After enough birthdays go by, each passing year becomes a chance for reflection, a contemplation of past and future. With this year’s 40th anniversary of Hy’s Steakhouse, executive chef Justin Inagaki is taking the beloved Waikiki restaurant forward with an eye toward embellishing the old with the new.
Hy’s is the People’s Choice Best Restaurant this year, picked by readers of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
Hy’s has long been renowned among both residents and visitors for its excellence in cuisine and service. It maintains an old-school flair, with tuxedoed servers who offer tableside service to prepare Caesar salad, carve Chateaubriand and flambe desserts.
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These classic dishes orbit around the star of the menu: prime beef aged in-house for four to six weeks and cooked over kiawe wood.
Among the most popular meats are a classic 34-ounce porterhouse, bone-in rib-eye, prime rib, plus a wagyu tomahawk featured monthly.
The restaurant’s beef comes from small Pennsylvania Amish farms where cows are raised naturally and humanely, Inagaki said.
“We’re meticulous when it comes to our meats. There is consistency in quality with every order, every week.”
Generations of families and repeat visitors to the isles return to the restaurant, with its elegant, Old-English ambience, to mark special occasions.
“We have a different standard from most steakhouses,” Inagaki said. “Our expectation is that no matter how a guest arrives, they leave with a smile. We want every single part of a diner’s experience, from valet to going home, to be excellent.”
That requires a group effort, and servers in particular are provided with team support that allows them optimal one-on-one time with customers, the chef says.
Tradition looms large at Hy’s, but Inagaki is introducing contemporary influences, such as locally sourced produce from Aloun and Nalo farms, and fish caught in Hawaii waters. The restaurant also holds special dinners from March to September that allow him to present menus inspired by food trends.
In July, for instance, the restaurant staged a successful Game Month, presenting meats such as venison and buffalo, and a unique pork tomahawk.
In August, a farm-to-table wine dinner menu looked like this: Kauai prawn bisque with creme fraiche and prawn chips; Kona-raised Maine lobster and Maui onion salad of Waipoli greens, Big Island cucumbers, Ho Farm tomatoes and crispy Kahaluu taro root curls; Big Island lychee granita served in a mango gel; kiawe-grilled Maui Nui venison tenderloin with Maui onion jam, served with roasted Molokai sweet potatoes; and an assortment of local fruit.
“Hawaii Regional Cuisine reigns supreme (locally), and we try to bridge the gap a bit, but within the concept of the restaurant,” Inagaki said. “We try to keep it Hawaii-oriented while maintaining respect for the legacy of Hy’s.”
Inagaki, 27, cut his teeth on Hawaii Regional Cuisine. A graduate of Kapiolani Community College, he built an impressive resume over a few short years. He began his career as part of the team that opened the Gyotaku restaurant in Niu Valley in 2007, then went on to join the team opening Trump Tower. While there, he worked his way up to sous chef, then moved on for a stint at Signature Prime Steak and Seafood restaurant, followed by executive chef duties at Creations in Catering.
While at Trump, Inagaki made friends with Hy’s former chef. When the chef decided to leave Hy’s, he called Inagaki. That was two years ago.
Inagaki’s career choice was a natural one, given that he’s been involved with preparing food his entire life. His roots are in Waimanalo, where he says someone in the community was always getting ready for a big luau.
The time and labor required to put together parties with 300 or 400 guests necessitated help from everyone, and the work turned into social gatherings.
“We didn’t have a lot of means, but we’d climb the coconut tree for fresh coconuts and went into the water to catch hee (octopus),” he recalled. “Everyone would be talking story while prepping the food, and I fell in love with food when I was 4 or 5 years old.
“I learned how to take care of products from my grandma. She told me, ‘Don’t overfish. Don’t overpick. Take only what you need. It’ll be there tomorrow.’”
The upcoming celebration of the restaurant’s 40th birthday, which will commence in November and last a year, will allow Inagaki to “show what’s different about Hy’s” beyond the steak and flambes.
“We’ll be getting out and doing things people are not aware of,” he said.
As always, though, Inagaki looks forward to hosting guests who travel from all parts of the country to indulge in their favorite steakhouse meal, done up as only Hy’s can.
“During the holidays, we’re packed, and we have families flying in who reserve tables of 12. There are a couple of San Francisco families who come for dinner every year and when they’re leaving, they make reservations for the next year,” he said. “Our goal is to bring back hundreds of guests multiple times.”
2440 Kuhio Ave., Waikiki; 922-5555; hyswaikiki.com. Dinner. $$$-$$$$