The spin on restaurants: they come and they go...

By
August 21st, 2011



Restaurants come and go; we moan the loss of a beloved fave eating place and see a newbie come along, and quite often, the new arrival shuts down again.
Such is life.
I applaud but don’t envy restaurateurs, who are, frankly, community heroes. They take such risks (even sweat out the good economy sometimes, so imagine the worst of times), tirelessly work days and nights, and prepare such wonderful cuisine to whet our appetites and keep our tummies filled.
Like clockwork, at least once a month, someone will ask and reminisce about a recently shuttered eatery. Or try to recall a long-gone restaurant whose obit had been widely chronicled.
Why? (Too many reasons, but generally finances and a weak economy).What happened? (You’ve got the time to hear ‘em all out? Again, too many variables: a family doesn’t want to work hard and prefer to enjoy retirement, or a place loses its lease and the owners don’t want to bother renewing at a higher rate, or nobody showed up to eat far too many nights).Will it ever come back? (The Ranch House did, sorta, but died again).

So consider this reflection an opportunity to dust off the memories to answer some recurring queries. The latest, from two sources: Where was Le Bon? Why was it popular?
Le Bon was the singing waiters/waitresses restaurant, located on Kapiolani Blvd. mauka side, between Keeaumoku and Sheridan Streets. The food was comforting, but the workaholic servers was the reason to go; many waiters and waitresses would also appear in community theater and the restaurant provided a salary while they sought roles that didn’t compensate for their talent.
Do I miss it? Yes. Singing servers are common in New York; they work to pay the bills in-between auditions to get a real job, on Broadway. The occasional serenades by the waitstaff at Romano's Macaroni Grill are not cut from the same cloth; the focus is on opera, where at Le Bon, the fare was largely musical comedies and standards.
Or have you forgotten?

I miss many other restaurants, in all regions of town:

Kahala area:
• Spindrifter at Kahala Mall. Good steaks, seafood and a dandy business lunch destination.
• Yum Yum Tree, where ono pies were must-haves after comfort food (the one at Ward Centre, now gone, wasn’t quite the same).
• Woolworth at Kahala Mall; counter and table service came with a smile, proviing not every meal had to be “fine” or upscale).

Kaimuki:

• Hank’s Café, on 11th Ave.; one of the many short-term home for the Makaha Sons of Niihau.
• The Pottery in Kaimuki; you could get a take-home clay pot with some of the entrees, baked in an on-site oven.

Ala Moana Center:

• Prince Kuhio Restaurant, one of the original restaurants at Ala Moana Center.
• Hackfield’s at Liberty House Ala Moana.

Waikiki:

• Coco's, one of the early 24-our eateries (where deejay J. Akuhead Pupule would hang out), where Hard Rock Cafe was a long-time tenant before moving to Beach Walk; Makino Clubhouse just moved into the gateway of Waikiki that was Kau Kau Korner.
• Skillet on Ala Moana, where breakfasts were hearty and served in ceramic skillets with handles.
• Waikiki Sands on Kalakaua Avenue, where “cheap” buffets gave locals a first opportunity to fill their plates along with their palates.
• Pier 7 at the Ilikai, another ‘round-the-clock destination for after-movie, after-nightclub, after-opera outings.
• Ship's Tavern at the Moana Surfrider, a seafood emporium; the adjoining Gangplank Lounge was the home of Jay Larrin, entertainer-composer.
• Canlis’ Restaurant, one of the early fine-dining palaces popular with locals and visitors, where waitresses wore kimonos.
• Maile Restaurant, at the Kahala Hilton, where fine dining gourmet cuisine also was served by waitresses in kimono; at the adjoining lounge, Kit Samson’s Sound Advice defined dance music.

Kapiolani area:

• Green Turtle across the now-gone KGMB; at lunch, you’d see on-air personalities during their meal break.
• Cavalier on Kapiolani Blvd. where the Pan Am building now is located.
• La Ronde, the revolving restaurant atop the Ala Moana Building, where you’d get a complete “turn” every hour.
• Victoria Station on Kapiolani Blvd (ewa of Tokudo), where steaks and chops were served from a red railroad box car “restaurant.”

Ward area:

• Trader Vic's, with its Souths Seas tropical décor, where the Honolulu Club now is located
• The Black Orchid at Restaurant Row, where celebrity was part of the game — Tom Selleck (“Magnum P.I.”) was an owner.
• Fisherman's Wharf at Kewalo Basin, one of the Spencecliff organization’s iconic (and longest-lasting, albeit under new owners in later years) waterfront restaurant.
• Compadres at Ward Center, where the margaritas flowed and the So-Cal Mexican menu was especially appearing on Taco Tuesdays. (Pablo’s Mexican Cantina had aspirations to carry on the red, green and white flag as a successor, but alas, the journey didn’t even make a year).
• Sunset Grill at Restaurant Row, where an open rotisserie added odorama to the dining experience, along with a splendid and afforded wine menu. And remember the roasted garlic?
• Marie Callendar's, at Restaurant Row; short-lived, like the Windward Mall location, possibly because entree portions here, even pies, were not as gargantuan as those Mainland counterparts.

Others Honolulu:
• Pearl City Tavern, home of the Monkey Bar. Worth the drive for townies.
• The counter at the Kress store on Fort Street.
• Ciro’s downtown, the place to be seen if dining downtown, when it still was a shopping destination before the era of the suburban mall.

Any others you care to add to the list? Be my guest...

My nostalgia cup runneth over: Remember these?

By
March 5th, 2010



Are we in retro mode right now?
The Ranch House has been rebooted as a destination for Island-style comfort food; not a free-standing “ranch house,” like the original in ‘Aina Ha’ina, but located in a second-story walk-up on Kapahulu Avenue where Sam Choy’s and Sergio’s used to be.
“Hawaii Five-O” is gearing up as a new old TV show, with a new generation of actors to carry on the tradition of Jack Lord and company.
The Aloha Stadium is bringing back periodic drive-in movies in its parking lot. Kids, go ask grandma and grandpa what a drive-in movie is.
Comebacks are often driven by yearnings for the past. Do we simply miss something or some place that’s no longer available just because today’s arena forgets roots and neglects comfort? Are closures, then isolated returns, just part of the cyclical nature of life?
On that note, I was thinking of some entertainment and dining bygones ... and started compiling a list. In reality, once something’s gone, it’s pau. Like Aloha Airlines. Like sugar plantations and pineapple canneries. And, in light of last week’s startling development, two daily newspapers face drastic change, and possible extinction for one.

On a nostalgia note, I’m thinking ...

RESTAURANTS:

Canlis. Waikiki’s first fine-dining destination, with waitresses clad in kimoni with obi.
Swiss Inn. Not just because of the simple Swiss pleasures, but because of the salad dressing (still available in stores) and proprietors Martin and Jean E. Wyss.
Maile Restaurant. You’d don a jacket to get into the upscale mood; helped put the Kahala Hilton on the destination map.
M’s Ranch House, the original in ‘Aina Haina. Oh, to have the little freshly-baked bread that came as soon as you sat; the scratchy “Happy Birthday” recording, played on your birthday, and the toy chest for kids; and, in later years, live music with The Makaha Sons. Comfort food, comforting local music.
Andrews. Not the downtown spin-off, but the one at Ward Centre. Steaks, seafood, good times.
Tahitian Lanai. Oooh, the eggs Benedict for brunch were to die for.
Yacht Harbor Restaurant. The menu’s a blur, but there were views of the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor and Ala Moana Park — a special place for special occasions.
The Third Floor. Just going for the naan bread was enough.
Coco’s. The go-to place after a movie, a play, or after you cruised Ala Moana Park; always open, with burgers and breakfasts to refuel and reflect.
Pearl City Tavern. A “country” eatery where vast numbers could dine on American or Japanese fare, and see live monkeys at the bar, bonsai collections on the roof.
Spindrifter. For business lunches or casual dinners, this mid-range Kahala spot made way for progress, despite a loyal clientele.
Le Bon Restaurant. Home of the singing waiters, who’d chirp, then scurry to the kitchen to fetch your soup or entrée, then sing again.
The Pottery. You could literally take home your dish, if you ordered something that came in a hand-made piece of pottery that was yours to keep when you’re pau kau kau.
Golden Dragon. In a town that still boasts scores of Chinese places, one closure in a hotel (Hilton Hawaiian Village) leaves a void: the best beggar’s chicken, baked in clay, which was retrieved with the help of a hammer.
Wisteria. Oh, those delish Okinawan shoyu pork and Japanese pork or chicken tofu dishes. The only restaurant that featured waitresses passing out bango numbers (tokens) to ID their table turf/customers.
Waikiki Sands. A very early, early buffet emporium, where, for $1, you could have it all. Not a dream, but the original bargain dining.
Suehiro. Japanese comfort food, from butterfish steaks to pork tofu. Some nights, you only want the plain and simple, not fancy-dancy cooking.
Columbia Inn. The Roundtable; the Broke-da-Mouth Stew; home of the Dodgers;
Tosh, then Gene Kaneshiro.

INFORMAL DINING:

KC Drive In. Am I the only one who still longs for the peanut butter shake with a waffle hot dog?
Hana Broasted Chicken. Because no one else (sorry, Zippy’s and KFC) made chicken skin so chicken-skin-ono.
Swanky’s. A downtown counter place, where hot dogs, burgers and french fries ruled, way before the coming of McDonald’s, Burger King, Jack in the Box and Wendy’s.

BAKERIES:

Alexander Young Hotel bakery. Because its lemon crunch came was da best.
Sweetheart Bakery. As far as I’m concerned, the red velvet cake (and crème cheese frosting) was born here.
Bill’s Bakery. The place to go for French doughnuts, when Kapahulu mostly was known for Leonard’s Bakery and Rainbow Drive In, period.
9th Avenue Bakery. Dutch bread; the round loaf with the wrinkly, crinkly crust.
Yum Yum Tree. The original Kahala outlet (where Chili’s now sits) had a popular restaurant and bakery operation with the every pie variety imaginable; you could order single slices, too.

CLUBS/LOUNGES:

Trappers. A jazz mecca; a place to be seen, a hangout for celebs.
Duke Kahanamoku's. There would not have been a Don Ho if he didn't inhabit Duke's. Period.
Garden Bar. A launching pad for wannabes; count Carole Kai, The Krush, Barry Kim among the alumni. Waikiki sorely needs a site to expose and develop the future Don Ho, Danny Kaleikini, Loyal Garner, Dick Jensen.
Maile Lounge. Dance floor, Kit Samson’s Sound Advice, Paul Conrad, Anna Lea; nooks to schmooze and kibitz.
Waikiki Beef ‘n Grog. A Waikiki hotspot: live music, dancing, bouncers at the door.
The Noodle Shop. Less was more; the teeny birthplace of the Frank DeLima Show, where Imelda Marcos showed up one night ... yes, with shoes on.
Queen’s Surf. The original hang-loose place; I saw Elvis Presley there one night; Kui Lee performed there, but the resident star was Sterling Mossman, in the Barefoot Bar.

MOVIE THEATRES:

Waikiki Theatre (aka Waikiki # 3). As in movie palace, not a stadium seater; this one had it all: large capacity, a ceiling of moving clouds and twinkling stars; a rainbow arching over an electric organ just in front of the screen; twin walkways from Kalakaua Avenue, with a central pool and nameplates with Hollywood stars.
Cinerama Theatre. Where conventions like Cinerama (a filming technique with a curved screen) and iconic films like “Star Wars” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” made movie-going and “first run” policies special and classic.

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