The new dining room: The great outdoors

12th Ave. Grill’s Kevin Hanney proposes turning a lane of 12th Ave. into a Kaimuki Cafe & Promenade

outdoors_1Restaurants in Hawai‘i were permitted to reopen for dine-in service, following best social-distancing practices, on June 5. I went out to eat (at a restaurant that has outdoor tables) for the first time in three months a week later. Since then, I have been invited to eat out and distance-shamed for going.

It is a confusing time. I pine to be a regular at Miro Kaimuki’s counter while trying to lead a zero-risk life (my mother has underlying conditions and we live together). It’s hard scrolling through local food Instagram accounts—the posts look so tempting but I canʻt help thinking they’re risking their lives daily.

Thanks to the state maintaining the 14-day quarantine for visitors and returning residents, the number of Hawai‘i’s documented coronavirus cases remain relatively low—though today’s record 55 new reported cases makes me wonder for how long. When I walk down Kalākaua Avenue for my daily constitutional, I see too many people who look like they should be quarantining in their hotel rooms and too many locals not wearing masks.

Get back in your hotel room! Those are fresh-off-the-plane lei!

Of my favorite restaurants whose dining rooms are reopened, only one, Mud Hen Water, has information about spread-fighting safety measures on its website, and it is a general notice without specifics on what staff are doing. On a national scale, David Changʻs Momofuku Group has set the industry gold standard, creating a comprehensive health and safety guidebook and publishing it online. (Of course, our independent restaurants don’t have the resources they do to have someone regularly updating their websites much less create a publication like that.)

The Hawai‘i Department of Health posted a detailed State Guidance for Reopening Food Services Sector, but who knows if all eateries and bars are following them? (Well, we know they are not.) And running a restaurant or bar is so tough as it is without having to be a self-monitoring public-health expert trying to protect staff and customers. Our restaurateurs are exhausted constantly weighing pros and cons and doing the math on what their reduced seating and ever-evolving creative takeout programs will yield.

For now I am comfortable eating at places with outdoor seating in moderation. And the number of options are growing. Restaurants that are indoor-only are busting out of their walls. 12th Ave Grill chef-owner Kevin Hanney reduced his seating from 130 to 70 to comply with social-distance guidelines when he reopened on June 5. He thought the numbers would work for the restaurant until he saw largely couples coming in. With group dining out these days, 12th Ave Grill was seating only 35 to 40 people.

“The City encourages outdoor seating, so we decided we have to get some outdoor seating,” says Hanney. 12th Ave Grill has the benefit of sitting on Kaimukiʻs municipal parking lot, and right outside the entrance is a sort of no-man’s-land corner of asphalt. When Hanney asked his landlord if he could use it for an outdoor dining room, the landlord loved the idea and even gave him a contact at City & County. Within three weeks Hanney got the OK to create what he calls the patio.

“Everybody in the City is working hard to try and help,” says Hanney. “From sidewalk seating to the Liquor Commission, it’s so simple now. Just fill in a few forms and you’re in business. It’s been a very positive experience.”

Dinner on the patio.

Opened June 11, the patio is sheltered by a tent and gets a little tiki chic in the form of string lights, bamboo fencing and potted plants Hanney and his wife Denise, who runs the front of the room (does that term even make sense anymore?), brought from home. On a recent Saturday evening, the breeze blew through keeping diners cool (and blowing coronavirus droplets away).

Understanding that the pandemic has fundamentally changed the concept of dining out, Hanney now has his sights set on a bigger project—shutting down the Ewa lane of 12th Avenue to create a parklet of outdoor seating to share with all ground-floor businesses on that stretch, which includes Via Gelato and old-school chop suey house Duk Kee. It’s something he has actually been wanting to do for years, and now the coronavirus has made it a possibility. Cities from San Mateo, Calif., to Tampa Bay, Fla. have closed off selected streets to allow restaurants to extend their dining rooms outdoors—why not Honolulu?

“It’s the perfect street to block off,” says Hanney. “The buildings have entrances in parking lots, and with this whole thing going on I thought there’s got to be a way to get this done.”

In late June, Mayor Kirk Caldwell and his assistant had dinner at 12th Ave Grill. They invited Hanney to join them and the chef didn’t miss the opportunity to pitch his idea.

Rendering of Kevin Hanney’s Kaimuki Street Cafe & Promenade dream. Don’t you like?

“[The Mayor] was very excited about it,” says Hanney, who quickly put together a formal proposal, including architectural renderings, for a “Kaimuki Street Café and Promenade” situated between the mauka and makai entrances to the municipal parking lots. He has submitted it to Caldwell, as well as Kaimuki Neighborhood Board chair Sharon Schneider, City councilmember Ann Kobayashi and Rep. Ed Case.

It has been amazing to see Honolulu’s restaurants and bars be so creative and nimble in their effort to stay alive and feed and hydrate their fans. I hope their efforts are supported and pay off. In the meantime, we can only watch and wait, get takeout, ask our government representatives to vote for the Restaurants Act, and, if you feel safe enough, eat outdoors. Hey, we are in Honolulu, it is crazy that we don’t have more open-air dining to begin with.

Where to eat en plein air

I’ve always preferred this Kaka‘ako watering hole’s sidewalk seats to the crowded scene inside. Now they are the premium seats! Try the new refreshed food menu to go with the bespoke cocktails they’re known for. Kudos to owner Christian Self for stayin’ alive.

When this rooftop Mexican restaurant, part of Hide Sakurai’s restaurant group, opened in 2014, we all wondered why more rooftops haven’t been colonized! The food has been slowly declining the last few years, but sitting under the stars brings me back occasionally.

La Vie
This unsung contemporary prix-fixe French gem is one big open-air balcony. Request a table closest to the sky. Here’s my review in HI Luxury, in case you’re interested.

Mud Hen Water’s outdoor dining area, where you can have addictive lotus root stir fry and cuddle your pup too.

Mud Hen Water
Ed Kenney had a head start with the already-existing outdoor lanai equipped with picnic tables and two-tops. This was my first stop when restaurants reopened. You can enter the lanai from the sidewalk, bypassing the dining room, staff are masked and mindful. And they welcome dogs!

Piggy Smalls
While the flagship Pig & the Lady remains closed for now, you can get your enticing global mash-ups with a Vietnamese soul at its Kaka‘ako sister spot. Just be sure to ask for a seat on the outdoor lanai.

Qing Mu
Restaurateur Kevin Aoki included arbor-shaded sidewalk seating in the design of this Honolulu branch of his Atlanta-born noodle house. He couldn’t have known it would become such valuable dining real estate. He opened as a takeout place during the shut down.

Request a table on this Kaimuki pioneer’s wraparound walkway to enjoy your favorites once again.

Tommy Bahama
When you make a reservation, request the third-floor rooftop, where you can have Margaritaville-ish fare.


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