This is a W.T.F ALERT…ALERT…ALERT!
Last April, Joanne and I decided to treat our grandkids with a trip to London. COVID was appearing to show some signs of winding down, so we booked our trip for early August in order to be safe. As the weeks and months progressed, London didn’t seem to be making much headway in welcoming visitors to the UK. In fact, they put the United States on “amber alert” status, which meant that we would all have to quarantine in our hotel for 10 days upon arrival. As August grew closer and the London restrictions didn’t budge, we concluded that there was just too much brain damage and uncertainty to follow through on our plans.
Well, the grandkids wanted to go to Hawaii. And that seemed reasonable. Sure, Hawaii had some COVID “flaming-hoops” that we’d need to jump through in order to visit the islands, but they were manageable (though still a pain in the ass.)
So, off we went the first week in August. Aloha, Waikiki!
I’ve always assumed that August in Hawaii would be a sort of shoulder season – not particularly crowded since American, European and Japanese vacationers typically flock to the islands during the dead-of-winter months. To our surprise, however, the Honolulu airport was packed cheek-by-jowl with arriving tourists.
We didn’t think much about it until I sat down with the concierge at our hotel to make our first evening’s dinner reservations. Having taken my mother and her sister to Hawaii several times over the years, we had a hit list of favorite Honolulu restaurants to which I was eager to introduce the grandkids. And because we’d never had any trouble making reservations in the past, I made no effort to secure bookings in advance of the trip.
Imagine my shock when the concierge told me that nothing – and I mean nothing – was available. Left with no choice but to capitulate, I said, “Well, okay, we’ll just dine at the hotel restaurant tonight.”
“Nope,” he said. “It’s completely sold out as well.”
Okay, did any of you see WHITE LOTUS on HBO? In this mini-series about a bunch of entitled guests at a fancy Hawaiian hotel, one of the characters pitches a fit when he doesn’t get the precise suite he booked. I found myself channeling him.
“BUT WE ARE GUESTS HERE!” I informed the concierge.
Still nope. Impossible. Sorry, muggy fudder.
I soon discovered that the problem wasn’t with the hotel. All of Hawaii had been hobbled by COVID and the Hawaiian government’s response to it. In fact, that very day, the governor decreed that all restaurants had to reduce their indoor seating from 75% to 50%.
That was a massive headache for operators, and equally so for tourists. Consider that Europe was by in large off limits to vacationing visitors. Australia and any other South Pacific destinations were simply CLOSED. So guess what? After spending much of 2020 shut in at home, throngs upon throngs of vacationers from England, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, China, Korea, Canada and of course America made the same choice as Joanne and I. We all turned to Hawaii as the antidote to our cabin fever.
So, what did we do?
First we turned to Open Table. But according to it and all the other online booking resources we tried, not only was every restaurant booked that evening – they didn’t have any openings for the next TWO MONTHS! Really.
That left me with one option: Engaging directly with each restaurant manager – in person – to plead, persuade, and maybe offer one of the grandchildren in trade.
Occasionally, I was successful. Frequently, I was given choices like, “Would you prefer bar seating at 3:45 or a card table by the dumpster at 10:30 PM?”
The hit-the-pavement strategy is sound, however. When you engage someone face-to-face, it is more difficult for them to say no. Consequently, I was able to secure dinner reservations at some of my favorites. And when the manager finally said, “Well, okay…”, I immediately asked for a second night as well.
So, you winter travelers to Hawaii: FOREWARNED IS FOREARMED. Hawaii is flooded with tourists from around the world; all of them bound, determined – and largely unable – to visit their favorite vacation restaurants. Which means that if you’re planning to visit any of the islands this winter, call your hotel concierge and make your dinner reservations NOW! RIGHT NOW!
Here are some places where we succeeded in getting a table, and that we thoroughly enjoyed. I think you will like them as well.
JAPENGO…..at the Hyatt Kanapali on Maui.
The setting and the sunset are drop-dead gorgeous and dining is open-air. It’s mainly Japanese but with pan-Asian punctuations. Entrees are enticing, but can also make a meal of small plates if you wish. We ate here twice, and believe me: The food does not disappoint. It’s artfully plated, witty and full-flavored. Please do not pass on the Crispy Pork-Belly Bao Buns with pickled Maui onions, soy/mustard aioli and hoisin sauce…..$11 each. It would also be foolish to pass on the Korean Seafood Pancakes, loaded with crab and shrimp, cleverly seasoned with Gochujang (fermented red chili paste) aioli, and served with a sesame soy sauce for dipping (four modest, albeit delicious, pancakes for $22).
WOLFGANG’S STEAKHOUSE, in Waikiki.
Why go to Hawaii for a NY steakhouse experience? WHY NOT, when the restaurant is the creation of PETER LUGER veteran Wolfgang Zwiener? Located on the third floor of the Royal Hawaiian Shopping center right on Kalakaua Ave, Wolfgang’s Steakhouse mimics the Peter Luger formula, and largely succeeds, especially with its magnificent Porterhouse for Two. BTW, I mustn’t forget to thank the Hapsburg Dynasty for the gift of Apple Strudel, which at Wolfgang’s is as good as it gets. What wasn’t so good, alas, was the service. Our server was pleasant and well-intentioned but had only been there for two weeks. She didn’t know the menu or many of the ingredients, and she forgot our Wolfgang’s version of our Peter Luger favorite: their signature crusty German potatoes. Oh well. She was trying her best.
MOMOSAN, in Waikiki
Situated just down the street from Wolfgang’s Steakhouse, toward Diamond Head, is Momosan, one of two restaurants opened recently by dining legend Masahru Morimoto. The other, bearing its creator’s name, is geared more toward fine dining, and is located upstairs from Momosan.
Note that Momosan does not take reservations, so be prepared to stand in line. But the wait is worth it. Sushi, Nigiri and Sashimi reign, of course. The pan-fried Gyoza dumplings with their contrasting textures, supple and resilient bodies, and crispy edges tell you everything you need to know about yin and yang. If Soft-Shell Crabs are in season, by all means get them in the flash-fried crunchy Crab Bao Bun – $12, as a recall.
But occupying top billing are the several varieties of crazy-good RAMEN dishes. Now, great ramen is dependent on great broth (stream the documentary RAMEN HEADS for a delightful master class on the subject). And the greatest of Momosan’s ramen offerings is the Gyukotsu. Now, the testosterone count is not particularly high here, but Momosan’s Gyukotsu just might cause a metrosexual male to strip to the waist and howl at the moon. This is RAMEN FOR CARNIVORES – a clubable, strapping beef rib with fall-off-the-bone, burly beef nuggets that have been allowed to wallow for seven hours in rich, muscular, beefy broth and then loaded up with eggy noodles, bok choy, toasted sesame seeds, shitake mushrooms, and Korean-seasoned kale, then vividly garnished and flavored with a soft-cooked egg that’s been marinated for hours in soy, sake, mirin and sugar. The preponderance of the ramen dishes on the menu hover around $18. The Gyukotsu will set you back $28, but it’s well worth it. LIVE A LITTLE, BIG GUY!
SON’Z STEAKHOUSE, near Kanapali on Maui.
In normal times, we probably wouldn’t have done as many steakhouses in Hawaii, but SON’Z STEAKHOUSE is a worthy choice (and besides, how much poke can a fella eat?). Son’z is in the Hyatt hotel, but is an independently owned restaurant. Despite the labor shortage, our service was astute and seamless. The setting is a glorious Hollywood set, where outdoor tables overlook a swan-filled tropical lagoon with a waterfall.
It’s a typical New York steakhouse menu in many ways….and executed flawlessly. We started with the obligatory Shrimp Cocktail and pristine raw sliced Ahi tuna resting in a bracing mustard/sake sauce. Lamb Chops, at $47, were expertly grilled. I had a 12-ounce NY Strip ($57). No, it’s not MANNY’S, but it was good. Just-caught Mahi Mahi, according to Joanne, was the star of the show. However, my grandkids might take issue with her, having chosen the Wagyu Meatballs and the Wagyu Cheeseburger, both around $30.
So there you have it: Crowded beyond belief. Impossible-to-obtain restaurant reservations (well, almost impossible, even if you’re crafty). Congested roads. And a scarcity of hotel rooms.
Please, please plan ahead. These conditions won’t go away this winter.
You may ask, “But did we have a good time?”
The answer: “Did we ever!”
You might think that for us, that it’s all about the food, but the real pleasure for Joanne and me is watching our grandkids suck it all in – the beaches, the tropics, the monumental swimming pool with its own dark, secluded cave (outfitted with a TV for football games), and their discovery of ROOM SERVICE.
And something they’ll never forget: They learned to surf. They even managed to stand up!
Our biggest culinary disappointment…our favorite Hawaiian restaurant: MAMA’S FISH HOUSE…BOOKED SOLID THROUGH DECEMBER!!! NOT TODAY…SUCKER !!!!