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A Chef’s Guide to Honolulu

Shave ice, sushi, gut-busting brunch, and more

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Honolulu — Hawaii’s capital and most populated city — has a booming food scene, one filled with buzzy restaurants, flavorful dishes, cheap eats, and pedigreed chefs. All of those pedigreed chefs are eating out, too, and where they dine is often a predictor of where you want to be going.

Chris Kajioka, a Honolulu native and chef/owner of Senia (one of Eater’s most anticipated restaurant openings of the year), helped curate this list to include the late-night hangs, morning meals, and drinks he and his industry friends crave most during their time off. Spam, poke, and shave ice are only entry points into a cuisine with a long history and lots of influences: Here, you'll also find poi, lomi lomi, and other intensely regional favorites.

That’s what the chefs are eating, and the following nine places reflect Kajioka and his colleagues’ picks for the best places where chefs hang out in Honolulu, with expert tips on what to expect, what to order, and generally how to succeed at dining there. Start tackling the island with these nine spots, and you’ll quickly get to the heart of this island's cuisine.

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Note: Restaurants on this map are listed geographically.

Ethel’s Grill

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The deal: You won’t encounter many tourists at Ethel’s Grill, a Japanese and Okinawan diner with breakfast, plate lunch, hamburgers, and more. Don’t get lost in all the typical diner fare, though, and head straight for the tataki sashimi, or lightly seared ahi tuna marinated in garlic shoyu sauce. Ethel’s is family-owned, no frills, and tiny, but the food is incredibly flavorful and the service just as friendly. Cash only.Chris’s tips: "The spirit of Ethel’s comes from its owners. The owner’s daughter and her husband recently took over, but Robert, the son-in-law, is a trained chef and worked for Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong. So it’s not like they’re just sons and daughters working for their parents; they are amazing chefs keeping up the tradition, which I think is really important. I always get the tuna tataki and mochika chicken."

Stefanie Tuder

Bar Leather Apron

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The deal: Modeled after Tokyo's speakeasy-style whiskey bars, Bar Leather Apron is a refined hideaway that boasts the state’s largest collection of brown liquor. Owners Tom Park and Justin Park only allow in the same number of people as there are seats, so be sure to make a reservation before you go for easy access to the classic cocktails (and signature takes, like the matcha Old Fashioned) that lie inside.Chris’s tips: "I very rarely go out to drink, but when I do, it’s always here. I like watching the owners work; they’re such nice guys. Bars like this can become pretentious, but they just limit the number of people for the craft. And there’s no dress code, so you can come in however you want. I always start with the shiso highball, because it’s really refreshing, and then follow that up with the lilikoi Old Fashioned, because it has a nice tartness that breaks up how Old Fashioneds tend to be a little sweet."

Foodland Farms

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The deal: If there’s one thing you must eat in Hawaii, it’s poke, the marinated raw fish dish that’s currently sweeping the nation. And if you want to eat poke like a local, then grocery store poke is the way to go, especially from Foodland Farms. There are several locations, but this specific store was recently remodeled, so it’s particularly nice. Choose from an entire poke bar with different styles and get it over rice or just in a container, and most likely for under $8.Chris’s tips: "I like to keep poke simple, so I just go for the traditional variety. But this is where I always go for the dish."

Kyung’s Seafood

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The deal: If you want some late-night food in Honolulu — as chefs who work late often do — then Kyung’s is the spot, as it’s open until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, two hours later than most places in the city. The owner runs a seafood distribution company during the day, and then that very-fresh product is deployed in dishes at the restaurant at night. It has a Korean bent, so there are also galbi short ribs and meat junM/em> (thinly-sliced beef dipped in egg batter and fried), as well as super-fresh sashimi and poke. Chris’s tips: "Kyung’s definitely has a hole-in-the-wall appearance, but the quality of the product is really good. And the owner is so nice and always ends up sending extra food and eventually joining us for a drink."

Sushi Izakaya Gaku

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The deal: There are plenty of izakayas around Honolulu, but chefs favor Gaku. Order whatever sushi is in season, plus the negihama tartare, or chopped hamachi with green onions, roe, quail egg yolk, and toasted nori, as well as the tako basil, which is steamed octopus with basil leaf, tomato, and soy rice vinaigrette. And be sure to ask about off-menu items, such as bone chips, or fried fish skeleton. Bring friends so you can taste a lot, but do be prepared to pay a pretty penny, as the small dishes add up quickly.Chris’s tips: "I hesitate to even tell people about this place, since it’s so small and already too crowded for me to go as much as I like. But I take everybody here when they visit. My favorite dish in the world is their ikura sushi. The way they cure the salmon roe is mind blowing, using a heavily bonito-rich dashi, so it’s very smoky. Salmon roe is kind of slimy and salty in its raw form, but the cure firms up the roe so it has a pop to it and it soaks up all that dashi. I always get two orders (four pieces) just for myself."

Waiola Shave Ice

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The deal: Shave ice — sort of like a snow cone but with shaved, not crushed, ice — abounds in Hawaii, and there are plenty of places to grab a cup. But not all shave ice is created equal, and locals say Waiola’s is the thinnest, with the syrups and even the mochi are made in house. There’s no wrong course here; pick as you please from the myriad flavors like passion fruit, green tea, haupia, and much more.Chris’s tips: "Make sure you go to the original location (listed here) for the most authentic experience."

Stefanie Tuder

Sushi Sho

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The deal: Chef Nakazawa-san owns the original and acclaimed Sushi Sho in Tokyo, and has recently moved to Hawaii to bring the beloved restaurant to America. He’s taking advantage of the new product by incorporating Hawaiian influences into his sushi, like by using local fish and ingredients (poi, pineapple) when it makes sense. There are only two nightly seatings at a 10-person counter, so reservations are a must.Chris’s tips: "It’s amazing that chef Nakazawa-san is here in Hawaii: I hope people understand how much of a legend he is. He’s trying to use a lot of local fish, which to me is exciting because he’s not just sticking to what he knows. He told me this is a huge challenge for him because he doesn’t have the same resources as he does in Tokyo, so that’s pretty ballsy. And he’s still providing a world-class experience, in my opinion."

Koko Head Cafe

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The deal: "Brunch" is an understatement for the meal served at Koko Head Cafe, which goes far beyond the typical eggs Benedict and pancakes. Chef Lee Anne Wong created a brunch wonderland with comforting, familiar dishes that pull in influences from Hawaii and Asia primarily, resulting in plates like breakfast congee with bacon, Portuguese sausage, heritage ham, soft poached egg, cheddar cheese, scallions, and a cinnamon-bacon crouton. Go very, very hungry.Chris’s tips: "Koko Head is a very original, very Hawaiian take on brunch. The chef is a great friend with a generous spirit, which everyone experiences by never leaving hungry. I’m usually good for the day after eating here. I always get the Japanese rusk bread to start, which is like a Japanese white bread caramelized with sugar and topped with seasonal fruit and macadamia yogurt. Plus the fried poke omelet and the salty-sweet cornflake French toast."

The Food Company

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The deal: While technically not in Honolulu, the Food Company gets a pass thanks to the quality of its food. That food is Hawaiian, but firmly embraces old-school, French techniques that results in dishes like langoustine and wild mushroom risotto with kahuku corn, tatsoi, and baby tomatoes. Don’t be wary of its strip mall digs, and do bring your own alcohol.Chris’s tips: "Food Company is just a regular restaurant, but I think everything the owner makes is excellent. I had a meal there last year that was the best meal I’ve ever had in Hawaii. And the chef doesn’t even have a gas stove — he’s cooking all this on an electric stove, like a house stove. I’m blown away by what comes out of his kitchen with those limitations. I always order a pasta, or whatever preparation they have of red snapper."

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Ethel’s Grill

Stefanie Tuder

The deal: You won’t encounter many tourists at Ethel’s Grill, a Japanese and Okinawan diner with breakfast, plate lunch, hamburgers, and more. Don’t get lost in all the typical diner fare, though, and head straight for the tataki sashimi, or lightly seared ahi tuna marinated in garlic shoyu sauce. Ethel’s is family-owned, no frills, and tiny, but the food is incredibly flavorful and the service just as friendly. Cash only.Chris’s tips: "The spirit of Ethel’s comes from its owners. The owner’s daughter and her husband recently took over, but Robert, the son-in-law, is a trained chef and worked for Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong. So it’s not like they’re just sons and daughters working for their parents; they are amazing chefs keeping up the tradition, which I think is really important. I always get the tuna tataki and mochika chicken."

Stefanie Tuder

Bar Leather Apron

The deal: Modeled after Tokyo's speakeasy-style whiskey bars, Bar Leather Apron is a refined hideaway that boasts the state’s largest collection of brown liquor. Owners Tom Park and Justin Park only allow in the same number of people as there are seats, so be sure to make a reservation before you go for easy access to the classic cocktails (and signature takes, like the matcha Old Fashioned) that lie inside.Chris’s tips: "I very rarely go out to drink, but when I do, it’s always here. I like watching the owners work; they’re such nice guys. Bars like this can become pretentious, but they just limit the number of people for the craft. And there’s no dress code, so you can come in however you want. I always start with the shiso highball, because it’s really refreshing, and then follow that up with the lilikoi Old Fashioned, because it has a nice tartness that breaks up how Old Fashioneds tend to be a little sweet."

Foodland Farms

The deal: If there’s one thing you must eat in Hawaii, it’s poke, the marinated raw fish dish that’s currently sweeping the nation. And if you want to eat poke like a local, then grocery store poke is the way to go, especially from Foodland Farms. There are several locations, but this specific store was recently remodeled, so it’s particularly nice. Choose from an entire poke bar with different styles and get it over rice or just in a container, and most likely for under $8.Chris’s tips: "I like to keep poke simple, so I just go for the traditional variety. But this is where I always go for the dish."

Kyung’s Seafood

The deal: If you want some late-night food in Honolulu — as chefs who work late often do — then Kyung’s is the spot, as it’s open until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, two hours later than most places in the city. The owner runs a seafood distribution company during the day, and then that very-fresh product is deployed in dishes at the restaurant at night. It has a Korean bent, so there are also galbi short ribs and meat junM/em> (thinly-sliced beef dipped in egg batter and fried), as well as super-fresh sashimi and poke. Chris’s tips: "Kyung’s definitely has a hole-in-the-wall appearance, but the quality of the product is really good. And the owner is so nice and always ends up sending extra food and eventually joining us for a drink."

Sushi Izakaya Gaku

The deal: There are plenty of izakayas around Honolulu, but chefs favor Gaku. Order whatever sushi is in season, plus the negihama tartare, or chopped hamachi with green onions, roe, quail egg yolk, and toasted nori, as well as the tako basil, which is steamed octopus with basil leaf, tomato, and soy rice vinaigrette. And be sure to ask about off-menu items, such as bone chips, or fried fish skeleton. Bring friends so you can taste a lot, but do be prepared to pay a pretty penny, as the small dishes add up quickly.Chris’s tips: "I hesitate to even tell people about this place, since it’s so small and already too crowded for me to go as much as I like. But I take everybody here when they visit. My favorite dish in the world is their ikura sushi. The way they cure the salmon roe is mind blowing, using a heavily bonito-rich dashi, so it’s very smoky. Salmon roe is kind of slimy and salty in its raw form, but the cure firms up the roe so it has a pop to it and it soaks up all that dashi. I always get two orders (four pieces) just for myself."

Waiola Shave Ice

Stefanie Tuder

The deal: Shave ice — sort of like a snow cone but with shaved, not crushed, ice — abounds in Hawaii, and there are plenty of places to grab a cup. But not all shave ice is created equal, and locals say Waiola’s is the thinnest, with the syrups and even the mochi are made in house. There’s no wrong course here; pick as you please from the myriad flavors like passion fruit, green tea, haupia, and much more.Chris’s tips: "Make sure you go to the original location (listed here) for the most authentic experience."

Stefanie Tuder

Sushi Sho

The deal: Chef Nakazawa-san owns the original and acclaimed Sushi Sho in Tokyo, and has recently moved to Hawaii to bring the beloved restaurant to America. He’s taking advantage of the new product by incorporating Hawaiian influences into his sushi, like by using local fish and ingredients (poi, pineapple) when it makes sense. There are only two nightly seatings at a 10-person counter, so reservations are a must.Chris’s tips: "It’s amazing that chef Nakazawa-san is here in Hawaii: I hope people understand how much of a legend he is. He’s trying to use a lot of local fish, which to me is exciting because he’s not just sticking to what he knows. He told me this is a huge challenge for him because he doesn’t have the same resources as he does in Tokyo, so that’s pretty ballsy. And he’s still providing a world-class experience, in my opinion."

Koko Head Cafe

The deal: "Brunch" is an understatement for the meal served at Koko Head Cafe, which goes far beyond the typical eggs Benedict and pancakes. Chef Lee Anne Wong created a brunch wonderland with comforting, familiar dishes that pull in influences from Hawaii and Asia primarily, resulting in plates like breakfast congee with bacon, Portuguese sausage, heritage ham, soft poached egg, cheddar cheese, scallions, and a cinnamon-bacon crouton. Go very, very hungry.Chris’s tips: "Koko Head is a very original, very Hawaiian take on brunch. The chef is a great friend with a generous spirit, which everyone experiences by never leaving hungry. I’m usually good for the day after eating here. I always get the Japanese rusk bread to start, which is like a Japanese white bread caramelized with sugar and topped with seasonal fruit and macadamia yogurt. Plus the fried poke omelet and the salty-sweet cornflake French toast."

The Food Company

The deal: While technically not in Honolulu, the Food Company gets a pass thanks to the quality of its food. That food is Hawaiian, but firmly embraces old-school, French techniques that results in dishes like langoustine and wild mushroom risotto with kahuku corn, tatsoi, and baby tomatoes. Don’t be wary of its strip mall digs, and do bring your own alcohol.Chris’s tips: "Food Company is just a regular restaurant, but I think everything the owner makes is excellent. I had a meal there last year that was the best meal I’ve ever had in Hawaii. And the chef doesn’t even have a gas stove — he’s cooking all this on an electric stove, like a house stove. I’m blown away by what comes out of his kitchen with those limitations. I always order a pasta, or whatever preparation they have of red snapper."

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