KAPAA, Kauai, Hawaii — There’s a good reason why almost no one pays much attention to the food here on the Garden Island of Kauai.
From the wild cliffs of the jagged Na Pali Coast to the wide beaches of Poipu, Polihale, Kalihiwai and Kealia, to the lush green slopes of Mt. Waialeale (wettest spot on Earth) and myriad waterfalls that pour from it all year ’round, the sights here grab your attention almost all the time.
But this is also a first-rate island of gastronomy with perhaps the most gourmet restaurants per capita anywhere, and a full complement of other fun eateries to fit any budget.
Some of these are free-standing, others in hotels or time-share developments, but there’s something here for every taste bud.
You might start with the Hukilau Lanai, quartered in the Kauai Coast Resort at the Beachboy, a Shell Vacation Club timeshare facility once known as the Kauai Beachboy hotel, but now remodeled into one- and two-bedroom units.
This restaurant may feature the most creative menus on the island and gets consistently top reviews on websites such as Yelp and Trip Adviser. In the past, it has featured locally grown free-range veal (a slightly gamier taste than other veal) and a wide variety of preparations of island fish like opah and opakapaka. On one recent evening, all entrees (priced from $18 to $32) included either a salad or a choice of soups, one a unique gaspacho of spicy tomato and pineapple with a dollop of rum sherbet plopped in the middle.
Find the Hukilau Lanai about a half-mile south of Kapaa Town on the east side of the island, within the Coconut Plantation development.
On the other end of the edible and financial spectrum is the Kauai Kountry Kitchen, on the inland side of the round-the island Kuhio Highway near the north end of Kapaa. This old-fashioned eatery, with classic high wooden booths, features omelets starting at $8 and three-quarter-inch-thick pancakes lapping over the edge of dinner plates, with bananas, strawberries, coconut flakes or macademia nuts mixed right into the batter, for $7.75.
Even the menus here are interesting: their covers are copies of front pages from the local newspaper, the Garden Island, in the days just after Pearl Harbor. Count on a line to get into this place almost every day until about 10 a.m.
A few miles south, adjacent to the cruise ship port on Nawiliwili Bay and side by side on a wooden veranda overlooking the Kalapaki Beach where Elvis Presley once surfed are two more foodie meccas.
Directly adjacent to the Kauai Marriott hotel is Duke’s Canoe Club, part of a chain, but unlike almost any franchise you’re likely to see. Eating at a table on the rail of Duke’s at sunset is surely as romantic an experience as the boat ride and walk to the Fern Grotto that is part of the island’s standard honeymooner itinerary.
The fare is fine, too. Featuring five presentations of a constantly changing variety of South Pacific fish, Duke’s tosses in Kauai’s most sumptuous salad bar, featuring everything from macademia nut muffins to Caesar salad and island-grown pineapple. The tab starts at about $22 for the Huli Huli chicken.
Just west is Cafe Portofino, which may serve the best cannelloni in the Pacific, an Italian delicacy of crepes wrapped about ground chicken, spinach and ricotta cheese, for $22. Fresh fish entrees run up to $36, and there is often a harpist to make the mood even more romantic. Best evening to come here may be Wednesday, when “Mr. Kauai,” the 83-year-old Larry Rivera, sings classically mellow tunes in his “Love and Aloha” show from 7 to 9 p.m., mixing his own compositions paying tribute to the island with old standards he has sung with Hawaiian legend Don Ho and others like Presley, with whom he appeared in “Blue Hawaii.”
In a completely different category is the simple Cantonese cuisine at Wong’s, on the Kuhio Highway 22 miles west in the old plantation town (now artist colony) of Hanapepe. If you don’t feel like Chinese, try the unique lilikoi (passion fruit) chiffon pie at $3.75 per slice or $15.50 for the whole pie, a flavor unique to this Kauai eatery.
For burger lovers, there’s Bubba’s, a Hawaii-wide chain with stands in Hanalei on the North Coast, Poipu in the south and on the main road in Kapaa. Don’t miss the double burger drowned in chili for $9.50. If you like onion rings, this place also is not to be missed.
There are also superb hotel-based restaurants on the north and south shores of the island. Both the St. Regis Princeville and the Grand Hyatt at Poipu feature fine (and pricey) restaurants with remarkable views.
Put it all together, add several other fine restaurants that space doesn’t permit here, and wherever you stay on the gorgeous Garden Island, you could be in for almost as many treats for the taste buds as for the eyes.
Thomas D. Elias writes about California public affairs for 93 newspapers. Email Elias at [email protected]