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Jul 9, 2009 11:54 AM

Why no great options on Kauai's north shore???

We just came back from a glorious trip to Princeville. The north shore is truly authentic HI!

Our only disappointment was the dining options in the area. We did not want to drive down to Kapaa, Lihue or Poipu just for dinner and even what is touted as the best in Hanalei was disappointing as compared to the options in Maui. Even the Foodland was not as good as the one we like in Lahaina which has multiple, wonderful fresh Poke options. The Princeville store only had prepackaged. Produce, meat and fish looked unexciting.

There are 2 small organic markets.......... one in Kilauea and one in Hanalei.

There is a fish market and a deli in Kilauea that sell local, grass fed beef and better quality fish. The bakery in Kilauea is also quite good for fresh baked bread, muffins and pizza. There is also a fish market that is attached to the Hanalei Dolphin restaurant which I cannot personally vouch for. I also hear that the the ice cream sold at the video rental store in that town is out of this world. Cute town to visit.

Lastly, strange as it may seem, the Chevron station in Princeville gets a shipment of vacuum sealed, free range, local organic meat every Thurs. They sold out by Fri. on 4th of July weekend, unfortunately.

We had app.'s at the Westin's restaurant and after having paid $15 for a 1/2 an ahi maki roll, we decided not to return. We went to the Prince Golf Resort for one of two local's sushi nights and had reasonably priced, OK sushi in a room that looked like it was designed for wedding receptions. Our other night out was to BarAcuda, considered one of the best in town. The atmosphere, service and concept were right on but the execution missed the mark. Beef was overcooked, flavors often had one ingredient that overpowered the rest. We were going to try to Postcards but read a few reviews about average preparations and that a server revealed that they sometimes serve a different fish than is on the menu and most tourists have no idea.........a deal breaker for me. All other reviews for nicer resto's were mixed so we just ate in.

We went to Duke's at the Marriott on the evening of our departure since it was close to the airport. Location was great but food was barely average. Whole wheat rolls were tasteless as was the salad bar even with interesting ingredients. Ribs were the right texture, with a good sauce but the meat was flavorless too.

We had better luck with local, inexpensive lunches. We grabbed a yummy teryaki ONO burger at the shack in Anahola and Red Hot Mama's fish tacos to go. Both we grabbed and then ate on the beach. Hanalei Gourmet was good but not worth the $15 for an average chic sand. Pizza slices at the bakery in Kiluea were fresh and handmade.

Our trip was wonderful but not a true chowish destination. Why so??

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  1. I am not trying to be argumentative, but I think that you are approaching this from entirely the wrong angle.

    You were literally at the end of the road on a small island 200 miles from the nearest large city (Honolulu) which is only accessible by ship or plane. And even that is 3000 miles from the US mainland, and slightly further to Asia. Imagine what the food in California would be like if the majority of it were shipped in from the east coast.

    The entire population of Kauai is less than 70,000 people. A population that small doesn't support much of an commercial agricultural base. Even locally grown produce has to be trucked in probably from Princeville, at a not inconsequential cost. And as far as I know there is no commercial fishing based on the north shore, again the nearest source of fresh fish is back in princeville.

    Most of the local industry is tourism, and the only local agriculture is taro. There used to be sugar, but it basically died more than a decade ago. If you look at the statistics on employment and pay scales as compared to the cost of living, I have a feeling you would be shocked. I wonder if you would find better food in anyplace else that is nearly as remote from the rest of the world as the north shore of Kauai. Like the signs say, it is far from Waikiki.

    I agree that it is wrong for the restaurants to sell tourists fish that isn't what is advertised. But when you have some beautiful fresh opakapaka or onaga, and it gets turned down with a whiny "why don't you have mahi-mahi?" time after time by tourists who would really be happier at sizzer, you tend to give up.

    You were looking for authentic Hawaii, and in many ways you found it. But authentic Hawaii is not about gourmet dining in upscale restaurants. It is about the uncle that sells organic meat from the gas station, or the auntie who sells fresh vegetables from her garage on most wednesdays. If you live there, if you are part of the community, then you know these things. After only a few days you found out about the gas station. You found that the inexpensive local places were better than the resort dining rooms. And you found that food in Hawaii is very expensive, even for the locals unless you stick to local food.

    Maybe it is time to revise your definition of chowish, or stay closer to the beaten path.

    8 Replies
    1. re: KaimukiMan

      I agree and I disagree. I am all for buying, authentic, local and organic. I think it was obvious that I was seeking that out. What you are explaining is why food items are expensive in remote areas. I also understand that.

      But yes, I have been to remote areas all around the world that are able to offer exquisite, yet simple cuisine that highlights a region's assets and culture. In this day and age, it does not mean that fresh and good quality groceries are not attainable. You are not THAT remote. If you can get it in Kapaa or Lihue, you can get it in Hanalei. People who are staying on the north shore are just traveling to the east and south to get their needs met. I would prefer to spend my time and dollars supporting the immediate, local economy.

      Nor does it mean that the pricey restaurants should be mediocre in service or caliber. Rudeness and inefficiency should not be tolerated in any culture. Fish and beef need to not be overcooked. Preparations need to be well thought out and not heavy handed on individual ingredients. Ingredients should be fresh.

      It's such a beautiful area, you are surely able to attract talented chefs, management and staff. Not to be employed by the resorts, but by individual restaurateurs and entrepreneurs that see a need and fill it. You can't tell me that there are no gourmet Hawaiian cuisine options to be found on any of the Islands.

      If you are going to designate yourself as a tourist destination, one of the key elements is dining. Especially for those of us who go out to dinner as our main evening activity. It's just a matter of whether visiting guests need to travel 45 minutes each way to find acceptable cuisine or foodstuffs or whether the same items can be transported to the north shore in bulk and sold or prepared there.

      It was our first visit to Princeville/Hanalei. We fell in love with it specifically because it was more remote and authentic. My complaint was not that there was nothing there, it was just that what was there was mediocre. I believe that there is plenty of opportunity for the existing locations to "step up to the plate."

      1. re: MSK

        Thanks for the thoughtful reply. Unfortunately time has shown that the amount of business and the clientele simply won't support that kind of dining experience. I couldn't agee more that it is unfortunate, and in truth the resorts may be cutting their own throats, but they historically have been unable to step up the quality or the service in spite of repeated attempts.

        While there are gourmet options to be found on all of the larger islands (and Kauai is borderline), they are in very specific locations. Virtually all of them need to rely on a mixture of both local patrons as well as tourists in order to survive.

        Even on Oahu, places like Turtle Bay on the north shore and Ko Olina on the west side have a very hard time supporting their upscale restaurants. Further out Makaha Valley Inn has given up. The local populations in those areas simply can't afford to eat there and most others are unwilling to drive that far out, just as you were unwilling to drive into Lihue.

        The gourmet restaurants in Kona on the Big Island as well as those on Maui face the same challenges. And Lanai, with its super deluxe resorts is not well known for the food that is served - even with an essentially captive audience.

        In short you asked why, and I gave you some answers. The tourist market has never supported the type of dining you had hoped to find in those remote locations. Hawaii has unique and confusing economic conditions based on a now vanished plantation economy. Almost any business anylist will tell you that there is virtually no place more difficult in the US to run a small business than Hawaii except parts of Alaska, and they have a much more business friendly legislative environment.

        1. re: MSK

          "My complaint was not that there was nothing there, it was just that what was there was mediocre."

          Over the decades, there was something there. None made it, because the tourists did not want fine-dining at any level, when they got there. They wanted funky, tie-dyed and very homey.

          The empty hulks of several of those, that tried to bring something else to the area, dot the landscape.

          At the end of the day, it is about what the tourists want. Hanalei has (or had) some good lunch spots. However, when the Sun goes down, the locals attend a family lu`au, while the tourists head back to Princeville.

          As for mediocre, you will have to query the tourists. I think that you'll find that most was something cheap, is familiar and offers large portions.

          Many have tried, and most have failed. It's the market and it is not getting any better. Heck, even the North Shore of O`ahu suffers from similar. Mediocre, cheap and familiar are king.

          I always look for North Shore Kaua`i reviews, in hopes that someone will make it and also make a mark on that part of a very wonderful island. Unfortunately, I think that the time is long past and probably not likely to happen in my lifetime.

          Elsewhere in Hawai`i, and especially on the Mainland, people flock to a Morton's, or to a Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, because they are mediocre and familiar, though "cheap" does not figure into these. Tourists want "adult McDonald's," and little more. The North Shore of Kaua`i is not unique, just a bit farther away.



          1. re: Bill Hunt

            "mediocre and familiar" , well said..

            When we stayed in the Poipu area last year we noted the same lack of fine dining opportunities. You just have to grin and bear it, after all you are in Paradise.

            1. re: DriverPhil

              We were obviously fortunate, as the general Poipu area did offer some good choices. Yes, it was uneven to a fault, but when they were great, they were great.

              I will admit that when I want a big food-fix in Hawai`i, I think of Honolulu, and include about 5 days of littel more than dining.


            2. re: Bill Hunt

              Thank you Bill.........I was hoping you would chime in. I've enjoyed your advise on other Islands in the past.

              I have to say I am quite fortunate and have the opportunity to travel often so not only do enjoy looking for specialties in local markets, I don't mind preparing them while on vacation (which is why we often stay in condo's). But, my observations also took into account the amount of people who, while on vacation say........."the last thing I want to do is shop and cook." I like having the option to do either but felt in Princeville, we chose to eat-in more by default for lack of great options.

              "The empty hulks of several of those, that tried to bring something else to the area, dot the landscape."

              I do agree with this statement. I am currently in North Lake Tahoe and although there are many wonderful local establishments in the region, my husband and I sat at dinner last night discussing the wonderful unique eateries that have come and gone in the many years we have been visiting. I guess it all comes down to supply and demand.

              For Tahoe, however, I can load up the car with all our favorites and bring them along. Especially if we plan a stop at Ikeda's market on the way or schedule our visit to include farmers market days.

              1. re: MSK

                We do not usually do the full dining route, but I do understand. Our local shopping is most often at mango, or papaya stands, where we also pick up some flowers for our room.

                I have a sinking feeling that there will be fewer, rather than more, decent restaurants, especially once one gets slightly off the beaten tourist track.

                We love that area of the Island, but have only found decent food at the lunch spots. We've been invited to go to Princeville, but have really not been too excited about the prospects.

                Now, I used to feel the same about the North Shore of O`ahu. Our last trip back there did prove that there could be really good food, that far from Honolulu. How they are all fareing is not known, at least by me. We hope to get back, but were invited to go back to Maui by the Ritz Carlton, Kapalua, so our O`ahu leg might be shortened, more than I had intended. May have to rely on the reports of others.

                Still, because I love the North Shore of Kaua`i, I read every report, in hopes that someone can catch lightening in the proverbial bottle. I wish them great fortune, and hope that they will be able to elevate the dining of the area to a new height. I also hope that the hoteliers in that area will step up and support these efforts via their concierges. It will be a tough time, which is unfortunate.



          2. re: KaimukiMan

            I agree - north shore is the closest I have come to heaven. Despite the extreme pressure to develop more and more, the locals are conflicted and want to retain some of the old Hawaii. That is why you won't get all those one lane bridges upgraded anytime soon. This is one time you will hear this chowhound say - food is way down the list, look at where you are.

          3. Everytime I visit Kauai, I enjoy dining there more...guess it's partly experience and posts on boards like this one. By the way, there is a new large-ish natural food market in Kappa, where 'Bamboo Works' used to be...going north through the center of Kapaa, where the street breaks into two, stay's just 2 blks down.

            1. One of the problems that you mentioned was having to pay $15 for a roll of sushi at the Westin. While the food at Nanea is IMO top notch (the restaurant is one of my favorites on island), it does come with a price. Food costs are obviously much higher here on Kauai than on the mainland and even higher than on Oahu and Maui for the most part. Then you add the labor costs. Bet you wouldn't think that the person who rolled that sushi probably makes at least $20 an hour. While the Westin is not a unionized property, almost all major hotel properties are, which really brings up wages on island (and wages are higher here to begin with due to cost of living). So, at the Westin there is very good food, but with a price. When St. Regis opens up, the same philosophy can be applied (and prices can be even higher, since it is a St Regis!).

              If I were to open a restaurant in Kauai, I wouldn't go to the North Shore. Housing rent is higher up there than it is here on the South Side, so I would assume that same would apply for commercial rentals as well. The market is much better down here, as well. Occupancy for hotels/condos is generally higher (people don't want to stay NS in the winter) and there are more hotels (people in condos can cook for themselves, whereas hotel guests are forced to eat out). Also, the south shore is a bit more conducive to travelers willing to spend money. Poipu is much more the resort destination, as compared to Hanalei, which is off the beaten track.

              Also, many of the restaurants serve mediocre food b/c they can. People are still going to come b/c options are limited. While many people chose Maui over Kauai due to dining options, people will still come to Kauai and Hanalei b/c of what it is. While you might not consider returning to Hanalei due to the dining options, that won't stop other people- Bali Hai is calling...

              With all of this being said, my favorite places to get food in the North Shore are the taco truck at Anini, Panda's Kitchen at Ching Young, and Nanea. Kaimukiman (who I think brought up many valid points) really hit the mark when he said Hawaiian dining is really about small, mom and pop local places (Hamura's is the best example). This is the food that we eat and what makes Hawaii what it is for all of the locals and residents. This is the food that we make well consistentl. Did you go to Mark's Place (or Keoki's in Lihue, Koloa Fish Market, Fish Express, etc, etc) and get a plate lunch? This is what you should visit Hawaii for, IMO.

              3 Replies
              1. re: Mag454

                For fine dining fans, to follow up on what Mag454 said about premium prices on the north shore, it looks like the flagship restaurant at the St. Regis is going to be a Jean-Georges. Again to support what Mag said about Po'ipu being the preferred fine dining area, I just heard that Merriman's is targeted to open in the Kukui'ula Village in late August after prior delays. I heard it from a Merriman's employee, but I'm not sure how reliable the info. is. Also, as mentioned by others, Red Salt just opened in Po'ipu 3 months ago. We had an outstanding dinner there about two weeks ago and plan to return sometime next week. Executive chef is Ronnie Sanchez, whose resume includes working for the better part of a year at El Bulli. Prices at Red Salt are comparable to Beach House.

                1. re: beantowntitletown

                  Yes, Merriman's will be opening in Kukui'ula shopping center as is another restaurant that is run by Jean Marie Josselin. The Tommy Bahamas Cafe pulled out a month or two ago. The shopping center is supposed to open Summer 09, but I predict it won't be until the fall.

                  1. re: Mag454

                    Thank you for the info.

                    I still miss Jean Marie Josselin's A Pacific Cafe in Kapa`a, on every visit.


              2. As frequent travelers to Hawaii, we go knowing that for food, Oahu is the place to go. Kauai, Maui and Big Island are more remote . I feel lucky if we can get a decent cup of coffee there. Even if something is good on Maui, I always know that Oahu does it better.

                I never go to these places expecting great food like I would find in LA. I do go there trying to find out what unique and special foods these places offer and then try them. Also if we find places for good food, I consider that a bonus. And I thank this board for making my annual trips to Hawaii more special and interesting.

                Economic realities are hitting Hawaii especially hard. I heard from a friend that the venerable Ilikai hotel in Waikiki has closed down with 20% occupancy. I would imagine all the hotels are feeling the pinch.

                Sorry to come down on you, but did you research the northshore of kauai for food? If so, you would have found out what everyone else here knows. As BH and others have stated, restaurants keep trying, and we all keep hoping something great pops up there.

                Regarding fish, I always consider what is fresh, not what is printed on the menu. That's the nature of seafood. I sure hope you don't go to a sushi bar with that attitude. Don't assume that the hamachi or the maguro are always going to be great. Ask the chef.

                I hope you don't let the lack of great food ruin future vacations. Do research. Go with the flow. Have reasonable expectations.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Ogawak

                  One of the great equalizers that O`ahu has, that other Islands do not is the international tourist trade, and the shere numbers. When one gets at all of the "beaten track," things get more difficult. It's like Olympic diving - one must calculate the "degree of difficulty."

                  As Ogawak stated, I always try to build in about five days on O`ahu, just for the food. Still, we've encountered some very worthy chow on other Islands, and on different sides of these. Yes, some have been shrimp trucks, and some fine-dining, but they do exist. One just has to look for them, and that is where CH comes in.

                  As one poster points out, my reviews were not done in the last 24 hours, so they cannot be current. This is where we "Mainlanders," must rely on the locals for updates. Much can change from Thursday to Friday, from one month ago to now, from one year ago, until this moment. While one can infer many things from an older review, it might not compare to the one from last night - though things can change, night for night.

                  I'm also sorry to hear that the Ilikai is on hard times. That was the first property, that I stayed at, on Hawai`i. We also did the penthouse with M-I-L and were impressed, though management had changed over the decades. About two trips back, we did Sarento's, atop the Ilikai. I had fond memories of other restaurants in that location, and hoped that Sarento's would live up to the memories. Unfortunately, they did not on many counts. Still, I tried.

                  With the exception of Moloka`i, and obviously Ni`ihau, we have dined on most sides of every other Island and have found great food everywhere. OK, some places might have been "down the road," a bit, but it was still there. One just needs to rely on the locals to help them find them.


                2. I live on Kauai.

                  I have to agree with several observations to say that it is very difficult for high end restaurants to survive long term on Kauai.

                  Jean Marie Josselin's "A Pacific Cafe" was during its time, one of the best restaurants in the state.

                  For a restaurant to survive here, it has to offer good food, at reasonable prices. Ulitimately it will be the local population that will support a restaurant during lean economic times when the visitor count is low.

                  The price of owning a small business in Hawaii is significant here, further reducing profit margins for the hard working restauranteur.

                  Tasty treats and culinary gems do exist on Kauai, but admittedly do take some searching out as well as a fair amount of inside knowledge.

                  Nothing is more sublime than a tree ripened mango or lychee when the summer comes. Nothing more tastes like home than a bowl of Hamura's Saimin on a rainy winter's day.

                  Come to Kauai to enjoy it's subtle charms, for it truly is life in the slow lane.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: wabi

                    Yeah - It is one of the 'secrets' to truly appreciate Kauai. When you go holo-holo from the mainland you got to get island time and just let things happen. I've seen it work magic on my family over the last ten years.

                    1. re: wabi

                      "Jean Marie Josselin's "A Pacific Cafe" was during its time, one of the best restaurants in the state."

                      I do agree completely. Our visits were the highlights, that will go down in memory of the Hawai`i that we knew. Though many years later, I can recount our orders, and the interactions with the hostesses. I do miss his Pacific Cafe greatly. Chef Josselin seemed to manage the right blend for tourists (such as we) and the locals. I can only guess, but would suspect that our dining nights were 60% local, and 40% tourists.

                      My heart, and my stomach, go out to the restauranteurs of Hawai`i. It was difficult to begin with, and will get more difficult in the near future. I wish them all great fortune, or my next trip will be all Bennigan's, and little else.



                      1. re: wabi

                        I cannot resit commenting on "the slow lane." While non-CH, we were driving on the North Shore. My wife was at the wheel, as I am always scouting locations and checking the lighting, etc. We had not encountered one auto on the road in over half an hour. We decided to turn around, and my wife chose a very long driveway. She turned in, and immediately, there was an auto behind us. The driver began honking like it was downtown New Orleans, at rush hour. Obviously, this was his driveway, and he had no intention of letting a tourist turn in, without a fuss. Two autos on the entire highway, and they were both using the same drive to do something. What were the odds? Not everyone on the Island of Kaua`i is driving in the "slow lane." Some people cannot leave the big city behind, even for a moment.

                        OK, now back to "chow" discussions."