Resurgence in Waikiki led by top chef
Top chefs are the main ingredient in Waikiki’s newest recipe for a successful economy.
The pandemic hit restaurants throughout Oahu hard, leading to more than 200 restaurant closures. And many were in Waikiki, which turned into a ghost town when tourism dried up. But while the pandemic created challenges, it also created opportunities for new players to enter Waikiki’s tight market, where limited supply and high demand had made finding the right location nearly impossible and certainly expensive.
In 2021 and 2022, dropping business in Waikiki gave way to closures and repositioning. More than 15 new restaurants opened in Waikiki, mostly smaller mom-and-pops in smaller spaces on ancillary streets or in food court venues. Now the completion of Waikiki’s hotel pandemic renovation cycle is giving rise to an even more exciting wave of development: the return of headliner chefs to the state’s top tourism district.
On July 14, chef/founder Peter Merriman opened Monkeypod Kitchen by Merriman at the Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort, which marked completion of the resort’s $85 million renovation. The 13,000- square-foot Monkeypod, the largest in the chain, occupies the former Shore Bird Restaurant space.
Chef Vikram Garg in April unveiled his first solo venture and independent flagship restaurant, UMI by Vikram Garg, in the Halepuna Waikiki by Halekulani, which was formerly the Waikiki Parc. It occupies the former Nobu Waikiki space.
Restaurant entrepreneur Hide Sakurai, the brains behind a number of popular Hawaii restaurants including the flagship Shokudo Japanese, Buho Cocina y Cantina and Sky Waikiki, is expanding his influence in Waikiki in an even bigger way. He opened in the ‘Alohilani, Lobby Bar on July 7 and held a soft opening for La Bettola Waikiki on June 14 with an official opening slated for Aug. 15. La Bettola is in collaboration with chef Tsutomu Ochiai, creator of the famous uni (sea urchin) pasta in Japan, where he is the country’s most recognized chef of Italian cuisine.
Retail analyst Stephany Sofos, who lives in Waikiki, said the post-pandemic real estate cycle is about the fourth major shift that she has seen in Waikiki since Hurricane Iniki in 1992. Another came in 2000 related to continued fallout from the Japanese bubble, and there was one after the 2008 financial crisis.
“This is how people get into Waikiki that have never been able to get into Waikiki,” Sofos said. “There was too high a barrier to entry before, but landlords have had a reality check. They are more willing to partner with tenants, and when that happens, everybody wins.”
Sakurai recognized that locations such as Kakaako were becoming saturated with new restaurants, and was already developing new restaurants in Waikiki before the pandemic. But since then he’s become even more bullish about Waikiki, which he calls “the icon city for the state of Hawaii.”
“A lot of people wanted to open businesses in Waikiki from the beginning; however, it is limited real estate, so they never, ever got a good opportunity to find an A-plus location,” Sakurai said. “After the pandemic, many restaurants closed down, and now there is a lot of new hotel owners and new development coming up. It’s an opportunity for a famous chef or for restaurateurs to find a good location.”
He said he also used the principles of supply and demand to reinvigorate the once popular Lobby Bar, which had been a popular hangout at The Modern Honolulu before it closed.
“I loved that bar. I took over the trade name,” he said.
He said Lobby Bar’s opening turnout made it evident that it fulfills a need for an avant-garde offering in Waikiki.
“I didn’t even tell exactly where, but hundreds and hundreds came,” he said. “I just made an Instagram post ‘Lobby Bar is back. Just in a different hotel. #IYKYK.’”
He said La Bettola also fills a need in Waikiki by offering high-quality Italian food with Japanese sensibilities at an affordable price-point. He said the menu will include much of what Ochiai is famous for in Japan, but will incorporate more fare in the style of Sicily, where the weather and climate are similar to Hawaii.
Sakurai said his favorite menu item is the uni bites appetizer, which is served out of an uni shell with a small spoon and pairs Maui onion, consomme gelee and uni. He said he also likes the Kamuela tomato caprese with tomato sorbet, gelato and burrata cheese.
La Bettola is open from 5 p.m to 11 p.m. daily, with the last seating at 10 p.m.
Merriman, a pioneer of Hawaii regional cuisine, said the opening of the Monkeypod Kitchen by Merriman in Waikiki has been years and years in the making.
“I had my eye on that spot for literally decades, and we were in negotiations for 800 days with Outrigger Hotels.”
Merriman got his start in Hawaii in 1982 as a cook for the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel, and it was in 1988 that he opened his first Hawaii restaurant, Merriman’s, in Waimea on Hawaii island. In subsequent years Merriman’s expanded to three more locations: Kapalua, Honolulu and Poipu. There are also Moku Kitchen in Kakaako and The Beach House in Koloa, Kauai.
The Monkeypod Kitchen by Merriman in Waikiki represents Merriman’s first foray into Waikiki and his fourth Monkeypod, which also has restaurants in Wailea, Kaanapali and Ko Olina.
When asked why he wanted to venture into Waikiki, Merriman laughed and said, “Who is the guy that robbed banks, and then (when asked why) said because that’s where the money is?”
“The tourist trade is so spectacular in Waikiki — it’s a wonderful place to do business. Waikiki is such a beautiful spot. We have those beautiful Diamond Head views,” he said.
He said the Kalia Road location also provided appeal because it is at the end of Waikiki, which allows locals easy access.
“It was the right space at the right time. It just took that long for the right space to open up and become available,” he said.
The space is about 30% larger than the other Monkeypod restaurants and is opening with a staff of about 280. It differs from other locations because it will stay open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and is the only Monkeypod that serves breakfast.
Merriman said the new breakfast menu is built around local ingredients, which make up about 65% of the restaurant’s ingredients. For example, he said a popular dish, Monkeypod Mai Tai Flapjacks, features Kula Rum butter syrup, honey lilikoi foam and Maui pineapple. He said his favorite dish on the new breakfast menu is the Zucchini Ricotta Omelette, made from local zucchini, house-made ricotta with mixed greens and Ma‘o Farms mint.
UMI by Vikram Garg opened April 17 with breakfast service, which runs from 7 to 11 a.m. daily. Dinner service, which began on Mother’s Day, runs from 5:30 to 10 p.m., with the last seating at 9:30 p.m.
The name UMI, which means ocean in Japanese and mother in Arabic, is a nod toward Vikram’s menu, which he says is a “celebration of the ocean’s harvest.”
Garg, who hails from India and honed his culinary skills across the globe, describes his latest venture “as coming back home,” since he was head chef at the Halekulani from 2008 to 2016.
“It was an opportunity for me to do something independent. All my other projects have been in partnership with other people,” he said. “The critic is my guests. I have to make something that my guests enjoy.”
To do that, Garg focuses on meeting his guests’ own comfort-food palates, blending it with the grown- up palates that they have acquired through travel and experience, and taking it to a level beyond their expectations.
“It’s taking the grown-up palate while not losing the DNA of the people,” he said.
His menu is a mix of the flavors and techniques of Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North America, with influences from Hawaii’s own melting pot. He also likes to incorporate the umami (savory) flavors of kombu (algae), miso and sake —fermented food flavors that he said were less commonly used in the past by Michelin-style chefs.
There are three prix-fixe tasting menus, or guests can choose from an a la carte menu. There are some surprises, such as a curry tasting menu served with Koshihikari short-grain rice from Japan or a second- course popcorn soup with spiced lotus seeds. Among the main dishes, there is a rib-eye that has been aged by a culturing process with koji, a strain of Japanese fungus, and served with okra tempura and a soy-pepper sauce. There also is a miso-crusted monchong with watercress and lotus root. The flavors of Hawaii shine in a Pavlova with lilikoi, mango, hibiscus, anglaise and 24K gold.
Garg, who is based in his own kitchen except when traveling, also offers a bespoke menu.