Da Cove Health Bar
The acai trend waxed and waned in the continental United States, but not in Hawaii, where acai bowls have only swelled in popularity over the past decade. Join the surfers, still damp from a morning session at Diamond Head, at Da Cove. The Hawaiian bowl, along with the usual fruit, granola and honey, is topped with paiai — mashed taro, and an ancient Hawaiian staple — a blend of old and new, traditional and trendy.
BTW: If you can’t snag one of the few outdoor tables, bring your bowl down the block to Kapiolani Park, a green expanse adjacent to the beach.
da Cove Health Bar and Cafe, 3045 Monsarrat Ave. No. 5 Honolulu, HI 96815
By the shipping docks, in an industrial area of warehouses and auto body shops, Ethel’s Grill is a cozy shrine to sumo wrestlers (spot photos of sumo celebrities on the walls) and local Japanese comfort food. Sit down at one of the six tables and order the morning miso soup, loaded with veggies; kimchi ahi donburi; and Japanese hamburger steak with grated daikon.
BTW: Locals trek out here for the taco rice, an Okinawan creation influenced by the Japanese island’s American military presence.
Ethel’s Grill, 232 Kalihi St. Honolulu, HI 96819
You won’t find poke any better than in Hawaii. You just won’t. And few places make it better than Ahi Assassins. Fisherman Joshua Schade helped begin this business by selling fish off the back of his boat, and then he and co-owner Erika Luna moved into a not much bigger space wedged in the top corner of a small commercial building. Find about a dozen poke varieties, from the spicy Lunatic to the ginger scallion Pake (local slang for Chinese), at this takeout-only spot.
BTW: Grab a tub of the smoked marlin dip for the beach later.
Ahi Assassins Fish Co., 2570 S. Beretania St. Honolulu, HI 96826
Helena’s Hawaiian Food
Join the line (don’t worry, it moves fast) at Helena’s, a no-frills, fluorescent-lit joint where the walls are peppered with awards from publications and the James Beard Foundation, as well as photos of the founder, Helen Chock, who started the restaurant in 1946. Her grandson, Craig Katsuyoshi, now runs it and serves the same menu of Hawaiian staples: poi, kalua pig, laulau. The restaurant’s most famous item, though, is the pipikaula, soy sauce marinated short ribs air dried and then fried in cast-iron pans. Everything comes in little melamine plates and bowls alongside dishes of sliced raw onion, coarse salt and haupia (coconut pudding), the entire spread like tapas, Hawaiian style.
BTW: Order Menu D, which comes with all the most popular dishes and is enough food for two, and add on the fried butterfish collar.
Helena’s Hawaiian Food, 1240 N. School St. Honolulu, HI 96817
The Pig and the Lady
Celebrities make it a point to dine at the Pig and the Lady — even Kurt Russell has taken a photo in the “Big Trouble in Little China”-themed bathroom. The contemporary Vietnamese menu changes frequently: spotted recently are the prime rib pho and fried rice and daikon cake with banh mi pickles and trout roe. Save room for the soft-serve swirl, with flavors like pandan custard and pineapple yuzu sorbet, and the Hanoi egg coffee, the Vietnamese version of a cappuccino. (Disclosure: Guide writer Martha Cheng was a founder of the Pig and the Lady’s original pop-up in 2011.)
BTW: Check the Pig and the Lady’s farmers market schedule for a street-food-style experience and casual menu of noodles and banh mi, including the must-try pho French dip.
The Pig and the Lady, 83 N. King St. Honolulu, HI 96817
Mud Hen Water
Ed Kenney offers the smartest take on Hawaii cuisine since macadamia-nut-crusted fish and wasabi beurre blanc were invented. The islands’ unique blend of cultures, from native Hawaiian to Chinese, shine through the grilled paiai basted with teriyaki sauce, beef tongue and broccoli, and a beet poke where you won’t miss the fish at all. (The restaurant’s name is a literal translation of Waialae, home to three of Kenney’s restaurants.)
BTW: Brunch is also worth checking out (though the service can be slow), with pork sisig — sizzling chopped pig head, Philippines style — and biscuit and mapo gravy.
Mud Hen Water, 3452 Waialae Ave. Honolulu, HI 96816
Liliha Bakery began in 1950, and although new locations have opened since then, only the original is open 24 hours a day and exudes a nostalgic charm at its diner counter. From the late-night hours to dawn, everyone from the young and restless to police officers shuffle through, giving way to seniors, awake before sunrise. They come for chargrilled cheeseburgers and loco mocos, for waffles and pancakes, served by a staff that has been working there for decades.
BTW: Don’t miss the waffle — thin and crisp, tasting like it was fried in butter.
Liliha Bakery, 515 N. Kuakini St. Honolulu, HI 96817
Bar Leather Apron
Going to this bar is probably one of the few instances where you want to head toward smoke. It’s hard to find Bar Leather Apron, concealed in the mezzanine of an office building, but you’ll know you’re close when you smell burning wood, the result of some intentionally smoldering cocktails. So yes, there’s a lot of pomp served here, but also precision in technique and flavors in drinks like a matcha old-fashioned and a mai tai, which (if you’re sitting at the bar) arrives smoking and in a hollow tiki-shaped box.
BTW: Make a reservation for one of the six seats at the bar (vs. the lounge) to get the full experience.
Bar Leather Apron, 745 Fort St. #127A, Honolulu, HI 96813