Our experts go fork to fork over Honolulu’s best dining haunts.
The chef: Michelle Karr-Ueoka, Chef-owner of Honolulu eateries MW Restaurant and Artizen by MW.
The critic: Catherine Toth Fox. Writer, blogger, photographer and editor of Hawai‘i Magazine.
The restaurant that nails the Honolulu vibe
MKU: You can’t go past Helena’s Hawaiian Food, a typical mom-and-pop restaurant with an emphasis on home-style cooking. They’re known for their wonderful pipikaula [dried beef] short ribs and laulau [pork wrapped in leaves].
CTF: One of the city’s hottest restaurants is The Pig & The Lady in Chinatown. The menu is largely inspired by the family’s Vietnamese home cooking and everyone eats there: locals, visitors, Downtown workers. Honestly, I’ve never had a bad meal there.
Best fine dining
MKU: La Mer is a Honolulu institution. It overlooks Waikiki Beach and pairs a sophisticated atmosphere with impeccable service. I love that they use as much Hawaiian produce as possible to bring the flavours of southern France to life.
CTF: Senia, where chef-owners Anthony Rush and Chris Kajioka are committed to using high- quality ingredients and consistently turn food into works of art with their thoughtful plating – they can even make cabbage look good.
For a late-night bite
MKU: Harry’s Hardware Emporium (1936 South King Street, Honolulu; +1 808 379 3887) is a fantastic speak-easy-style bar. I leave my drink order in the trusty hands of owner Dave Newman.
CTF: I’m a mom so I’m more of a dawn- patroller but if I’m ever out late, my go-to is Liliha Bakery. The counter is open 24 hours Wednesday to Saturday and you can order local eats like old-school char- broiled burgers and kimchi fried rice.
A great spot for a seaside meal
MKU: A beachside Sunday brunch at Orchids is a must. It’s upscale but casual and the chefs work hard to deliver a buffet filled with a rich selection of Hawaiian, Asian and American breakfast dishes of the highest quality.
CTF: Mina’s Fish House is an open-air restaurant facing a gorgeous palm-tree-fringed lagoon. It’s one of the best spots on the island to watch the sunset. Half the menu is dedicated to seafood – in fact, seafood is so important to Mina’s that it was the first restaurant in the world to employ a fish sommelier. My pick is the chef’s signature ahi tartare.
The ultimate breakfast
MKU: I love Over Easy, a very comforting and nostalgic spot.
CTF: On my days off, I’ll drive to Kailua for brunch at Over Easy. It’s known for its unique takes on classic dishes: think French toast soaked in custard then encrusted in Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. My favourite is the Potato N’ Eggs, which is French bread stuffed with sweet tomato jam and draped in potato purée then topped with bacon crumbles and a local egg.
MKU: Sushi Izakaya Gaku (1329 South King Street, Honolulu; +1 808 589 1329) is known to chefs and locals but seems to be undiscovered by visitors. Don’t miss the traditional izakaya dishes.
CTF: Are there any secrets left in Honolulu? Even my beloved Ethel’s Grill (232 Kalihi Street, Honolulu; +1 808 847 6467), a hole-in-the-wall in Kalihi, is now on the map. The family-run restaurant has been serving comfort food, like sweet-and-sour spare ribs, for decades. My favourites include the tataki sashimi plate and Okinawan-style taco rice.
The place for poke bowls
MKU: You’ll find the city’s best poke at Ahi Assassins Fish Co. (2570 South Beretania Street, Honolulu; +1 808 439 4045). All the fish is Hawaiian and as fresh as you can get. And nothing is wasted – for something different, try the fried fish bones.
CTF: There’s so much debate over this in Honolulu. Alicia’s Market was the place for poke long before the dish exploded in popularity. It serves classic styles – the flavours I grew up with – like ahi with a slightly sweet shoyu sauce, crunchy seaweed and onion.
MKU: The malasadas – Portuguese-style doughnuts – at Pipeline Bakeshop & Creamery are extraordinary. Sticking with tradition, they’re not filled but are instead dusted with flavoured sugar, such as salted plum or cinnamon. They fry them as soon as you order, not before, so they’re crisp on the outside and delightfully fluffy inside.
CTF: Saimin, a simple noodle dish found only in Hawaii. The noodles and broth are traditionally Asian but the toppings vary from Spam to slivers of scrambled egg. My favourite is from Palace Saimin (1256 North King Street, Honolulu; +1 808 841 9983), one of the oldest saimin shops in the state.
To try Hawaii’s famous shave ice
MKU: I think the one we make at MW Restaurant is pretty amazing. It isn’t your typical version, which comes from a block of ice and has sugary toppings; we shave frozen puréed fruit onto a bed of tapioca then serve it with mochi ice-cream and fresh fruit. My favourite flavour is mango; when it’s in season we go through 300 pounds [136 kilograms] of mango a week.
CTF: Shimazu Store boasts more than 70 toppings, including unusual offerings like milk tea, bananas Foster and crème brûlée. I could eat shave ice every day.