Frank Clark had the vision of bringing a Japanese-style alleyway dining concept to Hawaii for a long time. The marketing and real estate executive just needed to find the right space.
Clark was born in Massachusetts to an American father and Japanese mother, and he spent time living overseas in Japan, Korea and Germany. In 1997 he founded a consulting company in Hawaii specializing in the Japanese market. It was during his frequent trips to Japan that he realized that the popular "yokocho" dining experience, where several restaurants and shops are clustered together in a series of small streets, could be successfully re-created in the U.S.
In 2015, Clark's company Real Select International worked on leasing space in the Waikiki Shopping Plaza, and he realized that the mall could be a good spot to try out yokocho-style dining. On Dec. 1, Waikiki Yokocho Gourmet Alley
held its grand opening, and now features 14 restaurants grouped together in "alleys" called Ramen Road, Engawa Terrace and Namen Street.
Yokocho dining is as popular as ever in Japan, and is a good way to try different things and socialize while dining out.
"Young people in Japan certainly enjoy it, but it's not only for young people," said Koichi Hozumi, a marketing specialist for Waikiki Yokocho. "In Japan and Asia you find a wide range of guests like visiting restaurant alleys. You can go restaurant hopping, and it's a different kind of experience."
All but one of the restaurants at Waikiki Yokocho, Marion Crepes, is new to Hawaii and several are new to the United States. The collection of restaurants also includes branches of popular establishments that are in high demand in their native cities.
Ramen Road, for example, includes Baikohken, a popular Japanese chain that was included in the 2012 Michelin Hokkaido Guide, and Tsujita, a ramen restaurant that is known for devoted followers and long lines in Los Angeles.
Nana's Green Tea, true to its name, is devoted to the universe of all things green tea. The menu includes green tea ice cream, green tea parfaits, green tea lattes and other treats.
"A significant part of the concept is using real green tea from Japan, and the staff either trains in Japan or received direct training from special Japanese green tea baristas," said Koichi Hozumi, a marketing specialist for Waikiki Yokocho. "This place has something that everyone will enjoy, from young kids and babies to mature adults and people in their 80s and 90s."
Kaneko Hannosuke, a popular tempura rice bowl chain that draws hour-long lines in Tokyo, is part of the Noren Street section that also features Kushikatsu Tanaka, specializing in skewers of meat that are battered and deep fried.
Beniya is a sushi bar adjacent to Waikiki Yokocho's bar and lounge. Chef Tadamichi Ohta creates omakase menus each day based on the best catch, including fish flown in from Japan overnight to be served later that day. The restaurant posts the fresh catch of the day on Instagram in the morning, so checking the social media feeds is a great way to know what specials are available and whet your appetite.
"As a whole Waikiki Yokocho has all those varieties of Japanese cuisines available for people to try," Hozumi said. "There's a green tea cafe, musubi shop, world famous ramen joints, tempura rice bowl, Japanese barbecue and okonomiyaki seafood pancakes."
Waikiki Shopping Plaza is on Kalakaua Avenue, a major thoroughfare and tourist corridor, bringing in ample traffic from international and domestic visitors alike.
"The most beautiful part in terms of guest experience is that it is this gathering point for all the tourists from all over the world," Hozumi said. "Waikiki attracts everyone on this planet. You'll find tourists teaching each other about the different food and making friends. The other day a guest from Switzerland was talking with the sushi chef and a Japanese guest from Tokyo. The guests shared sake and talked about the ingredients. They had a really great experience and left friends."