This article was first published on MoneyInc, November 2018.
Hawaii is a true melting pot. Everywhere we dined had influences of multi-ethnic cuisine. By 1911, 16,000 Portuguese arrived as laborers on sugarcane plantations along with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Filipinos in various years. Many stayed to create Hawaii’s rainbow of cultures that influence the food today. Along with the produce and ingredients coming straight from the island’s land and sea, you can see why eating in Maui is a magical cultural journey.
Maui Tropical Plantation
There is no shortage of memorable dining options around the island. These are some of our favorites.
The Restaurant at Hotel Wailea
Set back from the beach in Wailea on a hillside, this adults-only tranquil boutique hotel is Hawaii’s first and only Relais & Châteaux property. Dine on their intimate elevated terrace with ocean views for memorable and creative island-to-table cuisine. As the sunset glow dips over the ocean, absorb the breezes over a refreshing elixir. Peruse the 15-acre hotel before dinner to marvel at the design style reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright – like the conical high-ceilinged lobby – or book a private interactive dining experience for 2 – 8 people in The Treehouse (a private bungalow) with a multi-course meal menu of your own selection.
Elevated “snacks” are a nice way to start the evening. Four elegantly presented bites are showcased on rectangular wooden boxes. The flavorful morsels consist of confit duck croquette, smoked Kona kompachi, Hawaiian ahi on a squid ink poke cracker, and shrimp shumai (Chinese dumpling). Share truffle risotto with ali’i mushrooms, Tamimi Farms burrata, and tomatoes, or Hamachi Tataki that appears like an abstract painting. But don’t let the artistry fool you, the freshness of the ingredients is the result of produce coming from the restaurant’s own garden and farming operation. Chef de Cuisine Zach Sato showcases Hawaii’s history and culture by working with generations of homegrown flavors, both past, and present.
Since steamed local fish may become a regular dinner choice, opt for something you may not find elsewhere. The 1 ¼ pound grilled Maine lobster is prepared cracked open with knuckle fried rice and tempura asparagus adorned with dainty purple flowers. The surprising freshness is surely a result of the baby lobsters being flown in from Maine and grown to maturity on the Big Island nearby. The Macadamia Nut Crusted Colorado Lamb Chops with caramelized onion potato puree, broccolini, and date chutney is another winning entrée. Decadent desserts can’t be missed such as the fun pot du brownie aside a homemade elongated marshmallow lit on fire to make a S’more medley with a scoop of ice cream for good measure.
Cane and Canoe at the Montage Kapalua Bay
Savor modern high-end Hawaiian cuisine in this open-air restaurant designed to resemble a traditional Hawaiian canoe house. The stunning sunset backdrop blazed behind our table as we started our night with fresh ahi poke splashed with sesame, avocado cream dots, and hearts of palm. A stand out dish is the Surfing Goat Cheese Tempura made with local cheese (from Surfing Goat Dairy in Upcountry where you can see baby goats careen down surfboards) complimented with roasted beets, lilikoi, and arugula. For the main course, Kauai prawns, wild caught fish, and lobster pot pie with truffled lobster cream are exceptional choices, while the expansive ocean setting will win you over even more.
Maui Chef’s Table at the Maui Tropical Plantation
In the Waikapu Valley in central Maui, book this special night in advance for a lively communal dinner with other food and drink enthusiasts. As the kitchen IS the dining room, move around to talk to the chefs as they prepare your multi-course dinner from the land and sea. Wander the 900-acre Maui Tropical Plantation’s breathtaking property with a sunset cocktail before partaking in the three-hour dining experience that is held once a week. Savor the well thought out dishes with many ingredients that grow a few feet away from your table or various microclimates around Hawaii. Expect dishes with unique ingredients from the island like jabuticaba and lilikoi. If you can’t make the Chef’s Table, drop in for Happy Hour bites and drinks at the Millhouse Restaurant, also on the plantation.
Mama’s Fish House in Paia
Rated the number one restaurant in Maui time and time again, be ready to spend money. Drinks start around $20 while entrees start around $60. Come here for the oceanside tiki torch Hawaiian décor ambiance and the fresh fish caught daily. Book weeks or months in advance to secure a table at this converted beach house in a coconut grove. Returning 10 years after my first visit, the place now sits three times as many people on the secluded beach. The lightly marinated ahi in coconut milk and lime, prepared old Polynesian style, arrives in a coconut. Share a generous sashimi plate based on the local catch but make room for their beautifully presented dishes like three fishes (ono, ahi, and mahi-mahi) in a coconut base Panang Curry complete with Macadamia nuts, banana, sambal, and mango chutney. Another crowd pleaser is Mama’s Stuffed Mahi-Mahi filled with lobster and crab and baked with a Macadamia nut crust. Sample the complimentary poi and warm bread, and hope that the bill is not more than your hotel night.
Feast of Mokapu Luau at the Andaz in Wailea
Move over cheesy Hawaiian luaus with long food lines and screaming children, this intimate event blends culture, culinary, and cocktails on a grassy lawn on the sandy shores of Mokapu Beach. After various cultural activities during cocktail hour, guests are seated for a 14-course plated ohana-style meal (with many new foods introduced) while the band plays as the sunset glow washes the land. Interactive storytelling and beautiful performances take you through the historical journey of the Polynesian ancestors arriving to Maui and settling into the land where you are seated while offering insight into Hawaiian values that focus on love of, connection to, and responsibility for the land. Leave with a printed photo from a photographer to capture the memory. For everyday eats from the same chefs, Ka’ana Kitchen at the Andaz also boasts a cultural fusion for breakfast and dinner with locally smoked fish, bao buns, steamed dumplings, malasadas with lilikoi curd, mochi waffles with coconut syrup, and the Makaweli Ranch “Loco Moco” with grass-fed Kauai beef and vegetable fried rice. The open kitchen is part of the experience and interaction with the chefs is encouraged.
Ko Restaurant at the Fairmont Hotel in Wailea
Plantation-inspired cuisine from the modern era is showcased at Ko, while incorporating the plantation workers’ recipes and cooking techniques from the past. Sear tuna on a rock and watch your server unwrap a banana leaf to reveal a steamed catch with coconut macadamia nut shrimp and lavender honey sauce. Other favorite dishes included lobster tempura with pineapple sweet chili garlic, brown butter banana bread, and fried Portuguese sweet bread stuffed with coconut gelato and Kula black raspberry jam.
Humu at Grand Wailea
This romantic oceanside spot under a thatch roof on a saltwater lagoon offers dishes with Polynesian and Hawaiian influences. Book a table near the ocean to watch the blaring rays illuminate around you while savoring the freshly caught fish of the day. Ahi Poke, Crispy Mahi Mahi with forbidden rice, or Seasonal “ulu” Risotto with butternut squash, breadfruit, and pecorino are all musts.
Ferraro’s Bar E Ristorante at The Four Seasons Wailea
Dine outside under clear blue skies on the waterfront patio for lunch or under a canopy of stars at sunset. The modern Mediterranean menu offers pastas and stone baked pizzas but the best is the cobb salad loaded with lobster, marinated local octopus, prawns, and Haiku tomatoes. My husband adored the Lobster BLT and the ahi tuna flatbread. A pricey place for lunch but worth the views.
You certainly don’t need to eat at a fancy establishment for quality food. Dine like a local at these favorite destinations.
Matteo’s Osteria in Wailea
When you can’t devour any more fish, mix up your dining out with classic Italian in the Wailea Town Center – at this warm eatery with a small bar, all glass wine cellar, and open view kitchen. Tour the world through their 64 wines on tap or score a half-priced wine bottle on Wine Down Wednesdays. Born and raised in Liguria, Italy, Chef Matteo Mistura orchestrates experiences with pizza and pasta – dishes like pumpkin ravioli, duck confit ravioli, clam pasta, carbonara pizza, and black fettuccini with clams, crab, and shrimp.
T Komoda Bakery in Makawao
No stop in this Upcountry cowboy town is complete without stopping at the 100-year-old bakery for sugary plump malasadas stuffed with guava, strawberry, and cream. This “paniolo” town is where the oldest Hawaiians wrangled cattle in the late 19thcentury. Filled with eclectic boutiques, cafes, and galleries, don’t miss the Rodeo General Store and morning hours on specific days when Komoda is open. Take your creamed puffs, golden glazed doughnuts on a stick, cinnamon rolls, and malasadas to the beach to enjoy all day long.
Tin Roof Maui in Kahului
In an unassuming parking lot where the locals frequent is Tin Roof, a nondescript bustling counter that offers some of the best Hawaiian comfort fare on the island. Not too far from the airport, Tin Roof is worth the detour to devour the Mochiko Chicken with Asian garlic noodles. Open for only a few hours each day, order pork belly, a poke bowl, or garlic shrimp with a 50 cent edible dime bag or $1 ulu mac salad with diced breadfruit. Wash it down with an Island Maui Root Beer. Take your food to go or find a spot at one of their 7 stools. Top Chef alum Sheldon Simeon is responsible for this packed spot, created based on his memories of growing up in Hilo on the Big Island.
Tobi’s Poke and Shave Ice in Paia
You may not think this local shop would offer the best poke in town at first glance, but they do – the owner’s husband and brother in law catch the fish daily. Expect options like Suicide Poke with spicy mayo and fish eggs or other fresh poke versions with seaweed and kakui nut. Ceviche is offered in generous portions too. Try a soy shoyu, sweet ginger, or wasabi sauce, and find room for a shaved ice with numerous flavors.
Upcountry Farmer’s Market in Pukalani
This local Saturday market in the Kula Malu Town Center parking lot that goes from 7 am until about 11 am, offers exciting locally grown flowers and produce from the land, such as eggplant, giant avocados, fresh coconuts, and moringa, a superfood. Numerous vendors sell ready-to-eat food and drinks like miso ramen covered in colorful flowers, tofu, and veggies, sweet bread from Lopes Farm, spam musubi, and homemade kombucha or vanilla bean macadamia nut milk. Find fresh fish and eggs, local honey, fresh pressed juices, empanadas, and mochiko chicken cones and ahi tuna and rice cones from Maui Cones. Here there is something for every taste.
Sensei Seafood Restaurant and Sushi Bar in Kihei
Locals know about Sensei in Kihei and that’s why you should get in line Sunday before 5 PM to secure a spot for quality sushi at half off. Super fresh sashimi is three times bigger than typical pieces in LA while Panko-crusted Ahi Sashimi wrapped with arugula and spinach, Crab Ramen, and Sansei Mango Crab Salad Hand Roll are well-known favorites.
Maui Girlz Shave Ice at the Swap Meet in Kahului
Held on Saturdays from 7 am – 1 pm at the University of Hawaii campus, spend several hours browsing local items and eating. Just 50 cent admission, baked goods, food, produce, crafts, clothes, jewelry, art, and more are sold at affordable prices in this outdoor flea market. For a couple bucks, snag a heaping smooth shaved ice from Maui Girlz with flavors like coconut, POG, and lilikoi.
Grandma’s Coffeehouse in Kula
Grab a local roasted coffee and piece of banana chocolate chip bread at this rustic cozy café with an outdoor side deck. You may be tempted to grab a banana off the tree outside before indulging in a home cooked breakfast like “The Bull’s Eye,” two eggs on top of corned beef hash with sliced spam and rice lightly drizzled with ketchup.
Fork and Salad Maui in Kihei
This fast-casual restaurant features seasonal, build your own salads, sandwiches, soups, and juices. Dine outside or inside with AC. You can get a salad as a wrap, add proteins, or substitute any veggies you don’t like with ones you do. The generously portioned Maui Goddess Salad was deliciously packed with purple sweet potatoes, golden raisins, green apples, blue cheese, and nuts. Eat healthy and local.
Kula Bistro in Upcountry Kula
If I had found Kula Bistro earlier, I would have returned before we left. This casual all-day café is tucked away in the middle of the island. Huge portions are served. Share the white chocolate fluffy macadamia nut pancake with maple or coconut syrup and pork fried rice with diced meats and egg on top. I could barely eat half the portion of pork fried rice. Crab and shrimp eggs benedict is served with bottomless Maui Upcountry Coffee, which of course, we had to take home. Cannolis and perfect pastries abound. We did not expect such incredible food in a sleepy town. If you’re in Kula, don’t miss it!
Maui Wines in Kula
This scenic vineyard also has private wine tasting in an old jail cell as well as small production estate wines. Hidden deep in Upcountry Kula, the Ulupalakua Ranch offers a fascinating history being originally built in the 1870s to accommodate King Kalakaua, the last reigning king of Hawaii. Sample pineapple and other dessert wines in their tasting room or unwind with a glass of sparkling pineapple wine outside on their porch.
Wailuku First Fridays with food trucks
Hang with the locals on this closed off street section filled with street vendors, live music, performances, and boutique stores. These town parties occur on the first Friday of each month but rotate through other towns on different Fridays. Our favorite find was Three’s Bar and Grill food truck serving Hurricane Fries with sriracha aioli, mochi crunch, and furikake.
Paia Inn Café
A little taste of Malibu or LA in Maui never hurt anyone. That’s what this hip boutique inn (just a few steps from a 3 mile stretch of sand) reminds me of with lavish private rooms and villas with trendy expensive gear to buy in their lobby. If you walk around back, you will find the outdoor café serving breakfast and brunch from local farm ingredients. You can expect your avocado toast, chia granola yogurt parfait, cardamom French toast, lox and eggs for around $16. Freshly squeezed juice medleys abound while options like white sprout tea and Golden Milk with ginger and turmeric are easy to find.
Coconut’s Fish Café in Kihei
This chain style taco joint makes the best fish tacos with mango salsa in corn tacos. Two locations exist in Kihei. A well-known favorite is the seven-layer taco with grilled fish, coconut milk, wasabi, crispy coleslaw, mango salsa, and melted cheese in a griddled taco. Fish sandwiches, salads, and fish (coconut shrimp, calamari) and chips are also served.
Paia Fish Market in Paia, Lahaina, and Kihei
Sit at a picnic table to devour fish tacos, fish and chips, or a fish burger. Select one of six local fishes and choose a preparation style (grilled, sautéed, Cajun style, blackened). Add a Hawaiian local beer to your order. Established in 1989, prices are still reasonable.
For a gluttonous breakfast, wait in line to order generously portioned bacon and eggs or a grand $3 cinnamon roll. After ordering at the counter, find a seat outside to devour your Loco Moco or Huevos Rancheros across from the ocean.