By Wayne Harada
With Chai’s Island Bistro closing New Year’s Eve — after 14 years at the Aloha Tower Marketplace — it’s time to bid a fond aloha to chef Chai Chaowasaree and his iconic restaurant.
Five reasons I’ll miss Chai’s — join me in a hearty round of applause for a job well done:
1 — The food has been iconic, daring, delicious — beautiful to look at, satisfying to the taste buds — with sauces and spices that were never dull. No wonder Hawaiian Airlines enlisted Chai to upgrade the inflight dining experience.
2 — Chai’s has been an incredible supporter of Island music from the opening — till the closing. Hapa was the first act featured there; so appropriately, Barry Flanagan (founder of Hapa) will be the final “star” attraction on New Year’s Eve. Chai’s gave work to so many troupers, then and now, from The Brothers Cazimero to Robert Cazimero as a soloist, with a melodious parade featuring the likes of Melveen Leed, Danny Couch, Nohelani Cypriano, Jerry Santos, and on and on and on. It’s been the rarest of restaurants to have shown this kind of aloha for the local entertainment community, adding “name” music to the dining menu. Bravo!
3 — Chai himself has been an invaluable and integral host to his restaurant, welcoming guests at the check-in desk with a personal hello, flying into the kitchen to tend to culinary matters, then returning up front. It’s never ever a bad idea for the namesake person to be on the front line and be the first person you see when you enter the restaurant. His presence indicates his commitment to his space and his customers.
4 — As you dined or sipped cocktails, you also had a window to people-watching; folks never failed to pause on the sidewalk and peer into the glass window, to see and hear and catch a moment of genuine aloha from the featured performer inside. A sideshow, for sure, and always impromptu; someone invariable would snap a photo from the outside.
5 — Chai’s has been the only restaurant at Aloha Tower to offer free validated parking for its customers; you tipped the valet, of course, but never had to pay the $10 valet fee.
We’ll miss you, Chai — and your Chai’s. And I was happy and excited to partake in one of the final nights with Robert Cazimero and his boutique hula dancers, male and female, who augmented his from-the-piano vocals last Friday (Dec. 27).
Yes, there was a bit of after-Christmas cheer via holiday tunes; and yes, plenty of solo and group hula and mele and chorale singing to the Cazimero catalogue. “Waika” typified the sustained artistry, reminiscent of a Hawaii Theatre concert or a Lei Day to-do at the Waikiki Shell.
“It’s been bittersweet — and it hit me this week that the end is near,” Chai told me.
Aloha, Chai’s, and mahalo for a terrific run. And cheers to another successful destination when Chef Chai’s opens early next year at Honolulu Pacifica, at Kapiolani Boulevard and Ward Avenue.