Offering flavors of the Pacific Rim, Honolulu is one of the world’s great dining cities.
Influenced by cuisines from around the world, the range and quality of food in Honolulu is superb, especially if you like the flavors of the Pacific Rim. And don’t miss out on homegrown classics that are loved by locals and travelers alike.
A taste of the islands
The plate lunch is a local staple that draws on traditions from the plantation era, when workers lined up for lunch with plates that were filled with an ever-changing variety of dishes.
Today, plate lunches are sold from food trucks, simple storefronts, and diners. The one essential ingredient is choice. Two or three mains, like kalua pork, teriyaki chicken, or grilled fish, are served with rice, poi, or sweet potatoes. Add a scoop or two of macaroni salad and the plate is complete.
Locals debate endlessly over where to find the best plate lunches. One popular spot is Highway Inn Kakaʻako (680 Ala Moana Boulevard), which brings careful preparation and artful presentation to this Hawaiian staple. This is the place to try harder-to-find specialties like pipikaula—long-simmered beef that’s meltingly tender.
Then again, you might like to grab lunch right on the beach. If so, Waikiki’s Barefoot Beach Café (2699 Kalakaua Avenue) at Queen’s Surf Beach is the place to be. Besides all the classic choices, they make their own version of the local favorite loco moco, which is a burger patty smothered in gravy with an egg and white rice. They also have shaved ice, flavored with any number of different syrups, including mango and blue raspberry.
At night, join countless others who’ve rated a meal at Roy’s Waikiki (226 Lewers Street) as one of the best of their lives. Start with a superb mai tai and then see what famous chef Roy Yamaguchi’s team has on the menu for the night. Fresh fish encrusted with local macadamia nuts or the beef short ribs are always good bets.
Insider tip: If a scoop of white rice isn’t your thing, ask for ‘double mac’, which is two savory scoops of macaroni salad.
Five must-try dishes
Fresh seafood, pork, starchy staples, and fresh fruit are the basic elements of Hawaiian dishes. Beyond poi, there are few authentic Hawaiian dishes that aren’t influenced by other cuisines, especially those of Asia.
Kalua pork: This traditional dish is made from a pig that has been buried and cooked under hot stones. The result is tender and delicious. But given the dish’s popularity, most local versions are roasted in the oven and seasoned with smoky flavorings.
Poi: A staple food with a sacred heritage, poi is made from taro root that’s been pounded into a purplish paste and sometimes fermented as well. It’s an essential part of local meals, treated with reverence by native Hawaiians. The best versions are homemade, but you can also find good poi in many restaurants.
Spam: A legacy of wartime supplies, the canned pork shoulder is served with rice and eggs at breakfast. For lunch, Spam musabi—slabs of Spam stacked on white rice and wrapped in Japanese nori seaweed—is sold pretty much everywhere. Should you wander into a Honolulu supermarket, check out the size of the Spam section.
Poke: Now sold worldwide, this very Hawaiian meal usually starts with raw ahi (yellowfin tuna) and then several Asian ingredients are added, like green onions, nuts, and sesame oil, among others.
Crack seed: Look for displays of this popular snack near the registers at ABC Stores and every other convenience store in Hawaii. With roots in China, crack seed starts with dried fruit like plums, and then combined with salty, sweet, and sour flavors.
A taste of many cultures
Most local favorites are the result of influences from around the Pacific Rim and beyond. And that also goes for non-Hawaiian restaurants. Honolulu is an excellent place for an Asian meal, and the range of options is extraordinary.
Aside from domestic travelers, most Hawaiian tourists come from Japan, and that’s reflected in the variety of Japanese restaurants around Honolulu. Stay long enough and you’ll find nearly every style of Japanese cuisine. In fact, you can find many styles under one roof at the popular Shirokiya Japan Village Walk (1450 Ala Moana Boulevard), where there are more than 50 different food stalls. Take a stroll through the busy aisles and you’ll feel like you’re on a culinary tour of the Japanese islands.
In Waikiki, you can find crispy pork tonkatsu at the intimate Ginza Bairin Tonkatsu & Yoshoku Bistro (255 Beach Walk). The name reflects the two different types of cuisine: tonkatsu on one side and yoshoku on the other—the latter being the name for Western-influenced foods in Japan.
If you’re in the mood for a simple and traditional noodle dish, check out Marugame Udon Waikiki (2310 Kuhio Avenue). This faithful reproduction of a timeless Japanese noodle house serves fresh udon noodles that are rolled out, cut, and boiled right in front of you.
Finally, if you just want a good steak, Hy’s Steak House (2440 Kuhio Avenue) is an unmissable spot in Waikiki, near Ala Wai Golf Course. The absolute best cuts of beef are grilled in a glass-enclosed kitchen next to an elegant dining room.
Insider tip: No matter what cuisine you’re enjoying, know that the following fish are among the freshest in Honolulu: ahi (yellowfin tuna), onaga (longtail red snapper), aku (skipjack tuna), ono (wahoo), and mahimahi.