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Big Island chow

My husband and I are heading to the Big Island next week for our first-ever Hawaiian vacation. The main premise of the trip is to see the volcano, but we'll also be spending some time near Kailua Kona. I've printed out all the old trip reports and threads I could find, but most of them are pretty darn old. Does anyone have any good current info on the chow scene? I'm not too interested in fancy food on this trip, although I'm happy to drive up to Merriman's if everybody tells me it's totally worth it, but we're not into the resort places. What I'm mainly interested in are recommendations for plate lunch, pizza, burgers, ice cream and fish tacos, in either Kona or Hilo regions; also great places in the Kona area to sit outside and drink booze. I figure in Volcano (assuming it's not evacuated) we'll probably go to Thai Thai and Kilauea House while we're there, but I'm pretty easy. I want a low-stress vacation, but I want my food to taste good, too.

Places on my short list so far:

Kona Brewing Company
Jake's BBQ
Coffee Shack
Cafe Pesto in Hilo
O's Bistro

Any thoughts? I appreciate any insights!

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  1. In Volcano I think you mean Kilauea Lodge, Volcano House is in the Park and not so great.

    In the Kona area the plate lunch at KTA market is oft recommended. Most of the recs you read would probably still be pretty up to date... things don't change very fast on the big island (but then I live on Oahu).

    2 Replies
    1. re: KaimukiMan

      You're quite right, I was thinking Kilauea Lodge but got sidetracked thinking about Volcano House. Is it at least worth going to V.H. for the view?

      1. re: Freida

        absolutely, but you don't have to eat there. there is also a series of pictures on the wall of the various buildings over the years. you might also consider keawe kitchen in volcano village, very fresh, make their own breads, pizza crust, etc. Kilauea Lodge remains my favorite - but only open for dinner. Lava Rock Cafe is so so, sometimes good, sometimes ok. In any event, enjoy! Aloha

    2. Kona Brewing: go for the beer. The food's edible, but keep your expectations in check.
      Big Jake's is okay, but nothing to write home about.
      Cafe Pesto is pretty good.
      O's Bistro has mediocre food at confiscatory prices.
      Avoid Volcano House.

      Other places to consider if you're in the area:
      Island Style Cafe in Waimea (Kamuela) for plate lunch.
      Ceviche Dave's in Kona for (you guessed it) ceviche.
      Manago Hotel in Captain Cook for pork chops.
      Teshima's in Kealekekua for Japanese.
      Ning's in Pahoa for Thai.

      1 Reply
      1. re: alanbarnes

        Correction: it's the Hawai'ian Style Cafe in Waimea. The Korean-influenced dishes (kalbi ribs, Korean fried chicken) are especially good. I own the "Fat Boys Club" t-shirt. 'Nuff said.

      2. Sounds like you want good food at good value.
        Try Manago hotel for sure! The pork chops are amazing. I ordered the shrimp (Mistake) and kept sampling my spouse's pork chops. Really basic place but service is friendly and efficient. Served family style ( Captain Cook)
        Kona brewing company is a place to check out. Tried the beer sampler ( 4 - 6 oz beers .... your choice for $8) Good deal We really liked the Wailua Wheat, a Lilikoi flavored lager I believe. Could not find it in the retail market. Quite a nice and unique taste. Smooth. Pizza ..pricey.. so so taste. Go for Lunch.
        Enjoy the Big Island !

        1 Reply
        1. re: easily amused

          Thanks, I appreciate the input. We live halfway between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., so we have tons of great restaurants to choose from when we really want to splurge. On Hawaii I really just want to have a fun but casual experience.

          We've been able to buy several Kona beers at our local supermarket, but I'm looking forward to trying their others. Too bad it sounds like the pizza's not great, but I still want to go.

          Looking forward to it!

        2. This is just the post I was looking for. I'm heading to the big island at the end of May for a conference in Kona. Thanks for the recs!

          11 Replies
          1. re: pollymerase

            Do not forget to do a "search this board," as I have done several reviews (mostly higher-end spots), and many others have filled in the blanks. Do not be put off if the reports go back a bit, as most of the chefs, who I met on my first trip to the Big Island, are still cooking and cooking well, on the last trip. Do not be hesitatnt to go back a few years. "Island time" runs a bit more slowly, than on the Mainland.

            Aloha,
            Hunt

            1. re: Bill Hunt

              Thanks, Hunt. I have a huge printout of old threads, so if we find ourselves wandering around somewhere hungry I can pull out a few ideas of places to look for. Nice to know things haven't changed too much!

              Do you think Merriman's or Daniel's are worth the splurge? They both look awfully expensive compared to similar places on the mainland, but if they offer something really unique I'm willing to go for it. I love restaurants with seasonal menus featuring locally produced food.

              1. re: Freida

                Freida,

                I have yet to get to Merriman's, but will next trip. Back in Dec. Alan Wong asked again, if I had gotten there, and I was embarassed that I had not. However, I had not been to the Big Island since he last pressured me to dine there. I feel that if he's that big a fan, I have missed something special.

                If "Daniel's" is Daniel Thiebaut's, then it is worth the drive. Only concern that I have is that his Web site has been down for some time. Last time I recommended it, I did a Google and it seems that it was still open at that time - about five mos. back. You might want to call, just to be sure. Going back about 2 years, I did a review of the Big Island higher-end eateries and his was featured for a lunch and then a dinner, later that evening. It was a lot of driving from Waikolo, but worth every mile. It was probably #3 on that trip, which is very good. Being just behind an AW restaurant, Hualalai Grille and another at the Four Seasons, Pahu i`a should tell you how highly I thought of it.

                Hunt

                1. re: Bill Hunt

                  I love Merriman's. As one of the founding HRC members Peter Merriman has consistently sourced the best ingredients and lets them speak for themselves. I like the lamb chops (often you have to order them right away or they run out) before other items to get your order.
                  They have roasted corn that is worthy of dessert quality. It is far but if you go early then you don't have to drive back so late at night.

                  I was just at Mauna Lani and very much enjoyed my meal at Canoe House, directly behind the restaurant now is the most amazing herb garden full of huge plants that contribute to the varied flavors. I know there are many who don't like CH but it was really a fabulous meal and beautiful evening/sunset.

                  1. re: manomin

                    I am certain that his founding status is the reason that AW instists that we go. I do not want to dissapoint him, since he never dissapoints me.

                    Glad that you had a good experience at Canoe House. Going back three trips to the Big Island, we did it on some heavy recs. It was a lovely venue, but that was where it ended. The service was very poor and the wine service even worse. The food fell to lower 20% of that trip, but the tab was in the upper 5%. Now, this was when the islands were overrun by Oriental tourists with very, very deep pockets. If you look at my profile, you'll see that I am accustomed to high-priced restaurants, but that is no excuse for on offering dessert wines by the .375, starting at US$395 and going up to US$2900. Nothing by the glass. Just doing a quick calculation, based on my cellar, they were asking 600% markup OVER retail. We took them off the list, and have not returned. Now, the economy has changed, and they have had at least 2 management changes, plus at least as many chef changes. Maybe it's time to give them another go, because, as I said, the venue was great - just everything else was very poor.

                    I greatly appreciate hearing what I would consider a major turn-around. Thanks for the update. I've had "faves," that failed, and some "passes," that re-did their entire program.

                    Mahalo,
                    Hunt

                    1. re: Bill Hunt

                      The executive chef is a Roy's alum from the original Hawaii Kai
                      she was there in the very beginning and has worked her way
                      around the world recently in Hong Kong. It was really a great meal
                      and they did have dessert wines by the glass. Our server(s) were
                      really good and took good care of us and all their tables. I met people in the pool who liked so well they went back more than once. You should try it again sometime!

                      1. re: manomin

                        Next trip to the Big Island, I shall. Thanks for the info and the recs.

                        Aloha,
                        Hunt

                        1. re: manomin

                          Question: did she ever do a stint at the Wiakoloa Roy's in the early days. Her resume sounds familiar. If so, she's wonderful. Wish I could recall the name of the exec. chef, that I am thinking of, and the servers at Waikoloa, when I last visited, were but infants, when she was there, so they could not help.

                          Someone in the Roy's group indicated that this lady had moved up to corporate, but others mentioned Hong Kong.

                          Do you happen to have a name? The chef, about whom I am thinking, had a Southwest (US Mainland) heritage, and brought that take to Roy's foods.

                          Hunt

                          1. re: Bill Hunt

                            From another perspective--we dined at Canoe House in January. Indeed a pretty spot, though I still prefer the view from Pavillion (how I hope that re-opens in it's original form). The service at CH was fine, the food was. . .eh. Pretty presentation and the quality was fine, it just wasn't terribly inspired. Nothing on the menu jumped at me as something that I couldn't do at home or that I hadn't thought of before.

                            Anyway, just another thought when you look to spend your dining dollars.

                            1. re: gourmanda

                              Our biggest problem was the service and the fact that all was dedicated to the Japanese businessman on an expense account. The wine service and offerings were embarassing. I do not mind spending tons of $, but I want to feel wanted and also want to have offerings that do not reflect a +600% markup and an attitude.

                              As I said, our last visit was many chefs ago, plus many economic changes ago. Things have likely morphed to reflect the general economy now. Maybe Mainlanders are not looked down upon and the wine list is not dedicated, 100%, for those with millions of ¥ to spend on one meal.

                              Maybe next trip, we'll give it another try.

                              Please give a report,
                              Hunt

            2. You mentioned a coffee shop. In kona, Kona Joes has to be the most scenic coffee bar we have ever been to. We were lucky enough to have the entire place all to ourselves in early December. O fond memoies. A pot of french press peaberry and that incredible view.
              There are some great coffee shops in Hawi as well.
              Enjoy, the Big Island is incredible. ;)