An affordable, family-run restaurant in Waikiki
Friday - February 06, 2009
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On any day of the week, you’ll find a steady stream of tourists walking from their hotels in Waikiki to have breakfast at Wailana Coffee House.
But there’s more to Wailana than inexpensive, 24-hour dining. The family restaurant, established in 1958 by Francis Tom, has changed with the times and continues to offer service and a smile with every order.
I had breakfast and a chat with general manager Kenton Tom.
Jo McGarry: Did Wailana begin as a coffee shop?
Kenton Tom: No, not really. My father had a concession at the Honolulu Zoo originally, and then in 1958 he moved here to 1860 Ala Moana Blvd. When he opened it was as a drive-in, and it expanded over the years. We had car-hop service, then a sit-down counter, then self-service and finally a dining room and a bar. Today the restaurant is about 8,000 square feet and seats 250 people.
JM: I imagine it must have been quite a different Waikiki when your father started his business.
KT: Yes. This was really just a dirt road in the country. There were no hotels, no Hilton Hawaiian Village, just a dirt road and some rocks and coral between us and the ocean.
JM: Is it still very much a family-run affair?
KT: Yes. My sister Joanna Leong is responsible for administration and human services, I’m the general manager, and our brother Malcolm Tom is the financial adviser.We all started working here when we were young. I started working on the self-service counter. In those days we sold five hamburgers for $1, and my brother used to work the ice cream fountain.
JM: I hear great things about your bar.
KT: Oh, it’s a lively place! It’s changed over the years as people have changed, but there are a very lively group of characters in a Cheers-like atmosphere. It’s a very welcoming place.And there’s a regular karaoke crowd.One of our regulars actually won the national karaoke contest in Vegas. We have a happy hour that lasts all day until 9 p.m. and anyone can walk in and feel welcome.
JM: Are you best known for breakfasts?
KT: I think we’re known primarily as a value family restaurant that’s open 24 hours.We have local foods like fried rice, kalbi and teri chicken, but we also have lots of American-style dishes like New York steak, sandwiches and fried chicken. So there’s something for every taste.
JM: The style of the restaurant has changed over the past 50 years. Have any of the dishes stayed the same?
KT: Some of them have. Our eggs Benedict is a favorite, and that’s been the same for a long time. Our roasted chicken is the same, and we do our kalbi and our teri chicken the same way we’ve been doing them for decades.
JM: Your meatloaf has an impressive 82-word description on the menu. You must all be very proud of this extraordinary dish.
KT: (laughs) Yes, we are. It’s not your standard meatloaf! It’s a recipe that was developed in 1969. Our general manager at the time, Mel Campbell, helped to develop it. It has a little caper sauce and lots of different spices ... and it comes complete with a salad, roll and a chocolate sundae. It’s quite different from any other dish, and it’s definitely one of our best-sellers.
JM: One of the things I always notice about Wailana is that you make a huge effort to offer “themed” dinners - from starch dinners for the Honolulu marathon to corned beef on St Patrick’s Day.
KT: (laughs) My sister Joanna and I work hard to put those menus together.We enjoy coming up with new ideas for special events. We have a Valentine’s weekend special coming up next week that includes Cupid’s Breakfast and Romeo and Juliet Prime Rib ... it’s a lot of fun. And we adapt the menu, too, to suit changing tastes. Right now we have an Alaskan salmon burger and we have healthy choices, if people want them.
JM: Obviously you’re a great destination for tourists, but whenever I come here, I’m always struck by how many local people eat here.
KT: I think that the local people are part of the reason the tourists come. I think tourists realize if they see local people going to a place, then they’re probably going to get good value. For locals, we have lots of favorite dishes - and the parking is just 50 cents for two hours.
JM: There are so many restaurants struggling right now with the state of the economy.What do you think is a secret to staying busy?
KT: We’re all feeling the effects, I think, of this economy. Right now it’s a bit of a battle, and no one really knows from one day to the next what will happen. But I think that happy employees give good service, and a value-for-money menu hopefully keeps people coming back. Our father was a real people person who worked very hard and who believed in taking care of his employees. I think that’s important in this business.
JM: What’s your favorite dish on the menu at Wailana?
KT: The kalbi fried rice combo plate and the fresh catch of the day, depending on what it is.
JM: Do you think your father would be happy with the way the coffee house is today?
KT: I’m sure he’d be happy, but I’m also sure he’d want us to be working even harder!
1860 Ala Moana Blvd Honolulu, HI 96815 955-1764
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