The Old Lahaina Luau, founded in 1986, has always focused on showcasing authentic Hawaiian food, music and dance. But in 1993, a negative review in a local publication forced management to take stock of their business.
The luau's four founding partners reflected on the criticisms and decided to upgrade seating, menus and beverage selections.
"After that review, there were questions about staying in the business," said Kawika Freitas, director of public and cultural relations for the Old Lahaina Luau. "We decided to sleep on it and take another look. We asked ourselves what those people were really looking for, and it became evident that it was more authentic Hawaiian cultural experiences. That was a turning point. We already focused on authenticity, but it helped define what we were looking for."
A quarter-century later, the Old Lahaina Luau has continued to evolve and remains one of Maui's more popular luaus. In 1998, the luau moved to its current location near the historical Mala Wharf, which can accommodate up to 480 guests.
The most recent upgrades include improved gluten-free and vegan dinner options and a $1 million sound and lighting system installed last year. They also partnered with Maui Brewing Co. on an exclusive luau beer flavored with sweet potato.
"We noticed that we get quite a few repeat guests, and we wanted to make sure there is always something different to try or experience," Freitas said. "This year we are starting seasonal menus. Twice a year we'll change how we prepare some of the main items like chicken and beef and also feature what's in season."
The evening starts with the lei greeting before guests explore a number of activities and lessons on Hawaiian culture and traditions along the oceanfront, outdoor event space modeled after an old Hawaiian village. This is the chance for a crash course in hula, discover various uses for the coconut and its husk and learn the importance of poi.
For the buffet dinner, pork roasted in an underground pit is served in addition to at least seven traditional Hawaiian dishes, such as laulau (pork wrapped in taro leaf), sweet potato, poi, poke, taro leaf stew and local fish, and other fare including grilled steak and crab salad.
After dinner, the performance focuses on Hawaiian music and dance, with Hawaiian legends and history blended throughout.
"It's very educational," Freitas said. "We feel that people come to Maui, and to Hawaii, to understand or learn about our culture. We are fortunate to have a host culture and we want to have an evening that encompasses that."
In one of their nods to authenticity, there is no fire sword dance during the performance.
"The fire dance — that would take it out of what we stand for, staying true to Hawaiian culture," Freitas said. "That was a Samoan dance, and, in fact, Hawaiians didn't have metal until first Western contact."
The company, which also runs Leoda's Kitchen and Pie Shop, Aloha Mixed Plate and Star Noodle, also operates Hoaloha Farm, which supplies the luau and restaurants with a variety of ingredients and recently expanded from 60 acres to 300 acres.
The Old Lahaina Luau ($120 for adults, $75 for ages 3 to 12 and free for ages 2 and younger) typically books up three to four weeks in advance, according to Freitas, and operates seven days a week. See www.oldlahainaluau.com.