The close of 2019 was not only the end of another year, but the end of another decade and, perhaps, of an era for restaurants as we know them.
At the beginning of the millennium, I wrote that we should be prepared for the era of the incredibly shrinking restaurant. What I didn’t foresee then was how much they would shrink.
At that time, I was referring to the evolution of massive theaters of dining to medium-scale casual eateries that reflected changing appetites and attention spans as patience for four-hour dinners waned.
Broader societal trends are changing the way we dine as a combination of infinite choices and internet searching makes it possible to screen out all data except that which applies to our individual tastes. It’s a scenario that favors specialists over generalists and for restaurateurs it means more attention focused on those who can do one thing really well.
This was reflected in the year’s biggest dining trends, which had less to do with traditional restaurants that ended the year with a whimper, and more to do with Instagram-friendly specialty shops.
I’m excited about what 2020 will bring. See you at the table!
In the 1.0 era, food went from being slopped in sections on a plate to being stacked high in more visual displays. In the 2.0 stage, presentations flattened out across the plate, but the aesthetic was still more focused on the food than the backdrop.
Now that the social media age has turned diners into food photographers and every picture is worth a thousand sales, many a restaurateur has realized amateur shutterbugs need all the help they can get to come up with an appetizing shot. “Assists” now built into restaurant planning range from the pinpoint lighting at Aloha Steak House, to custom ceramic ware at restaurants like Senia, Paris Hawaii and Mugen.
Beyond the table, small spots like Thrills, Rabbit Rabbit Tea and Purvé Donut Stop offer Instagram walls that provide an arty, clean photo backdrop to help highlight their specialties. Oh wait, you thought you were the star of those photos?
IT WAS TEA TIME ALL THE TIME
Not long ago, tea was something to enjoy after a meal or as part of a refined tea service.
Now it seems a new boba cafe opens every week somewhere on Oahu, and tea has become packed with enough calories to become a meal replacement for those strapped for cash but who still want a pleasant setting to meet up with friends.
I didn’t understand this phenomenon until recently because I’ve never been a fan of boba. But two of the newest tea cafes changed my mind.
At Rabbit Rabbit Tea in Aiea, the focus is on healthier blends of fresh fruit and fresh-brewed Taiwan and Japan leaf teas, rather than artificial flavorings. An eight-step water purification system ensures safety and optimal tea flavor.
Freshly made boba has a texture more like soft mochi, as intended when boba was created in Taiwan, rather than the stiff Gummy Bear-like bouncy boba usually presented here, lost in translation.
Those who don’t want the calories of brown sugar boba could opt for golden boba instead, tapioca pearls presented au naturel.
At the new Momo Cafe on Ward Avenue, a cream cheese milk cap foam has an addictive salt-laced quality without interfering with distinctive green or black tea flavors. Fruit-filled teas or “potted teas” topped with Oreo cookie “dirt” and green sprig of mint help cafe-goers fulfill their Instagram requirements.
Not to be outdone, big player Halekulani partnered with Tea Chest Hawaii to revamp its Orchids restaurant tea service in December to offer Hawaii-grown teas.
Maybe it was global warming that drove temperatures up to a constant 90 degrees-plus over the summer, but a combination of ice cream shops and chilly pop-ups made the seemingly endless heat wave more tolerable.
Black Sheep Cream Co., which started in Waipahu, added locations in Wahiawa and near Ala Moana Center. Thrills Soft Serve proved an apt name for a shop featuring Insta-worthy ice cream flavors such as ube and matcha Kit Kat in rich, saturated hues of purple and green, studded with such — to those of certain generations — nostalgic ingredients as Teddy Grahams and Fruity Pebbles.
Farmers markets provided venues for ice pops by Pop Box Hawaii and Mid-Late Summer’s adult ice creams with a fine-dining aesthetic. By the end of the year, Yoas opened at the Hale Ohana Marketplace with nondairy craft sorbets in flavors from fruity to savory, such as iced tea with yuzu, cinnamon toast crunch and apple celery mint.
LET US EAT CAKE
Where more Western-style teas and coffees are served, cake is often the main attraction.
After conquering New York and Asia, Lady M mille cakes came to town via the company’s Waikiki Tea House.
Taking the mille cake concept one step further at 808 Center, Miss Chen’s Cake added delightful ube and brown sugar “lava flow” sauces for added flavor and visuals. Upstairs, Cake M added more sweet options.
Most recently, the new Halepuna by Halekulani became home to the Halekulani Restaurant and Bakery, offering a pleasant venue for enjoying cakes, quiches, sandwiches and exquisite viennoiserie, Viennese baked goods.
SAVE CHEFS FROM BOREDOM
Working with the same menu day in and day out can lead to creative fatigue. The pop-up concept, once the province of startups operating on shoestring budgets in shared spaces, has caught on with bigger players who view Chef’s Table pop-up events as a way to showcase their skills and creativity beyond daily regimented menus.
At Tommy Bahama Cafe, chef Yan Aung was able to showcase a taste of his native Burma via an “Herbs and Spices” pop-up.
The Prince Waikiki launched a quarterly “Off the Beaten Path!” series with a rotating lineup of its own chefs bringing their unique culinary journeys to the table. Most recently, executive chef Jose Almoguera prepared a menu inspired by the food of his native Guam. Included was tinala katne (smoked beef belly) with crab fat finadene dinanche that I crave to this day. The downside is that any cravings that result from these events will likely go unrequited, as the dishes are off the regular menu and not likely to be repeated.
At Vino Italian Tapas & Wine Bar, chef Keith Endo took the concept to extreme lengths after watching “42 Grams,” a documentary about Chicago chef Jake Bickelhaupt, who invited random people to underground dinners in his apartment. With the monthly Vino Chef’s Table, Endo invites guests based on their food interests as expressed via their Instagram accounts, selecting those willing to eat anything, giving him the leeway and liberating feeling of being able to create a meal without the specter of dietary restrictions or food aversions. His aim is to avoid repeating a dish in his monthly themed dinners.
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at email@example.com.