The mid-2000s were a milestone time in Honolulu’s restaurant history. In June 2004, Kevin Hanney opened 12th Ave Grill in Kaimuki. The banquettes upholstered in black-and-gold bamboo fabric, kim chee-marinated steak and addictive smoked ahi spread, and long oak bar with a classic cake stand on one end were like nothing the city had seen before. I had moved back to Honolulu from Manhattan a year earlier and the new American bistro was the closest thing to the joints I was eating at and writing about in New York City. It was an instant hit. Then a few months later I caught wind of another project three long blocks away.
Ed Kenney and Dave Caldiero were creating their own contemporary bistro. The first time I got a look at it, photos of details of their favorite New York restaurants were still taped to the walls and sawhorses stood in the space. They cooked me lunch and I knew Honolulu was about to change. The place opened in April 2005, and suddenly Kaimuki was a dining hot spot of two. Caldiero actually worked at 12th Ave Grill in the months leading up to Town’s debut, and “we held a joint dinner welcoming them to the hood,” recalls Hanney’s wife and partner Denise Luke.
Like 12th Ave Grill, Town was an instant winnah, of a different stripe. (Here’s my May 4, 2005, review in the late Honolulu Weekly.) The now famed ‘ahi tartare (which lives on at Mahina & Sun’s), the melting gnocchi and hand-cut pasta, the perfect Hawai‘i-caught fish compositions accented with romesco or salsa verde, those mussels in the gulpable Cinzano-spiked broth (god, I can still taste it), the salads of clever combos of produce from Wai‘anae’s MA’O Farms, the pig head torchon—we weren’t getting food like that anywhere else. And it got harder and harder to get a seat.
Fifteen years later, the duo announced the closing of Town via a video on Instagram. They sat in the nook where I have celebrated two birthdays and thanked their co-producers, staff, and clientele, letting the world know it has until Nov. 21 to get a last taste of Town. (Three weeks of seats were booked within two hours.)
With the pandemic taking a heavy economic toll on the independent restaurant industry, the news wasn’t a shock. (Knowing they own the catty corner building that is home to Mud Hen Water, why keep paying rent for another space?) And I wasn’t devastated. Instead I felt a beautiful story was coming to a serene happy ending.
In 16 years, Town set out a mission, met it, and surpassed it, becoming much more than a restaurant. It is a state of mind that has people saying “no panic, go organic” and “local first, organic whenever possible, with aloha always.” It has educated a generation of diners and more than a few farmers, opening up new worlds for people not just by expanding chicken katsu–and–prime rib horizons but by making them think about where food comes from and why they should care. Scores (hundreds?) of young people have gotten their professional starts in the kitchen and in the dining room. The place became a nationally recognized must-eat.
We have watched Ed and Dave’s young families grow up at Town, have become friends with servers and bartenders, and marveled at how oxtail soup can be transformed into the best risotto ever. They donated time and talent to countless grazer fundraisers, Hawai‘i Tourism Authority recruited the pair to help spread the Hawai‘i word on promotional junkets, and Kenney found a side gig as the engaging presenter—bringing his knowledge and thirst to learn more—of the great locally produced series Family Ingredients.
They have gone on to open the sister spots Kaimuki Superette and Mud Hen Water, each with its own distinct aloha-based identity. In 2017, Eater.com (which launched three months after Town did), named Mud Hen Water one of the nation‘s 38 essential restaurants.
When Town served its first dinners, Facebook was just a year old, and Instagram wouldn’t appear for another five years. Today it is a social media–savvy operation that kept its fans abreast of its twists and turns through a pandemic on Facebook and Instagram. It takes reservations on Open Table.
I wasn’t quick enough on the draw to snag one of those reservations (outdoor table only, please) for the proverbial last meal. But in the end, I think I am glad. (I promise I’m not just trying to make myself feel better.) I have 15 years (cause Covid-19 deprived me of this past year) of great Town food under my belt, 15 years of Town Tribe making me feel special eating in the big audio dynamite room (“What?!”), 15 years of being pleasantly surprised by something on the menu (pa‘i ‘ai patty! duck breast and farro at the bar!), 15 years of spotting interesting people from all of Honolulu’s many walks of life amid the hubbub. And the restaurant’s DNA lives on in Mud Hen Water.
As Ed said on Instagram: “This is not the end, this is a page in the book.” As it is turned, I can’t wait to see what appears. Mahalo nui loa Towntribe.