You don’t have to be a chef to notice the impact. Tourists and locals are encountering long lines and limited options, struggling to find restaurant reservations as many places didn’t reopen or are operating at limited capacity.
But of course, you can still eat incredibly well during a visit to Hawaii. Here are tips from locals on how to support the local economy and find great food during this unique time.
Book reservations far in advance
Should you already know specific restaurants you would like to visit while in Hawaii, do not wait until you land to book a table. Simeon urges travelers to make reservations far in advance of their trip, if possible. Getting a dinner on the books at iconic spots such as Pig & the Lady on Oahu or Mama’s Fish House on Maui — both fully booked for at least a month — is going to take a miracle.
The problem is there are fewer restaurants available for the growing number of tourists, as well as for the local residents eager to return to dining out. And some restaurants that did make it through the past year are operating at reduced capacity.
“The pandemic closed a lot of restaurants,” says Ryan Burden, founder of the coconut farm and cooking school Coconut Information. “For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been driving by restaurants and seeing lines out the door. There are hungry, angry people just going to eat whatever they can.”
Seek out mom-and-pop establishments
But as you make reservations, consider seeking out smaller mom-and-pop restaurants during your trip. Spending your money with local spots keeps more money in the community. Names you’ll hear Maui locals recommend often are Sam Sato’s, Cafe O’Lei, Esters Fair Prospect. The By The Way Guide to Honolulu has great locally owned options if you’re on Oahu, like Mud Hen Water.
“Go as small as you can because that’s going to make the biggest difference,” Burden says.
Burden’s other tip is to support restaurants in Hawaii that are buying local produce. Farmers are up against the competition of cheaper imports (about 85 to 90 percent of Hawaii’s food is imported).
Taylor Ponte, the chef behind Kamado, a private dinners and pop-ups business, says the farm-to-table movement has only gained momentum over the past decade. Before that, fresh, locally grown produce wasn’t as readily available as it is today.
One such place to see this in action is chef Lee Anne Wong’s Papa’aina at the Pioneer Inn, Hawaii’s oldest hotel in continuous operation. Wong says her pride and joy is the fruit plate, which features more than 20 types of Hawaii-grown fruits. Servers will tell you the locals come for the kanpachi collar when it is on the seasonal, locally sourced and ever-changing menu.
Explore the many facets of food culture in Hawaii
Most tourists concentrate on popular restaurants and hotel spots. Sticking to those will keep you from exploring the rich ecosystem of Hawaii’s food culture.
“Each island is slightly different, but in general, Hawaii is influenced by these different moments of time in its history — by immigrants and what was happening,” Simeon says. “You have to peel back the layers of history to get down to understanding the food.”
Simeon says for starters there’s the cuisine of kānaka maoli, the Indigenous Hawaiians, found at places like Helena’s Hawaiian Food on Oahu or Poi by the Pound on Maui.
“If you’re coming to the islands, go and seek out a place that serves Hawaiian food,” he says. “I’m talking about lau lau and Kalua pig and poi, that kind of stuff.”
Simeon also says to try food influenced by the different immigrants that came to work on Hawaii’s plantations.
“Filipino and Japanese and Korean and Puerto Rican — that all comes together in the most convenient way at local plate lunch spots,” he says. “You’ll see that at all those cultures kind of converge on one plate.”
Cook at home with local ingredients
For travelers staying in an accommodation with a kitchen, you have a special opportunity to cook with some of the best ingredients on Earth. But you have to shop local to find them. Find farmers markets during your visit to see Hawaii’s bounty in all of its seasonal glory. Not only will the produce and artisan products be fantastic, but you will also be supporting local farmers in the process.
Ponte says the pandemic seems to be ushering in a new era for Hawaii’s farmers markets. While Ponte’s go-to Kula farmers market, a.k.a. the Upcountry Farmers Market, was popular pre-covid, it’s drawing in bigger numbers and more diverse customers.
“You see more people coming with boxes and less people walking out with one mango, one avocado,” says Ponte, who was born and raised in Makawao, Hawaii. “They’re buying all of their groceries here now.”
Take that local produce, seafood (like Kauai prawns, Keahole Point lobster) and meat (check out Lopes farm) home to your condo or Airbnb and cook away. For seasoning, try one of Hawaii’s many salt products, such as black lava salt and red salt, made by mixing sea salt with alaea clay.
Embrace take out and grab-and-go
As coronavirus closed restaurant dining rooms around the world, we pivoted to a takeout lifestyle. Even with restaurants reopening, grabbing food to go is still a good call — particularly if you’re having trouble getting a table reserved in Hawaii.
Once you decide where to pick up food, you can take your meal to a beach park’s picnic table or just eat it in your car.
“We do tell [Tin Roof customers] to set up shop in the parking lot and get a tailgate going on,” Simeon says. “Make sure you have a cooler of beers and be ready to go.”