When Good Eateries Close

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - January 09, 2008
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In the Honolulu restaurant world, 2007 may well be remembered as the year that restaurants closed. There are officially now fewer places to eat beef stew, saimin, oxtail soup, towering stacks of fluffy pancakes and banana cream pie. But 2007 was not just the year of closures (41 liquor licenses were not renewed last year), it was the year that restaurants closed overnight.

Palomino, TGIF and The Bistro were among the restaurants that served dinner one night and none the next. Customers were dismayed in March to find nothing for breakfast but a note of apology on the door of beloved Columbia Inn. An irresoluble dispute with landlords was given as the explanation for the sudden closure, but did nothing to temper the shock felt by longtime customers who thought of the staff as family.

The situation was similar in June in Kaneohe as Flamingo Restaurant closed after more than 20 years.

“In our hearts we wanted to renew our lease and continue,” said owner Sandy Chong, “but it just didn’t make financial sense.”

And it wasn’t just mom-andpop restaurants that closed their doors. Finer dining places felt the pressures too. I was particularly saddened to hear of the closure of OnJins Caf and Shanghai Bistro, both elegant restaurants serving excellent food, and both run by talented and determined women.

For OnJin Kim, a respected figure in the Honolulu culinary scene, endless construction outside her Kakaako restaurant and limited parking contributed to her decision to close.

For Shanghai Bistro’s Li May Tang, a dispute with landlords and rising rent costs were reasons quoted for the closure.

Expect to see more of this - and be prepared for some surprises - as we enter 2008. It’s a sad trend that shows no sign of slowing. Rising rents, minimum wage increases and higher fuel and food costs are problems facing all restaurants as we head into a new year.

But it seemed that as quickly as an old restaurant closed, a new one opened. Tourist-driven Waikiki proved cynics wrong, as restaurants such as Roy’s and Ruth’s Chris were busier than expected.

And the openings continue. Last month, the Beachhouse opened at Moana Surfrider, offering pricy breakfasts with a million-dollar view, and steaks and seafood at night.

In contention for one of the most gorgeous bars in the state,

Rum Fire opened beachfront at Sheraton Waikiki Dec. 29, while a mere block away Nobu continued to wow those with small appetites and large expense accounts.

But as we slice deep into the restaurant dining pie to fill these gorgeous restaurants, how can there be anything but crumbs left for our older, shabbier, haunts? And while its important that Honolulu maintains its high profile on the culinary stage, what’s the real cost? If we continue to be bowled over by brilliant design and distracted by designer sleight of hand, where will we go on a rainy January day for a bowl of saimin or beef stew?

The Hawaiian restaurant industry was built on a tradition of meaningful service and community involvement along with recipes passed down through generations.

Thankfully, in addition to new cutting-edge restaurants that both excite and inspire, we still have family-run operations like Sekiya’s (opened in 1935) and Fukuya’s (1939) and Highway Inn (1947) - all serving their own blend of culture and tradition. They may use outdated kitchen equipment and plastic plates with the patterns washed away, but they serve a taste of Hawaii that I, for one, hope we never lose.

Happy eating!

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