After a dreamy week in Hawaii, I have a slew of food and drink recommendations to share. Part one of these covered farmers market and street food in Honolulu and snacks from the North Shore of Oahu. This time, we sleep and drink in Honolulu. In part three, we’ll talk Honolulu restaurants.
Though I arrived islandside with a head full of romantic, slightly improbable Blue Hawaii dreams — me wearing a vintage bathing suit, lei, and a mai tai being serenaded by Elvis — my vacation reality was no letdown. No doubt the touristy scourge of chain shops, restaurants, and photo-snapping throngs do indeed exist in Waikiki, but contrary to what some told me, Hawaii’s largest city can be clean and relaxed. Though you truly find “island time” on Kauai and quieter locales, Honolulu is by no means hectic (if you ignore the traffic). It is that island city where you can while away hours at the beach, explore hole-in-the-wall eats, or listen to live music as the sun sets.
Hotel Renew, Waikiki Beach:
With Asian-modern, Zen-like decor, clean lines and big city chic, these rooms are a welcome respite from the all-day party of Waikiki surfers and sunbathers. No pool or beachfront property here, though upper rooms on the south side have views of the beach. After long walks and lots of sun, I was grateful to enter the heavy front doors of Renew and be welcomed by the tinkle of the lobby’s water fountain. I’d grab a glass of water laced with fresh oranges and head up to my room with ultra-comfy bed and an ocean view.
The winning points of Hotel Renew, which is located on the eastern end of Waikiki, is affordability and peace. Plus, you can always take their complimentary boogie boards and towels a block away to the beach. But the best part? As overpriced as Waikiki can be, here you can get a room on a busy weekend for $180 to $225 a night.
The cocktail renaissance is finally hitting Hawaii. Here’s a handful of places and bartenders forging the way.
Lobby Bar at The Waikiki Edition:
Although it is to be found by pushing aside a bookshelf in a hotel lobby, the Lobby Bar is no speakeasy — it’s a white, urban bar with muted lighting and long couches with a semi-exclusive, yet unpretentious air in The Edition, a hot hotel perfect for ultra-cool poolside lounging.
Bar manager Sam Treadway hails direct from Boston’s best-known cocktail bar, Drink and he’s clearly loving the warm island breezes, playing off of the canon of island classics, like the deconstructed mai tai ($11). Treadway has toned down the drink’s characteristic sweetness, amping up the rum (Pyrat XO) and orgeat (almond syrup) and topping it off with mai tai foam and a shiso leaf. He served me a lovely rum manhattan made with Montecristo 12 year rum, and he’s also handy with mezcal. The Agony and the Ecstasy ($11 – nice literary reference) is a winning mix of Del Maguey’s Mezcal Vida, St. Germain, and fresh grapefruit juice, topped with a house ginger beer. Spicy, smoky, gently sweet.
The cherry on top? Treadway combines Mezcal Vida, Campari, and soda to create, yes, a mezcal negroni. I long for the day when I can get one here, in my own negroni-obsessed city.
Another of the city’s great bartenders is Town‘s Dave Power. Located in Kaimuki, just a few minutes drive from Waikiki, Town feels like I’m back home in San Francisco. Local, organic foods served with with rustic, Italian technique, all-American heart, gourmet animal parts, and classic cocktails (all $10).
Power executes cocktails simply but with a beautifully, even literary, bent. His tequila negroni is a revelation. He explains that his inspiration is M.F.K. Fisher‘s love of equal parts gin, vermouth, and bitters in her cocktail. His version adds an equal part of Don Julio Reposado and a Campari infused with local Hawaiian Kiawe wood chips for a gentle smoky taste.
He also makes a Very Very Good Martini (this being how it’s listed on the menu) and my beloved Death’s Door — something you don’t see much in these parts — and a white manhattan with moonshine (white whiskey) and Dolin Blanc vermouth.
I’d recommend eating as well as drinking here. It’s a special place that evokes other big cities, but uses Hawaiian ingredients and laid-back charm.
Mai Tai Bar:
I am in love with the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. A pink, playful beacon that jumps out of the town’s blanket of highrises, it is the one hotel that evokes the history of old Waikiki. Built in 1927 and dubbed the Pink Palace of the Pacific, this is the classic Hawaii I dreamed of.
I’ll stay there one day. But in the meantime, one can always head through its grove of trees laden with hanging lights, past torches, through the lobby, and out to the back lawn where the Mai Tai Bar looks out over the beach. Live music at sunset and my own private cabana on the beach made this scene one of the most magical I spent in Honolulu.
This is not the place for refined cocktails but the bar has a history of providing tropical oceanside drinks. Manager Mike Swerdloff is a wine lover himself, but keeps up on the national cocktail scene and is passionate about great service, food and drink.
As for cocktails, there are various versions of the mai tai here — all too sweet for me, but they’re destined to be crowd-pleasers, and are greatly enhanced by the paradisical surroundings. Were I to really go for sweetness here, I’d prefer the Chi ($13), made from coconut and Maui’s organic Ocean Vodka and perked up with fresh pineapple and basil; or Pina Rocks ($10): Bacardi 8 year, coconut cream, pineapple, and a lemon-thyme float.
We had a lot of fun with our Smoking Gun mai tai, a winner in last year’s Mai Tai Festival on Kona. A glass of Whaler’s dark rum, Bacardi White, and a housemade velvet falernum was torched with smoke, then topped with a brown sugar-torched pineapple wedge. The presentation was quite dramatic — smoke even spilled out from the glass — but I could still taste the propane when I sipped the drink. That aside, the Smoking Gun yielded a delightfully sweet, smoky island imbibement that evoked roasting marshmallows over a campfire.
Inside the gorgeous Halekulani Hotel hides a classic New York hotel bar, rich with history and flush with jazz. And the music really is the reason to come. Nightly live jazz sets the classy, upscale tone of Lewers — don’t you dare wear shorts or flip-flops because this elegance is maintained with a strict dress code. You’ll also need a reservation on many nights.
Despite the legendary stamp of Dale DeGroff on the menu (he created it), drinks are of the sweet, fruity variety, like the refreshing ginger lychee caipirissima ($12). More ambitious efforts like the Amante Picante ($12) — tequila with cucumber, cilantro, green tabasco — have the right idea but lack balance. All in the execution?
What is impressive is the bar’s dessert menu. The ever-popular Halekulani coconut cake ($9) is ordered for weddings all over the islands, even from as far as LA. Adult gourmet versions of popsicles and ice cream sandwiches on ice are also available. One can always order from the spirits and wine lists and enjoy a sip of brandy and a slice of cake while taking in Tennyson Stephens and Rocky Holmes’ delightful jazz duo.
No, I am not recommending La Mariana Sailing Club for the drinks — this write-up is a nod to the historical appeal and charm of a rundown but well-loved space. One of the last remaining kitschy tiki bars from the 1950′s, it can be an adventure just getting here.
Located way out on a harbor, you won’t be sure you’ve found it even when you’ve arrived at the right spot. Park on the street near the “sailing club” sign, then walk around to the right side of the building and enter through the back along the water. Tiki decor and thatched roofs abound in a multi-room layout with open air patio.
The day after the Japanese tsunami hit Hawaii’s shores, I sat here with a pina colada watching boat owners pull their damaged sailboats out of the water. Crusty, sun-scorched sailors sipped mai tais and beers around me, comparing damage done to their boats.
If you go, be sure to read the story of owner Annette Nahinu on the menu. She’s the sort of local character that will make you fall in love with Honolulu and its colorful international history.
Note: I tried to make it to a new Honolulu hotspot that local bartenders recommended, Apartment 3, but couldn’t make it there on a day when Kyle was bartending (Friday nights at the moment). I hear he’s a whiskey lover like myself, and I was sure he’d be another envelope-pushing bartender on this list.
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