HONOLULU, HAWAII – Exploring Honolulu’s Cocktail Scene
After a dreamy week in Hawaii, I have a slew of recommendations to share in a multi-part series. Last issue, I covered farmers market street food in Honolulu and on the North Shore of Oahu. This time, we sleep and drink in Honolulu, on the hunt for the best. Next issue, we’ll talk Honolulu restaurants.
Though I arrived with romantic Blue Hawaii dreams, resplendent with leis, Elvis serenading, and me in a vintage bathing suit with a mai tai, I must say the reality is no letdown.
There is the expected tourist scourge of chain shops, restaurants and throngs in Waikiki, but contrary to what some told me, for Hawaii’s largest city, it’s clean and relaxed. Though you truly find island time on Kauai and quieter locales, Honolulu is by no means hectic (other than the traffic). It is that island city you can while away beach hours in, explore hole-in-the-wall eats, or listen to live music as the sun sets.
LOBBY BAR at THE WAIKIKI EDITION – The cocktail renaissance is finally hitting Hawaii and there’s a handful of places and bartenders forging the way.
One is in this brand new hotel right off the front lobby through a cracked bookshelf. It’s no speakeasy, rather a white, urban bar, muted lighting and long couches exuding a semi-exclusive yet unpretentious air.
But where the hotel’s bar menus are somewhat typical for the area, the Lobby Bar is special.
Bar Manager Sam Treadway hails direct from Boston and none other than Drink, its most well-known cocktail bar. He’s loving warm island breezes, letting them influence local classics like the Mai Tai, but deconstructing it, literally. Deconstructed Mai Tai ($11) tones down the sweet factor, amps up the rum (Pyrat XO) and orgeat (almond syrup), then is topped with Mai Tai foam and a shiso leaf.
Treadway served me a lovely Rum Manhattan made with Montecristo 12 year rum. Mezcal is another spirit he’s handy with. The Agony & the Ecstasy ($11 – nice literary reference) is a winning mix of Del Maguey’s Mezcal Vida, St. Germain, fresh grapefruit juice, topped with house ginger beer. Spiced, smoky, gently sweet.
Even better? He whipped up another treat with Mezcal Vida, Campari and Soda. Yes, a Mezcal Negroni. I could hardly believe I was saying I wish I could get one of these in my own Negroni-obsessed city.
TOWN , Kaimuki - Another of the city’s great bartenders is Dave Power at Town. Just a few minutes drive from Waikiki, Town feels like I’m back home in San Francisco. Local, organic foods done with rustic, Italian technique but all-American heart, animal parts and classic cocktails (all $10).
Power executes cocktails simply but beautifully, even with a literary bent. His Tequila Negroni is a revelation. He explains that his inspiration is M.F.K. Fisher‘s love of equal parts in her Negroni. He likewise does equal parts gin, vermouth, Don Julio Reposado and Campari infused with local Hawaiian Kiawe wood chips for gentle smoke.
He makes a Very Very Good Martini (yes, that’s its name) with my beloved Death’s Door (something you don’t see in these parts much) and a White Manhattan with “moonshine” (white whiskey) and Dolin Blanc vermouth.
I’d recommend eating and drinking here. It’s a special place that evokes other big cities but with Hawaiian ingredients and laid back charm.
MAI TAI BAR, Waikiki – I am in love with the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Jumping out like a pink, playful beacon on Waikiki’s beach of highrises, it is the one hotel evoking the history of old Waikiki. Built in 1927 and dubbed the “Pink Palace of the Pacific”, this is the classic Hawaii I dreamed of. I hope to stay here one day.
In the meantime, head through a grove of trees laden with hanging lights, past torches, through the lobby to the lawn out back where the Mai Tai Bar sits right on the beach. Live music at sunset and my own private cabana made for one of the most magical moments in Honolulu.
This is not the place for refined cocktails but (again) it has a decades-long history of tropical, oceanside drinks. Manager Mike Swerdloff is a wine aficionado himself but keeps up on the national cocktail scene and is passionate about great service, food and drink (next time I’ll review neighboring restaurant at the hotel, Azure).
On the cocktail tip, there are various versions of the Mai Tai here, all a little too sweet for me, but certainly crowd-pleasers and enhanced by the surroundings. If I’m going sweet, I prefer the Chi ($13): coconut and Maui’s organic Ocean Vodka perked up with fresh pineapple and basil, or Pina Rocks ($10): Bacardi 8 yr, coconut cream, pineapple and a lemon/thyme float.
Where we particularly had fun was with a Smoking Gun Mai Tai, a winner in the last Mai Tai Festival on Kona. A smoking gun was used in a glass filled with Whaler’s dark rum, Bacardi white and a housemade Velvet Falernum. Torched and smokey, it was topped with a brown sugar-torched pineapple wedge. The presentation is dramatic as smoke spills out from the glass. There was a bit too much of a propane taste as I continued sipping the drink, but initial tastes yielded a delightfully sweet, smoky island imbibement that evoked roasting marshmallows over a campfire.
The Mai Tai Bar is a Waikiki must for magic and history… and the best sunset beach setting around.
LEWERS LOUNGE , Waikiki – Lewer’s Lounge inside the gorgeous Halekulani Hotel feels like a New York hotel bar in a stately, classic hotel, rich with history and jazz. And jazz is the reason to come here. Live jazz nightly sets the classy, upscale tone. Don’t you dare wear shorts or flip flops. They maintain elegance with a dress code. You’ll also need a reservation on many nights.
Despite legendary Dale DeGroff’s stamp on the menu (he created it), drinks are of the sweet, fruity kind, like a refreshing Ginger Lychee Caipirissima ($12). More ambitious efforts like Amante Picante ($12), tequila with cucumber, cilantro, green tabasco, have the right idea but lack balance. All in the execution?
What fared better was dessert. Their ever popular Halekulani Coconut Cake ($9) is one ordered for weddings all over the islands, and the mainland. Frozen Treats are adult, gourmet versions of popsicles and ice cream sandwiches on ice.
One can always order from spirits and wine lists, enjoying a sip of brandy and a slice of cake while taking in Tennyson Stephens and Rocky Holmes’ delightful jazz duo.
LA MARIANA , Honolulu – I am not recommending La Mariana Sailing Club for the drinks, but for the history and charm of a rundown but well-loved space. One of the last remaining kitschy, tiki bars from the 1950′s, it’s an adventure just getting here.
Way out on a harbor, you aren’t even sure you’ve found it once arrived. Park on the street where you see the Sailing Club sign, then walk around to the right side of the building, entering the back along the water. Tiki decor and thatched roofs abound in a multi-room layout with open air patio.
The day after the Japan tsunami hit Hawaii’s shores, I sat here with a Pina Colada watching boat owners pull their damaged sailboats out of the water. It was a bit eerie yet heartwarming as crusty, sun-scorched sailors sipped Mai Tais or a beer alongside me comparing boat damage.
Read the menu story of owner Annette Nahinu. She’s just the sort of local character that makes you fall in love with Honolulu and its colorful, international history.
**NOTE: I tried to make it to another new Honolulu hotspot that local bartenders recommended to me, Apartment 3, but was unable to get there when Kyle was bartending (Friday nights at the moment). I hear he’s a whiskey lover, like myself, and that he’s another boundary-pushing bartender in the current Honolulu scene.
Hotel Renew, Waikiki Beach – No pool or beachfront property exists here, though upper rooms on the South side have views of the beach.
But the winning points of Hotel Renew on the Eastern end of Waikiki, is affordability and peace. And you can always take their complimentary boogie boards and towels a block away to the beach.
With Asian-modern, Zen-like decor, clean lines and big city chic, Hotel Renew‘s rooms are a welcome respite from the all-day party that is Waikiki surfers and sunbathers.
After long walks and lots of sun, I was ever-grateful to enter the heavy front doors of Renew to the tinkle of the lobby’s water fountain, grab a glass of water laced with fresh oranges, and up to my ocean-view room with ultra-comfy bed.
The best part? For overpriced Waikiki hotels, here you can get a room even on a weekend for $180-225 a night.