Panter, the restaurant’s longest-running employee, who started in 1977 as a busser and now works as a guest relations manager. “Intricate woodwork from the Baldwin Estate in Philadelphia lines our walls. A Tiffany stained glass ceiling from a chapel in Baltimore, Maryland, illuminates one of our dining rooms. Shelves of antique books accent various corner booth seatings.”
Though Hawai‘i does have its own long history of cattle ranching culture — influenced more by Mexican vaqueros than by the American West — by the 1970s, Honolulu was a leisure-focused town, where the cliched idea of a laid-back, tropical paradise inspired tourist-facing businesses. The Hy’s concept might seem anachronistic in that atmosphere. Far from the culture that birthed the brand originally, it’s striking that the restaurant found long-term success with its dark wood, throwback masculine vibes, and meaty excess.
While the steakhouse did initially appeal to mainland tourists craving something familiar in a far-off place, it was locals who made it a stalwart of the dining scene. “When it first opened, it was prominently serving tourists, as you would expect from a new business. However, as locals slowly discovered Hy’s, they fell in love with the ambience and service,” Panter says. “They kept coming back and sharing their stories with family and friends. In turn, they would go and experience Hy’s for themselves, and the cycle continued. I’ve watched generations come through these doors.”
Panter explains that the restaurant’s owners have changed over time, but the aesthetic has remained intact. In the early 1980s, Gardiner and Japan-based restaurant owner Yoshitaro Kawakami bought Aisenstat out of his operating shares, and in 1992 purchased the restaurant entirely. Although the transition could have signaled change, none came. Kawakami had his own reasons for keeping Hy’s as it was.
“We’ve seen a constant flow of Asian tourists, [but when Kawakami purchased the restaurant], our Asian tourist base grew,” explains Panter. “The interior of Hy’s is so different from what’s found in Asia.” The Japan-based G.Lion Group took over from Kawakami in 2011 and maintained course, even using Hy’s as inspiration for the group’s Akarenga Steak House in Osaka, Japan.
Martha Cheng, a regular Eater contributor (and sometimes editor) in Honolulu, argues that locals also applaud Hy’s for its longevity. Age itself has almost become the restaurant’s raison d’etre over time.
“I think Hawai‘i is particularly good at preserving the old. Hy’s isn’t the only example of a business that’s frozen in time in Hawai‘i while elsewhere they modernize,” Cheng says, pointing to century-old mochi shop Nisshodo Candy Store and other enduring storefronts. “There’s such an affinity to [the original incarnation of these stores]. Even in the case of Long’s Drugs, while the rest of the country’s locations are now CVS, ours is still called Long’s.”
She adds that North Americans who don’t call Hawai‘i home seem to forget that people actually live in Honolulu and Waikīkī. So while Hy’s doesn’t necessarily fit a visitor’s idea of dining in Hawai‘i, local residents embrace it as a long-standing part of the community, just as much as poke shops and diners.
Cheng also cites the effect of Japanese tourism, especially following the restaurant’s 2011 acquisition. “The Japanese are also good at preserving nostalgia,” says Cheng. “For Japanese tourists, Hawai‘i isn’t just a ‘beach paradise.’ I think the culture here is also a draw, and food is a big part of that.”
Though the evolutionary branches between the Waikīkī and Canadian locations have spread apart in the decades since the businesses separated, Neil Aisenstat loves the opportunity to visit the Hawai‘i restaurant. “We’ve definitely evolved, and I guess looking at Hy’s in Hawai‘i, it has not been necessary for them,” he says. Whenever he gets the chance to visit the Hawai‘i steakhouse, he looks forward to menu items that Canadian locations have cycled out over time, especially the tableside cherries jubilee (currently off the menu due to supply chain issues).
Newer steakhouses across North America — Chicago’s Trivoli Tavern, Born and Raised in San Diego, Vancouver’s Elisa — emulate the midcentury glamour of places like Hy’s. This homage can act as a boon to those few original restaurants that have managed to hold out through decades of trends and consumer shifts. “It’s like the House of Prime Rib in San Francisco, where I’m from. Growing up, you could just walk in without a reservation. Now, it’s one of the hardest tables to get in town,” says Cheng.
Diners seek to recapture the type of dining opulence that has become rarer in the decades since the heyday of Calgary’s original Hy’s. What’s old is new again. But it’s ironic for a restaurant like Hy’s Waikīkī, which originally set travelers from the mainland at ease with familiar food and ambience, to become an exotic experience for modern diners. This is especially true for customers visiting from Canada, who recognize a familiar name and receive an entirely different experience from that of the contemporary chain back home. It’s yet another reason, in a long line of reasons over the years, for Hy’s Waikīkī to keep things the same.
Dan Clapson is a columnist for The Globe and Mail and a culinary expert on many Canadian television and radio programs. He is the co-owner of Calgary’s The Prairie Emporium, and most recently, a No. 1 bestselling Canadian author following the release of his debut cookbook Prairie in late summer 2023.