Dots restaurant in Wahiawa is like the old auntie who’s been around forever, always serving something good to eat, playing music and making you feel at home. Her Christmas lights twinkle year round, there’s no TV and her house hasn’t been updated in decades — but none of that matters to the folks who come by.
For more than half of its 79 years on the corner of Mango Street and Kilani Avenue, Dots was the social hub of the community. While modern fast-food franchises now line Kamehameha Highway, the main artery through the old country town, Dots is still a place where you can find a hand-mixed sizzling hamburger steak that turns heads when it is delivered to a table.
130 Mango St., Wahiawa
>> Hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays through Mondays; closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays; lounge is open Wednesdays, 4 p.m.-midnight, for ladies night
>> Live music and dancing: In the dining room Mondays (oldies) and Thursdays (Hawaiian/pop); contemporary bands in the Pineapple Showroom on Friday nights ($10 cover)
>> Info: 622-4115, dotswahiawa.com
The staff feels at home there, as do the customers, says waitress Sugar Regidor, who has worked there for 21 years, mainly because the Harada family that owns Dots treats everyone so well.
“I just love our customers. You see the same people; it’s like one big family,” she added.
Another waitress recently retired after working at Dots for 51 years, and last year another left after more than 40 years.
Marian Harada was the dynamo with the raging entrepreneurial spirit who thought to open an outdoor roller skating rink/amusement center in 1938 to meet the needs of a burgeoning military population.
A year later, Dot’s Drive Inn opened next door to feed the skaters, offering carhop service. Marian’s sister Dorothy was assistant manager, and the restaurant was named after her diminutive, Dot.
When World War II broke out, the skating rink closed, but the restaurant stayed open, even during blackouts. When the business was officially registered, the apostrophe in “Dot’s” was dropped. The restaurant has been known since as just Dots.
After the war the business grew by leaps and bounds, starting with an expansion of the dining room and addition of a cocktail lounge. In the 1950s, a banquet facility and the Pineapple Showroom were added, featuring entertainment from Japan and the mainland. The large space was the go-to spot for big parties and fundraisers for the Central and Leeward communities.
In the 1950s the family opened a side business, Marian’s Catering, in Haleiwa, moving it a decade later to Wahiawa, behind Dots. The catering enterprise’s popularity called for the construction of a spacious, modern kitchen in 1980.
Today Dots includes a bar/lounge, the Pineapple Showroom and banquet facilities, served by a staff of 38. Marian’s Catering has 60 employees, with the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii a major client.
Manager Scott Harada, Marian’s grandnephew, recounted this family history. He is the fourth-generation family member to run the multifaceted food business. His father, James Harada, the oldest member of the extended family still active, manages the thriving Marian’s Catering and owns Dots.
Other spinoff businesses, which have since closed, included Marigold Market in central Wahiawa, and a fast-food outlet in Waikiki in the 1980s.
Harada & Harada Inc. was founded in 1935, when first-generation matriarch Shio purchased Sukiyaki Inn on Cane Street, which daughter Marian managed from the young age of 20, learning her trade.
“I was able to observe what hard work and dedication was,” said Scott, recalling tagging along when his dad learned the ropes. Marian, who died the mid-1980s when Scott was around 12, was “married to the business,” he said.
CLAIM TO FAME
A longtime gathering place for parties, dancing and live entertainment; serving homestyle comfort food, including spare ribs, fried chicken and Japanese specialties.
But Dots is probably best know for hamburger steak, served with onions and homemade gravy — which is what makes it so good — accompanied by rice and hot vegetables. The steak is delivered on a screaming-hot platter, sizzling in butter. The complete meal, with soup or salad, dessert and drink, is a deal at only $17.
“When somebody orders it, we always watch to see where it goes,” said Lori Marumoto, a regular customer who grew up in Wahiawa.
The restaurant hasn’t changed since she was a kid, Marumoto said.
“The same atmosphere, homestyle, family-style. Everybody in Wahiawa ate at Dots or had parties there, too — every graduation, wedding — in Wahiawa everything was at Dots … before, anyway.”
While Wahiawa has changed and Dots’ preeminence has waned, Marumoto remains one of the faithful. She and a bunch of friends come at least twice weekly, on Mondays and Thursdays, for the music in the dining room. Oldtimers are comfortable getting up to line dance or freestyle, sing along with the musicians, and mingle with others who’ve been coming for years.
Marumoto said longtime customer Patsy Matsumuro, known as “Auntie Patsy,” who’s in her 80s, loves to dance, and often pulls Marumoto’s bunch up to join her when the live music starts. And when “Hanalei Moon” is played, Matsumuro always does the hula.
While most of Wahiawa’s small-town, “homey-feel” restaurants have closed, Dots remains one of the few links to a simpler, bygone era.
“No more this kind restaurant around, yah?” Marumoto said. “I really root for them.”
With business on the decline, Dots started closing on Tuesdays and Wednesdays earlier this year. Scott Harada faces the challenge of drawing younger customers as his trusty clientele ages. He has more competition in a range of trendier restaurants that weren’t around in the early years.
Scott, 45, hopes to attract people of his generation and younger, but not by installing TV screens and Wi-Fi, or catering to the latest foodie craze.
Live music is a large part of his approach.
“We’ve sort of come full circle and brought that back,” Scott said, referring to Dots’ early years as an entertainment center. His great-aunt Marian and other family managers booked some “energetic” entertainment to please the large military population, including the avant-garde, transexual entertainer Christine Jorgensen, he said.
(Scott plays ukulele himself, with a trio that performs occasionally at Dots.)
Monday is Hawaiian nostalgia night, with oldies music and Hawaiian food; Thursday is for Hawaiian and contemporary pop. Friday night dancing in the Pineapple Showroom has a no-host bar and pupu.
Beyond that, Scott’s strategy is to maintain Dots’ tradition of comfort food and a family experience.
“I believe this is a great value, to set an hour and a half aside, have a good meal, and connect yourselves to the food and the people you eat with. That’s really the emphasis of what we are trying to do.”
That means “sticking to our guns,” and continuing Dots’ modus operandi in the face of what’s fashionable.
“We still cut our own vegetables by hand, we wrap our own wonton, make our own filling for wonton,” he said. And the famous hamburger steak is mixed the same way his mom did it, with bread and milk.
SOON TO COME
A menu of vegetarian options, as a partner in the Blue Zones Project, which promotes a healthier lifestyle. Scott also invites community groups to use Dots for events such as food tastings and free yoga classes.
“Old Friends” catches up with longtime local food producers. It runs on the third week of each month. Email suggestions to email@example.com or call Pat Gee at 529-4749.