Hawaii’s Restaurant Hall of Fame
The Hawaii Restaurant Association unveils the first inductees into Hawaii Restaurant Hall of Fame. They are remarkable mix of people who did much to shape the way we dine out and socialize.
By Chad Pata
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For most families, their favorite restaurant is like a close relative.You spend time with them on holidays, they know your good and bad sides, and when you’ve been away you crave your favorite dish more than dear old Mom’s.
Yet with the gentrification of Honolulu, more and more momand-pop shops are closing in the face of corporate chains. These restaurants, once such a part of our Island lifestyle, are now becoming just a memory of simpler times.
This is why the Hawaii Restaurant Association is inducting its inaugural class into the HRA Hall of Fame. There are 12 “legacy"members in this first class that the HRA wants to recognize as the restaurants that helped shape our appetites in order to preserve their memory.
“We decided that the first group of inductees would focus on people who had been in the industry prior to 1960,” says Gail Chew, executive director of the HRA.
“We began thinking of them as our legacy inductees. We know when it comes time to revisit new inductees for next year, it’s going to be wide open.”
They are to be honored at the HRA’s 60th anniversary dinner Monday, Sept. 17, at the Hawaii Prince Hotel, with MidWeek columnists Jo McGarry and Bobby Curran emceeing the event.
Featured food will come from the “Chefs of Aloha,” who are made up of the modern faces of Hawaii’s restaurant scene, and surefire Hall of Famers themselves: Sam Choy, Russell Siu, Alan Wong and others.
While proceeds will go to fund scholarships at the Culinary Institute of the Pacific, the real focus will be on the past.
Before our chefs were all over television, and back when “Eurasian"was simply the answer when Mrs. Chang’s children asked about their heritage, there were “our” restaurants.
Places like Wisteria, opened in 1952, somehow made it OK to have hamburgers and sukiyaki on the same menu. The decoration of the place reflected the menu as it had the feel of a greasy spoon, but was adorned with Japanese artwork.
Families cherished it for comfort food and the flexibility of being able to have a good local Japanese meal, while visitors from the Mainland could have something not so foreign to them.
Local barman Jonathan Schwalbenitz used to take his mother, Pat, there when she visited from New Jersey.
“It was always her first meal and last meal in Hawaii,” says Schwalbenitz.“She loved the pork tofu they used to serve for free in the bar. It didn’t matter if she had been away for a year, as soon as she walked in the door they had a plate of that pork waiting for her before anything else.”
Another spot that exemplified that family atmosphere and focus on personalized service were the Flamingo restaurants started by Steve Nagamine. An Okinawan immigrant, Nagamine rose through the ranks in the service industry until he owned seven stores that covered the island.
“Being an immigrant and having such success really humbled him,” says Jean Shimabukuro, Nagamine’s daughter who runs the two remaining stores on Kapiolani and in Pearl City.“He always said how lucky he was and how this was beyond his wildest dreams.”
The first store opened in 1950 on the space now occupied by Restaurant Row. Their focus was on giving complete meals including entrée dinner rolls, soup or salad, dessert and a drink. His blue-collar attitude attracted the public who appreciated getting a fair meal with a smile.
While the Flamingo chain has dwindled, the Columbia Inn has joined Wisteria in the “do you remember ...” category of local eateries. The Kapiolani location, now home to a Lexus dealership, was the spot of not just comfort dining, but heady conversations. Located next door to the Hawaii Newspaper Agency, top journalists and politicians - as well as entertainers and sports figures - would gather at the round table in the bar. Thousands of debates were held here fueled by the “coldest beer in town”- and if the table could have talked, well, they’d have to burn it. Getting a seat at the round table was always a tough ticket, but all were welcome to come and dine.
“My father taught us how to welcome everyone, from news reporters to ordinary people to sports celebrities,” says Gene Kaneshiro, son of Tosh.
Their celebrity status was legendary. Photos on the wall included Tosh’s personal friend Tommy Lasorda, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ longtime manager. On the floor was a tile proclaiming “O.J. sat here”- from his visit in 1969 for the Hula Bowl. When he was in town, Sen. Dan Inouye always came by for the Wednesday special, oxtail stew.
But in speaking of his late father, it isn’t the stars that come up.
“I would say that his love for being around the restaurant was his life,” says Kaneshiro.“He and my mom used to have a Thanksgiving special lunch/dinner for the single people who hung around the restaurant/bar, and would charge a small flat fee for an all-you-can-eat-and-drink party. That was how they ran the
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