When it comes to dining out, my tastes and appetites are unsophisticated and modest. I’m more of an atmosphere person. Usually, if I like the place, I’ll like the food. I’m partial to a place that is casual, but with a menu that goes beyond quotidian plate lunch fare and bar food. Places that allow diners to bring their beverages of choice appeal to me most, and there are a few in Honolulu that I get to at least a couple of times a year.
Usually full with local families and groups of friends, these places are smallish and on busy nights involve a bit of a wait for a table. At all of these places, though, the wait is worth it. I’m certainly not a food critic. These are just some places I’d send out-of-town family and friends with confidence that they’ll enjoy them, making me look like I know what I’m talking about.
Located just outside of Waikiki on Kapahulu Avenue, Irifune is within walking distance of most Waikiki hotels. It seats 20-25 people and is open for lunch and dinner most days, and the quality of the Japanese food it serves keeps business steady. Breaded tofu and gyoza are perfect starters. I usually go for the sashimi/tempura dinner, but if I’m feeling plucky, I’ll go to work on their signature Garlic Crab dinner. At any rate, there are a variety of seafood, chicken, and vegetable combos and curries on offer, and nothing on the menu is over $15 (although fresh ahi tuna comes at market price).
As for beverages, carry in a few beers. Asahi and Sapporo are what most people tote in. Incidentally, Irifune is a favorite “date night” spot. And don’t forget to toss a single or a fiver into the fishing net that hangs from the ceiling. It’s good luck.
A couple of miles outside of Waikiki in Kahala is the Olive Tree Café, a family-owned Greek joint with truly authentic food at prices much lower than one would expect of its caliber. Simply put, Olive Tree Café is trendy. It’s often full, and they don’t take reservations. Its tables are tightly packed, but it somehow manages to remain intimate. It’s the sort of secret that everyone seems to know about.
I’m not sure what you’re “supposed” to drink with Greek food, but a bottle of red wine always works. And maybe some ouzo. There’s a wine and beer store next door, Oliver, that will be happy to sort you out. The Olive Tree Café owns and operates it, too.
The Fat Greek is at the bottom of the hill on Waialae Avenue, in the increasingly hip retail district of Kaimuki. It’s another authentic Greek restaurant, with a deep menu of Hellenic dishes and an ample seafood selection. I had the Papa’s Special, a rack of New Zealand lamb in a house marinade. It was delicious. I was later mocked mercilessly by my companions for not being able to finish the generous portion. The west coast IPA we brought seemed to go well enough with everything.
I haven’t been to Ah-Lang Korean Restaurant in Kakaako yet, but I will. Soon. It’s known as the “angry Korean lady” place. Won Nam is somewhat famous for her, say, doggedly cranky disposition. She’s been profiled in local media, and she has evidently monetized her impatience. It’s a one-woman operation, and she is not very happy about it. The people I know who have been there all say the food is as good as Korean food gets.
Her stated house rules are 1) if you bring beer, bring me some or pay a corkage fee 2) no Coors Light (gives me a headache) 3) no Yellowtail (gives me a stomachache). There are more rules, but you can read them when you get there. Bring your own opener and glassware, too, or hear about it from Won Nam.
I like her already. Kakaako’s own “Seinfeld” character.