One of the reasons I love travelling is because I enjoy understanding different cultures and I believe one of the best ways to do this is by learning about their cuisine. When planning a trip, the first thing I always research is food - I want to know what the local dishes are and who specialises in making them!
My trip to Hawaii was no exception - I spent many an hour at my desk (while I was meant to be working) checking out all the various cafes, restaurants and bars on offer in Waikiki - and when I got there, I tried them!
Read on for my top 9 must-try dishes and venues in Waikiki, Hawaii!
1. Best Shave Ice - Waiola Shave Ice
Shave ice is a local classic that is a must-try on any trip to Hawaii. If you're unfamiliar with this dessert, the basic concept is exactly how it sounds: a block of ice is shaved to resemble a snow cone, then various flavours of syrup are added for taste. It is the perfect way to cool down in the Hawaiian heat!
There are plenty of places serving shave ice around Waikiki, but Waiola has been serving them up since 1940, so you know you'll be getting the real deal here.
If you're staying along the main beach then it is roughly a 10 minute cycle or 25 minute walk to get to Waiola Shave Ice. Alternatively, ask your accommodation how to get there by bus. It is well worth the trip!
2. Best Mai Tai - House Without A Key
The Mai Tai cocktail is usually associated with Polynesian destinations and typically comprises of rum, lime juice, orgeat syrup and orange liqueur. You'll find this delicious cocktail on the menu practically everywhere in Hawaii.
The title of best Mai Tai in Waikiki is a competitive one, but I did very extensive research and House Without A Key was the clear winner. Their version of the Mai Tai is not only the perfect balance of ingredients, but also the location is impossible to beat. This open-air lounge is simply stunning and is the ideal setting to sip on a Mai Tai as you watch the sun go down.
3. Best fine dining - La Mer
Everywhere I go, I like to plan at least one fine-dining experience as a treat. My choice for Waikiki was La Mer and I was not disappointed! Their menu adds fresh Hawaiian-grown ingredients to neoclassical French cuisine, providing a unique culinary experience.
The paired wine option is pricey, but definitely worth it if you're in the mood to splurge. Be sure to ask for a table with an ocean view when booking.
4. Best lunch on-the-go - Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin
I was only in Waikiki for six days, however during that time I did something I almost never do while travelling - I returned to the same restaurant and ordered the same meal three times! Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin was the restaurant and their pork tonkatsu was the dish.
Honolulu has a long history of Japanese immigration (something which I did not realise prior to my research) meaning that there is a stack of Japanese cuisine options on offer all over the island. I was very excited to discover this fact, because Japanese is one of my absolute favourite styles of cuisine.
This tonkatsu dish is the perfect lunch on-the-go. It is made fresh every morning, comes in a neat little container that fits easily in your bag and it won't break the bank. On our half-day trip to the Pearl Harbour National Memorial we packed a serve of tonkatsu each to keep the hunger at bay as we walked around this extensive sight. On another occasion, we took our tonkatsu to the park and enjoyed lunch under the trees.
4. Best coffee - Gorilla in the Cafe
I am from Melbourne, so naturally I am also a coffee enthusiast/snob. One of my first priorities on any trip is finding a place that serves coffee good enough meet my lofty high standards. This isn't always an easy task, but thankfully in Waikiki I found Gorilla in the Cafe, an artesian coffee bar that offers a delicious range of Hawaiian-made coffee sourced from independently owned farms.
My usual order is a cafe latte, but in the Hawaiian heat it was hard to go past the frozen coffee with banana! I started every single morning in Waikiki here, sipping on my coffee and reading over my Lonely Planet book, deciding what activities and sights I wanted to see that day.
5. Best brunch - Orchids
If you find yourself in Waikiki on a Sunday then be sure to book in for an all-you-can-eat brunch at Orchids. The extensive spread on offer here includes a wide variety of breakfast classics, as well as local and international options. I ate so much I could barely walk afterwards - it was all so delicious that I felt obligated to try nearly everything on offer!
In addition to the great food, the views are beautiful and the ambiance is relaxing - overall it is the perfect way to start your day.
Sadly, it is not a bottomless brunch so you will have to pay extra if you want some champaign or mimosas - despite this I would still highly recommend this brunch and rate it amongst one of the best I have ever had.
6. Best noodles - Murukame Udon
The first time I tried going to Murukame Udon it was pouring with rain, yet somehow the outdoor queue for dinner was still over 100 meters long. I had assumed that the wet would deter people from waiting, but I was wrong - that's how good this little Japanese gem of a restaurant is!
If waiting in line for two hours isn't your thing then aim to get here outside of peak-times. For my second attempt I went at about 5pm on a week day and thankfully this time I only had to wait 20 minutes for a table.
As you may have guessed from the name, this restaurant specialises is udon noodles that are made fresh on site. As you line up, you will pass the noodle chefs working their magic kneading, folding and boiling the udon right before your eyes.
This place is in high demand for a reason - it really does serve incredible food. The flavour of the broth is delicate and the udon are made to perfection. It is worth the wait, I promise!
7. Best place for a beer - Maui Brewing Co.
Local varieties of craft beer are enjoying increased popularity all over the world and Hawaii is no exception. Maui Brewing Co. is Hawaii's largest craft brewery with over two dozen microbrews on offer.
Order the beer flight so you can sample some of their range. For me, the Pineapple Mana wheat beer was a clear standout in terms of uniqueness and deliciousness.
8. Best greasy burger - Rainbow Drive-In
No meal reminds me more of America than a good ol' fashioned greasy cheeseburger - to satisfy that craving I went to the Rainbow Drive-In. Eating here has an effortless retro vibe that transports you back in time to the 1960's.
This classic American drive-in menu is not only delicious, but also ethical, with a portion of the profits going to local schools and charities. A teenage Barack Obama was a frequent customer here and is apparently still spotted grabbing a burger here on his trips back to Hawaii.
9. Best cheap eat - Topped
If you're anything like me, you may have blown the budget a little in Waikiki (I'm blaming all the mai tais). If this is the case, then head to Topped for a high-quality but low-priced feed.
Topped started as a street vendor in 2015 before eventually opening their own shop in 2017. Their specialty is bibimbap, a Korean rice dish usually topped with meat and kim chi. Their version of it here is delicious and filling - plus you'll get change from a $10 note, making it an excellent option for anyone who is trying to watch their spending!
Have you been to Waikiki or are you planning a trip there in the future? What's on your list of must-try food experiences?
Follow up post for Top Places to Eat & Drink in Kauai coming soon!