Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Hawaii’s restaurant scene

There was a fascinating article in the August issue of Honolulu Magazine by food critic John Heckathorn describing the restaurant scene in Hawaii and the lack of new creative kitchen talent. He points out that Alan Wong, Sam Choy and Roy Yamaguchi all came along nearly 20 years ago but no one has stepped up recently. (although he does mention the talent of the owners of Sansei, Bev Gannon from Maui, and a few others)

Heckathorn argues that high real estate prices and the popularity of mainland chain restaurants are holding back the industry’s creative growth. (He claims servers can make a guaranteed $150 a night in tips, so new restaurants have difficulty hiring good staff) When I compare the eating out scene between Honolulu and Shanghai (the two cities I have the most experience eating out in), I am disappointed by Honolulu’s seemingly stagnant restaurant choices.

In Shanghai I was spoiled by new restaurants constantly opening, ridiculously cheap restaurant prices, and an international population who demanded a wide range of cuisines. I realize now that in comparison to Honolulu, restauranteurs did have it much easier in Shanghai with relatively cheap real estate, a large number of available spaces, cheap labor (although training them is another story…) and a wide range of fresh produce and meats.

In Shanghai, it seemed like everyone was opening a restaurant. So many of my friends were involved in the business, or knew someone who was. We delighted in eating out regularly and finding new places to try.

Being home in Hawaii, I noticed a few trends:
- people like to go back to the places they know; there isn’t as much stimulus to try out new restaurants
- you have to seek out small, unknown classic restaurants that have been around forever, because there isn’t an influx of new places to see

What would I like to see in the Hawaii food scene? More restaurants like Green Door: non-chain, ethnic food, low prices, and a charming owner.

The same article mentioned that Cheesecake Factory (Waikiki) has over $20 million dollars revenue a year. Unbelievable. Yes, they’re located in Waikiki and have access to the tourists. Yes, they can afford to rent/purchase a huge amount of square footage because they have the financial backing. But why are so many people eating there?? I guess it’s partly our fault too, for choosing to eat at these mainland chain restaurants and not giving local restaurants a chance.

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