The Big Island of Hawaii is not known as a destination for foodies, but there are plenty of people here who are trying to change that. Our island’s farmers produce an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as locally and sustainably-raised meat, poultry, and eggs. Our fishermen bring in fresh catches daily, and our world-class chefs work to find new and innovative ways to transform our island’s high-quality ingredients into delicious dishes. This month we are highlighting a few of the best dining experiences on the Big Island.
- Holuakoa Gardens – Holualoa Village
Holuakoa Gardens is a mainstay favorite at the Holualoa Inn. Holuakoa has a laid-back atmosphere, with outdoor seating under beautiful monkeypod trees strung with lights. They are a self-proclaimed “slow food” restaurant; you should expect to spend at least an hour relaxing under their pavilion and sipping your coffee or a cocktail while you wait for your locally-sourced and meticulously-prepared meal. Their dishes incorporate local fish, meat, eggs and greens that make for delicious entrees, and their presentation is second to none. Best of all, Holuakoa is a convenient 5 minutes’ walk away for guests of the Holualoa Inn. (Unfortunately, as of Summer 2020, Holuakoa Gardens & Cafe are no longer in business.)
2. Pueo’s Osteria – Waikoloa Village
Quality Italian food is hard to find on the Big Island, but Pueo’s Osteria stands out with its hand-crafted pastas and pizzas, an excellent wine selection, and traditional Italian dishes prepared with locally-sourced ingredients. Anything that cannot be sourced on the island is imported from Italy and is of the highest quality. The kitchen is partially open to the Tuscan-style dining room so guests can feel truly immersed in the dining experience. Pueo’s also stands out for being open much later than most all other restaurants on the island. Food is served until midnight every night except Sunday, and there is a special late night happy hour starting at 9:00 pm. That makes it a great option for late-night dining after a trip to Mauna Kea or an evening Manta Ray snorkel.
3. Merriman’s – Waimea
Peter Merriman is a pioneer of the local food movement in Hawaii. His original restaurant in Waimea was instrumental in establishing the relationships that exist today between farmers, fishermen, ranchers, and the island’s restaurants. Merriman’s commitment to local food has only grown over the years, and the restaurant’s menus are all based around the best presentation of what is local and seasonally abundant. Daily entrees at the Waimea restaurant include local Ahi tuna, Mahi-Mahi, lamb, steak, and lobster. The Kalua Pig and Sweet Onion Quesadilla appetizer is not to be missed. The excellent menu, combined with Merriman’s combination of casual atmosphere and fine-dining service make for a transcendent local-dining experience.
4. Takenoko Sushi – Hilo
Takenoko Sushi in Hilo is a truly amazing restaurant hidden away in a nondescript plaza across from Big Island Candies in Hilo. It is a small space, with room for only 10-12 people, which makes for an intimate dining experience. Two things really set Takenoko apart: For one, they do not use local fish (more on that in a moment). Second, they are fully booked a year in advance. Takenoko is currently one of the most in-demand restaurants on the Big Island. Because the space is so small, they only accept a limited number of reservations for their three nightly seatings. The sushi chef is able to prepare every piece of fish with the supreme care and attention to detail that world-class sushi demands. The reason Takenoko does not use local ingredients is because their fish is flown in daily from Japan. They are thereby able to provide traditional sushi preparations that would not otherwise be available in Hawaii. If your schedule does not allow for making dinner reservations over a year in advance, do not despair. The best option for most people is to order their omakase (chef’s choice platter) for take-out, which requires only 24 hours advance notice. Your omakase will be packed in ice for you to take along to one of the many quiet scenic spots along Hilo Bay. If you can get past paying $50 per person for take-out, the sushi may be some of the finest you ever try.
5. Sushi Shiono – Kona, Mauna Lani
If your travel plans don’t take you across the island, Sushi Shiono is an excellent sushi restaurant just minutes from the Holualoa Inn in downtown Kona. Shiono’s menu offers a selection of fresh, expertly prepared local fish, and their rolls incorporate other local ingredients such as avocado, pumpkin, and macadamia nuts. Whereas Takenoko in Hilo adheres to a more traditional preparation of sushi, Shiono’s preparations are more playful and diverse. Their “Spicy Mongoose Roll” includes spicy tuna, avocado, and cream cheese, and the entire roll is deep fried and topped with “yum-yum” sauce. Sushi Shiono is consistently excellent, and while it does not have the exotic allure of Takenoko, it is a much better, more accessible (and affordable!) option for the occasional unplanned dinner out.
6. Under the Bodhi Tree – Mauna Lani Resort
Under the Bodhi Tree is a small cafe in the Shops at Mauna Lani Resort that specializes in vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free meals prepared with local ingredients. If this kind of food does not sound appealing to you, Under the Bodhi Tree just might surprise you. Their creative, veggie-friendly takes on classic entrees are sure to please even the most die-hard carnivores. Their mouth-watering vegetarian Reuben is not to be missed. With marinated tofu standing in for the beef, plus caramelized onions, house-made sauerkraut, and plenty of cheese, this sandwich stands tall not just as great vegetarian food, but great food, period. Under the Bodhi Tree’s casual atmosphere and central location on the Kohala Coast make it an excellent lunch spot after a morning spent at one of Kohala’s beautiful white sand beaches.
7. Sweet Potato Kitchen – Hawi
Sweet Potato Kitchen recently moved into a larger space, but it is still easy to miss. This tiny eatery in North Kohala is the ultimate in intimate, local dining. It is not unusual for local farmers and homeowners to drop by to deliver produce directly to the chefs, which the chefs immediately use to prepare your meal. Sweet Potato Kitchen is another vegetarian, gluten-free restaurant, but is it well worth a try for anyone who enjoys good, fresh food, regardless of their diet. Try their poached eggs with mushroom gravy, house-made veggie burgers, or any of their fresh salads for a light and healthy breakfast or lunch. Sweet Potato Kitchen is a great place to stop on your way to or from the Pololu Valley in North Kohala
8. Cafe Pesto – Kawaihae, Hilo Bayfront
Cafe Pesto is a Big Island favorite for its consistently excellent food and great locations near the ocean. The sister restaurants feature slightly different, ever-changing menus, but both are based around island-inspired American-style cuisine. Typical offerings include broiled chicken served with mango chutney, seared Ahi tuna and spinach salad, and locally-raised beef tenderloin. While it is on the pricier side, Cafe Pesto’s Neapolitan-style pizza is some of the best on the island. Both restaurants are convenient stops for lunch or dinner on longer day trips around the island, whether you are heading north to the valleys or east out to Kilauea volcano.
9. Rays on the Bay – Keauhou
Rays on the Bay is located on the epic oceanside lanai of the Keauhou Sheraton Resort, just outside of downtown Kona. To start, the food is fantastic, the menu features new local seafood entrees daily, and the cocktails are some of the best in the area. The things that put Rays on the Bay over the top, however, are the breathtaking sunset views, the waves crashing on the rocks, and the evening ocean breeze blowing through the open-air dining area. Atmosphere is key to a truly sublime dining experience, and this restaurant sets the bar. After the sun goes down, diving boats anchor just off the rocks and shine powerful lights into the ocean to attract Manta Rays. The glowing ocean provides a dazzling and slightly surreal backdrop for the second half of your meal. Rays on the Bay is just a short drive from the Holualoa Inn, and dinner here is a must for anyone who wants to experience the best of what the Big Island has to offer.
10. Gypsea Gelato – Kainaliu, Kona
While not technically a restaurant, Gypsea Gelato makes it onto our list as a not-to-be-missed destination. After you
enjoy a meal at one of the island’s fine restaurants, you will want to stop at one of Gypsea Gelato’s two locations for the perfect dessert. Their gelato is authentic and hand-crafted, and their inventive flavors are often inspired by locally-available ingredients. They incorporate macadamia nuts, coconut, and local mint for more traditional gelatos, but lemongrass, ginger, and Hawaiian chili peppers provide the basis for some truly unique flavors. The gelato here is absolutely world-class, and one taste is guaranteed to have you coming back again and again.
Add these top Big Island restaurants to your itinerary and join us for an unforgettable getaway. Your day starts with a farm-to-table two-course breakfast complete with our very own estate-grown Kona coffee. Aloha!