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NICO’S AT PIER 38
1133 N. Nimitz Highway
You never know what you’ll find when you poke around Honolulu’s gritty waterfront—unless, that is, you poke around Pier 38, where what you’ll find is gourmet food at plate-lunch prices. OK, it’s really plate-lunch food—but it’s made by a gourmet chef. That’s why the furikake ahi is seared on the outside and rare on the inside, rather than cooked tough as a piece of wood. And that’s why the fried calamari is light and crispy and comes with mixed greens rather than extra fryer grease. Credit Nicolas Chaize, a Frenchman turned Honoluluan who trained under chef Mavrothalassitis (see Chef Mavro, below). Nico’s is next door to Oahu’s fish auction, so you’d have to be on a boat or in the water to find fresher seafood.
3435 Waialae Ave.
If a neighborhood bistro could be a 19th-century communal religious society, then Town would be the Shakers: So honest, elegant and perfectly prepared is the food at this simple, soulful eatery that it reminds us of the fine cabinets, bed stands and rockers of Shaker furniture makers. The master craftsmanship here goes into dinner: heavenly house-made pasta gnocchi served in sage butter and sprinkled with peas and Parmigiano-Reggiano; slow-cooked pork cheeks so tender they fall apart at the mere sight of a fork; crispy moi fish so good you’ll want to tremble, shake and speak in tongues. (The menu changes daily.) Breakfasts and lunches are more basic but equally inspired.
2335 Kalakaua Ave.
For decades the father of modern surfing, Duke Kahanamoku, reigned over Waikiki Beach from his hangout at the old Outrigger Canoe Club. The site, snuggled between the venerable Royal Hawaiian and the Moana Surfrider resort, is now a delightfully kitschy yet oddly tasteful bar and eatery dedicated to the legendary Hawaiian waterman. With a collection of historic photos and memorabilia on par with a Hard Rock Cafe’s, Duke's conveys a sense of the old Hawaii its namesake knew. The dinner menu is replete with Hawaiian treats like huli huli chicken and opakapaka steamed in ti leaf. Even if you don't dine here, at least step up to the Barefoot Bar, a people-watching hot spot where musician Henry Kapono, a living Hawaiian legend, plays on Sundays.
ALAN WONG’S RESTAURANT
1857 S. King St.
Couples who like bold flavors and treasure hunts will love the hard-to-find, romantic little restaurant of this James Beard Award–winning chef. (You may have seen him on the 2006 season finale of Top Chef.) Hidden on the third floor of an office building, Wong's intimate and always-crowded place is well worth the Google Earth search. The specials on the East-meets-West Pacific-fusion menu change daily, but expect loads of garlic, ginger, wasabi, lemongrass, macadamia nuts, fresh seafood, keawe-wood-grilled meats and local produce. If the à la carte entrees look so good they paralyze you with indecision, go with the safe-bet five- and seven-course tasting menus.