Dining on Oahu is a unique experience—one where menus have a language of all their own, whether peppered with native Hawaiian words or referring to dishes that came out of Hawaii’s unique blend of Polynesian and other cultures, including Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino and Portuguese. It’s the result of waves of immigration, beginning in the 18th century, from missionaries to whalers to laborers brought to work the plantations—which means the cultures have had a lot of time to assimilate. This mixing of East and West isn’t a fleeting trend: it is locals’ comfort food, it is their history, it is the story of the islands.
While some of the best restaurants are hole-in-the-wall institutions passed down through generations, Oahu also attracts talented chefs from abroad and brings home those lauded international chefs who were born and raised on the island to create a fresh and buzz-worthy cuisine, from a 30-course seasonal omakase menu to a pho French dip. Make sure these lauded restaurants top your list of things to do on Oahu.
Best restaurants in Oahu
At this no-frills, fluorescent-lit restaurant, you’ll find Hawaii’s classic soul food, which Helena’s has been serving since 1946. It’s based off native Hawaiian staple dishes and those influenced by the island’s waves of immigration up until the ‘50s; highlights at Helena's Hawaiian Food are kalua pig (smoky pulled pork, Hawaiian-style), poi (taro milled and thinned into a puddinglike consistency) and Helena’s legendary pipikaula—meaty short ribs dried and then pan-fried.
Visiting celebrities, from President Obama to Ben Affleck, all stop by for at least one meal in the Pig and the Lady’s boisterous dining room, where the menu melds Vietnamese and Southeast Asian flavors with modern sensibilities. Come for lunch, and you must order the pho French dip—meltingly soft slices of brisket paired with a Thai basil chimichurri and bean sprouts, served with a side of pho broth for dipping. The dinner menu constantly changes, but make sure to finish off with a swirled soft serve, which often comes in funky flavors like black sesame custard and mango sorbet.
At Mahina and Sun’s, cheery with its midcentury-modern-meets-aloha vibe, chef Ed Kenney focuses on local, sustainable seafood, which is a surprising rarity on the island. For the best experience, order the Mahina’s Family Feast, a whole fried fish served with fixings including buttered ulu (breadfruit) and pohole (fiddlehead fern) salad, and for dessert, a tropical fruit pavlova.
You’d be hard pressed to find food made with such impeccable technique, at any price point on Oahu, as at Senia. It’s extremely accessible when you dine in the main dining room, offering a moderately-priced a la carte menu, where humble ingredients like cabbage are elevated to luxury status and bone marrow is served with beef cheek marmalade and tiny house-made Hawaiian rolls. But if you want to see the craftsmanship chefs Chris Kajioka and Anthony Rush are truly capable of, make a reservation for the chefs’ counter, facing the immaculate open kitchen, at $185 per person.
Hawaii is a melting pot of Asian influences, thanks to the Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Filipino laborers who were brought in to work on the sugar and pineapple plantations beginning in the 1850s. In a cozy neighborhood diner space, Koko Head Cafe pays homage to these cultures with refreshingly contemporary takes, such as a breakfast congee (rice porridge) with pork three ways, cheddar and cinnamon croutons, or miso-marinated fish served with custardy-soft scrambled eggs.
Entering Sushi Sho, inside the Ritz Carlton, is like entering a stage set for an audience of 10. Seats flank the dramatic sushi bar, where Keiji Nakazawa and two assistant chefs hold court. A few years ago, Nakazawa, one of Japan’s great sushi masters, left his restaurant in Tokyo for the challenge of Hawaii. Here, he creates a 30-course omakase of playful, bite-size renditions of Hawaii classics like laulau and poke interspersed with esoteric Edomae-style sushi. Be sure to make reservations far in advance—the 10 seats are quickly snapped up by sushi aficionados both local and visiting.
For poke spots in Hawaii, there’s an inverse correlation between the fanciness in exterior and the quality of poke. Which means that pulling up to Ahi Assassins, wedged on the second-floor of a commercial building, you’ll know the poke is excellent. Owners Josh and Erika Schade bring in fresh ahi—sometimes tuna that they’ve caught themselves—and break it down into ruby red cubes for their poke, available by the pound or over rice as a poke bowl.
Not so much a restaurant as a well-designed food court meant to emulate the alleyways of Japan, Waikiki Yokocho hall is packed with food and drink places. At the center, you’ll find Nomu, a whiskey bar (check out the whiskey highballs on draft, just for the novelty of it). Surrounding the bar are eateries for the Japanophile: everything from a “Ramen Road,” including tsukumen-style ramen at Tsujita, to unmissable matcha drinks and dessert (get the matcha parfait) at Nana’s Green Tea.
In an industrial neighborhood by the shipping docks, hole-in-the-wall Ethel's Grill is an ode to sumo wrestlers (check out the pictures on the wall—and the portion sizes) and the mishmash of cultures that make Hawaii so great. There’s a hamburger steak, topped with grated daikon to cut through the richness; a kimchee poke bowl; and the playful taco rice (incidentally, an Okinawan concoction). Don’t ask, just get it.
The joke on Oahu is that the only vegetable you’ll find is the parsley garnishing your plate. Great vegetarian preparations can be surprisingly hard to find given Hawaii’s hippie surfer stereotype, so the Beet Box Cafe on the North Shore (incidentally, with the greatest concentration of hippie surfers) stands out like a beacon of light and goodness. The plates here, from the portabella sandwich to a curry vegetable scramble, are so crave-worthy that even carnivores make Beet Box a regular habit.
Kailua, on the Windward side of Oahu, is the island’s brunch destination, with every breakfast spot offering its own twist on pancakes. Over Easy’s rendition may be the simplest, but it’s also the best—fluffy and tender with crispy edges as contrast. On the savory side, don’t miss the Kailua eggs, a take on the comforting Japanese ochazuke—tea poured over rice—but here with a bacon and cabbage broth. Be prepared to wait—the restaurant is small and extremely popular.