New restaurants adapt to a new reality

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Upstairs opened on Oct. 1 on the Waikiki Beach Walk and offers its own menu of Japanese-Hawaiian fusion dishes as well as items from Yakitori Hachibei, like the chicken ramen seen here, and Sushi Sho.
Upstairs opened on Oct. 1 on the Waikiki Beach Walk and offers its own menu of Japanese-Hawaiian fusion dishes as well as items from Yakitori Hachibei, like the chicken ramen seen here, and Sushi Sho. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Upstairs
Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

Covid-19 rapidly soured the business of even the Islands' most successful restaurants, and the Hawaii Restaurant Association reported that at the close of 2020 15% of the Aloha State's roughly 3,600 restaurants had been forced to temporarily cease operations, and 100 restaurants statewide have permanently closed.

But the festive season did bring positive developments for the restaurant industry, as the state recently lifted capacity limits for indoor dining. Visitors to Honolulu and the tourist hub of Waikiki will find plenty of new options filling the void left by culinary casualties of the pandemic. Meanwhile, other restaurants took advantage of forced closures in 2020 to revamp their offerings and offer something new upon reopening.

Upstairs, a new restaurant located along the Waikiki Beach Walk, opened Oct. 1 and seeks to attract visitors as well as locals with an expansive menu, including original creations and a handful of items from respected chefs who helm other Honolulu kitchens.

"When the pandemic started, we began talking about how when things reopened we wanted to have something new and more for locals in Waikiki," said general manager Susumu Tamura. "The majority of customers in Waikiki are tourists, and a lot of locals don't like coming here because parking is limited, and usually prices are a little higher. We wanted somewhere locals could enjoy as well as visitors."

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To make the restaurant more attractive to locals, Upstairs is offering a lower price point, extending a 15% discount to Hawaii residents and putting some dishes on the menu from other restaurants where getting a reservation is more of a challenge.

To that end, the collaborative menu offers dishes from two outside chefs: Keiji Nakazawa, a celebrated chef from Japan who runs the Sushi Sho restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Residences, Waikiki Beach; and Katsunori Yashima from Yakitori Hachibei, a popular yakitori restaurant that launched in Japan and expanded to Honolulu's Chinatown in 2017.

"It can be very difficult to get a reservation at Sushi Sho, and typically you must book a month or two out, and it is also very expensive. Hachibei is also busy, and you need a reservation weeks in advance," Tamura said. "We thought it would add something different and unique and give people a chance to try their food as well as ours. I think it also reflects the attitude during the pandemic of everyone helping each other out."

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Both chefs offered up dishes from their recipe books that are not served currently at their Honolulu locations. On the menu at Upstairs, available in limited quantities daily, is Sushi Sho's bara chirashi, which comes with assorted seafood of the day, sushi rice and soup. From Hachibei there is torimomo: spiced roasted jidori chicken thigh, chicken oil and tawara nigiri; chicken ramen with egg, green onion, seaweed, yuzu pepper, pickled ginger and sesame seeds; and oyakodon: jidori chicken, egg, white onion, green onion and dashi served over rice.

Upstairs also offers its own menu of Japanese and Hawaiian fusion dishes incorporating seasonal local ingredients. The Buddha bowl comes with tofu nuggets, beet hummus, avocado, assorted vegetables and multigrain rice, and their L.A.-style kalbi features marinated beef short rib, green onion, sesame seed and kimchi.

The restaurant also features a bar serving sake, cocktails, beer and wine, and the menu includes a "tsumami" section, a Japanese term that refers to sake and appetizer pairings.

The Waikiki Food Hall at Royal Hawaiian Center houses eight establishments, including Potama, which serves up sandwich-size Spam musubi.
The Waikiki Food Hall at Royal Hawaiian Center houses eight establishments, including Potama, which serves up sandwich-size Spam musubi. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Waikiki Food Hall

"One part of the concept that is very important to us is to have a strong sake program," Tamura said. "We are in the process of importing sake and getting a label registration specifically for us to bring in sake that are not currently imported out of Japan."

The post-pandemic dining scene shake-up in Honolulu is far from over, and here are a trio of other recently opened restaurants to try on your next Oahu trip.

Hau Tree: The Kaimana Beach Hotel at the eastern end of Waikiki reopened in December 2020 following a revamp of the property and its restaurant, Hau Tree. The hotel is now managed by Honolulu-native Jonathan McManus and his company, Private Label Collection. The brunch, lunch and dinner menus were all updated, and featured dishes include grilled washugyu flank steak with pastrami spice, sunchokes and truffles, and hamachi (amberjack) crudo with tomato ponzu, pickled radish and trout roe. The restaurant's popular brunch menu includes fresh spins on classic dishes like eggs benedict, ahi tuna burger and lemon ricotta pancakes.

M by Jeremy Shigekane: For two decades Chef Mavro, opened by award-winning chef George Mavrothalassitis, was a beacon of fine dining and lauded as an example of Hawaii regional cuisine at its best. Just prior to the onset of the pandemic, one of his culinary disciples, Jeremy Shigekane, bought the restaurant. A pivot was already in the works, but Covid-19 accelerated the changes. Shigekane started selling take-out gourmet sandwiches from a window of the restaurant when all dine-in operations were shut down. Now, Shigekane has put his stamp on the restaurant. The French Bistro offers five-course tasting meals in addition to an a la carte menu, all of which change weekly to highlight what is available from Hawaii farms, fishermen, ranchers and other purveyors.

Waikiki Food Hall: The collection of eight establishments on the third floor of the Royal Hawaiian Center had the misfortune of opening in March 2020, mere days before the state announced its first stay-at-home orders and established a quarantine period for incoming arrivals. Now reopened, the food hall offers a variety of food and drinks at a more affordable price point than many other Waikiki eateries. Honolulu Burger Co. serves up grass-fed beef patties on taro buns and other combinations; Tap Bar offers a selection of local craft brews; Potama dishes out sandwich-size spam musubi; and Milk scoops ice cream in a variety of tropical and other flavors.

UPDATED: This report was updated on Dec. 21 after the Hau Tree restaurant notified Travel Weekly that chefs Chris Kajioka and Alan Takasaki are no longer running that establishment. Featured dishes mentioned in the original story remain on the menu.

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