Fork In The Road: Hawaii Restaurants Split Between Closures, Successes

Amidst ongoing challenges, Hawaii’s restaurant scene continues to face strong turbulence as three more establishments in Hawaii announced shuttering their doors without notice. That now makes five closures in just this one well-regarded chain of restaurants that was once commonplace in the islands. These are set among countless others in the past year, underscore the deep-rooted struggles plaguing the Hawaii restaurant industry, including exorbitant costs and a critical shortage of qualified staff.

Hawaii’s culinary scene is flourishing at the same time.

We were encouraged on our visit to Honolulu last week to see many Waikiki restaurants busy. That was true across the spectrum of restaurant types and prices. There are some very exciting things happening in Pacific Rim Cusine, and five Honolulu restaurants are semi-finalists for the James Beard Awards this spring. We are still trying to get into Bar Leather Apron, at which it is almost impossible to get a reservation. It won the 2023 James Beard Award for Best Bar. We also had the opportunity to dine at natuRE, one of the James Beard semi-finalists. More on that and other great Hawaii restaurants from us soon.

The unexpected gap between the thriving and struggling entities is remarkable. The failures continue to cast a shadow on the prospects of Hawaii’s dining landscape recovery, with many otherwise successful and well-regarded eateries grappling to manage unsustainable costs, reduced tourism spending, and severe operational problems. Despite all efforts to bounce back, a resounding lack of restaurant personnel persists, posing a further hurdle to restaurant success.

The best thing we can all do to see restaurants thrive in Hawaii is to eat out and support the work they do. Plus, tip generously because not only is it expensive to do business in Hawaii, but it’s also expensive living here. That, even while the escalating cost of Hawaii restaurant food sometimes makes people less inclined to tip more generously.

Hawaii restaurants and customers hit with surge in costs.

Hawaii restaurants are also facing steep increases in costs from food to labor, rent to insurance, and more. Those end up being charged back to customers. According to the US Dept. of Labor Statistics, the cost of eating out in Honolulu just rose 8.5%.

Hawaii Restaurants Closing

Compounding the issues and driving creativity is the soaring cost of living in Hawaii.

The escalating expense of residing in Hawaii is making it increasingly challenging for restaurant workers to make ends meet. In a bid to mitigate this, some establishments have explored unconventional means, including providing housing for employees and many other innovative staffing solutions.

Transitioning to a take-out or less service oriented model for one, has become a pragmatic response for some restaurants. This move reflects the trend toward streamlining operations in order to navigate the current uncertainties.

Piggy Smalls, Honolulu

These fifteen Hawaii restaurants closed recently.

The sudden closures in the past year of beloved dining institutions we’ve enjoyed dining at like Piggy Smalls, and Little Village Noodle House is surprising. When Piggy Smalls closed, it was due to the lack of available staffing Here’s what they said:

What a run! It’s bittersweet. We have decided to conclude our journey… We want to thank our incredible staff, past and present, who have been absolutely amazing in crafting our unique and eclectic Asian American cuisine. We also want to thank our amazing customers and patrons who have dined at our location for the past 7 years. We hope this is not the end of the Piggy Small’s journey and to return somewhere soon.

Staffing was likely a huge part of the problem Outback Steakhouse Hawaii faced.

And now this past weekend, the announcement that all five Outback Steakhouse locations will close (two closed earlier and the last three will now shutter) underscores the severity of the situation.

In addition, others Hawaii restaurants have closed gone out. They include Angelo Pietro, Chuck’s Cellar, Hellenic Kitchen, Nam Fong, Pah Ke’s Chinese Restaurant, Pauoa Chop Suey, Restaurant Do-ne, Tenkaippin. All of these are now listed as being permanently closed.

How important is the survival of Hawaii’s culinary scene to you?

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16 thoughts on “Fork In The Road: Hawaii Restaurants Split Between Closures, Successes”

  1. I was born and raised in Oahu in the ’50s and ’60 I left in the ’80s and have only been back when my parents passed away. the cost of living was too high then and the traffic problems and even worse now. I used to drive from Waianae to Kahala for work in the early am, and it took me half an hour. The return home took over two and a half hours. everything is much too expensive, gas, food, housing, restaurant meals. I truly love the aina, but can’t afford to live there.

  2. Too many restaurants, many come and go. Dined at some of the best on Oahu over the years. Sorry they just don’t seem to be as good today as they were two decades ago… irrespective of the high prices. Luckily I can cook (and eat) for myself and family. Prices are ridiculous to eat out, and the service tanks at many places. Aloha also means good bye (and not good buy).

  3. Aloha BOH Bro’s

    I think many are overlooking the food truck explosion on the islands as a main reason why traditional brick & mortar restaurants are closing.

    Food trucks have a much lower operating cost. Many local chefs have left restaurants to open a food truck business, plus they poach the best staff to help run the truck causing staffing shortages for restaurants.

    Blame also must be placed on tourist who are flocking to food trucks to spend their vacation dollars. They then post online wondering why their old favorite local owned restaurant went out of business.

    Jeez really, but anything to save a buck on your Hawaiian Vacation.


    1. What I don’t like about food trucks are the “to go” boxes, plastic forks & other packaging and frankly, some are not cheaper than some small sit-down restaurants, although I have to admit that I usually go for “Happy Hour” and listen to my favorite musician at the same time! Food trucks will never be my 1st choice, but I am willing to try some out.

  4. Hawaii politicians are ruining the island. I can no longer afford to visit Oahu as a Canadian. There’s only so much you can tax businesses and tourists. Hawaiian people keep voting politicians that know nothing about businesses and this is the result.

  5. Chuck’s Cellar in Honolulu will be missed. Hope that doesn’t mean that the “dive bar” in the same building will be more expensive or too fulll to get a seat!

    1. Eva you know it, the prices will jump and the food will never be the same, ditto on the service, and the charm &Aloha…gone

  6. One way to adapt to staffing issues is for people to place their own orders at the counter and seat themselves. This is not ideal, but a restaurant can run on a smaller front of house crew. This is happening in many resort towns where rent is high and wages can’t keep up…

  7. Fewer tourist will mean fewer restaurants. Hotel restaurants will survive and are mostly not local. What do people want? Lots of choice in restaurants with tourist or much fewer choices with limited tourists? Hotels headquartered on the mainland want big chains and captive audiences. Small businesses support other small restaurants and businesses. This goes back to the question of economic freedom that allows local restaurants and small businesses to thrive. Maui’s government choice seems to be for hotel chains and their restaurants. Sad but the unique small Pacific Rim food choices of Maui are fewer each year and the fire just accelerated the process.

  8. I have eaten at both The Noodle House and Piggy Smalls numerous times over the years and am sorry to see them close. My family is a restaurant family on the east coast and also suffered this fate in 2021. The restaurant business is difficult and I wish both families well. I will have to double down and visit the Le’s other restaurant, The Pig and the Lady twice as much since Piggy Smalls is closed. They did have a stall at the Kapiolani Saturday market, do they still do this or has this ended as well?

    1. Melony, we miss Smalls as well. Pretty sure having Howard Hughes as landlord had something to do with it. Pig is still at Saturday KCC, Thursday Kailua, and Wednesday Blaisdell Center. And of course, in Chinatown. Cheers!

  9. Every time I go home another favorite Mom and Pop or long time local establishment it gone… There’s not going to be much left at this rate, even the big boys are falling now…

  10. About 2010, a storm blew down a power line across a road and three days later a crew came out to repair. We had to detour about 20 minutes to get to Hilo. We were 5 minutes late and the big kahuna behind the counter said sorry with a smile as the women behind the counter gasped. I didn’t make it to my uncle’s funeral and have not flown Hawaiian since. Rod kamaaina.

  11. We’ve visited Maui and other islands more than 25 times in the last 30 years. Historically, the quality was inconsistent over the years. However, on the most recent trip in January 2024, we’ve found that the restaurants on Maui have adapted well. The hours are shorter and the entrees are fewer but the quality of those entrees is amazing. There’s always been some surprising start ups with excellent dishes and service. We’ve found staffing is more of an issue at the hotels.

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