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Dine like a local on the Big Island

The Big Island of Hawaii has numerous of restaurants that provide an upscale experience. Once in a while, you want to just come in your slippas’ and dine where the locals hang. A little more relaxed, a bit more local flavor and no shortage of interesting personalities. Umekes Fishmarket Bar & Grill is reputed to be the place where Poke’ Nachos were born. Started by a local fisherman & chef, the fish is caught, processed and then served in a situation that is about as fresh as you can get. Counter and table seating. Expect no frills, just excellent island food revolving around fish while you are seated between regulars. First timers should try the beef or poke bowls. Bongo Ben’s gives that great view of the bay in Kona town and cranks out some pretty good omelets and pancakes while you are taking in the waves. Two favorites are the Bongo Benedict and the Banana Nut Pancakes, just two of the items on the massive menu. The Kona Brewing Company is the place where you go to get the local brews with flavors you can’t match anywhere else. Like beer with chocolate or coffee, and the little twinge of taste zips up the suds. And, the food menu is a surprise with probably the best pizza combinations on the island. Under The Bodhi Tree in the Waikoloa/Waimea area serves plant-based comfort food. Breakfast gets some organic octane with the Quinoa Superfoods Bowl, featuring maca, cinnamon, and local fruits. For lunch, the Ruben’s Garden will make you forget about meat for a while with a bright combination of grilled tofu, sauerkraut, swiss cheese and miso thousand island dressing. The Tap Room proves that a flagged property can have a restaurant that caters to locals. Start with the fact they beers from all over Hawaii, then mix those drinks with some zippy pupus and sandwiches. Give it enough televisions and sports gear, and you get a relaxed sports bar environment. However, the food is up two notches. Emblematic are the short-rib sliders where the rib meat combines with a quail egg on an individual bun. If you want the most unique local gourmet experience on the entire Big Island, then it is the Red Water Café. A former bar full of biker & Koa wood charm, Chef David Abrahams is a prize-winning dynamo of kitchen creativity. He is simply re-defining farm to fork in every dimension. Everything is two notches better, starting with the beet salad with pickled vegetables. With extensive sushi offerings, the Fuji Roll with tuna, crab, shrimp and tempura avocado would make a Tokyo businessman cry. On the backside of the experience, Chef David is now exploring the world of local chocolate with his yummy candies.

Neil Wolkodoff

Neil Wolkodoff is a golf and travel writer from Denver, Colorado. He covers golf, dining, activities and accommodations from the luxury and unique perspective. He has even been golfing with goats.

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  1. I have been Hawaii once and I really love it. I really like the fish there.I have never had an experience like that! The restaurants are fantastic. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Hawaii is just such a good destination for fresh natural foods – seafood straight from the ocean, fruit straight from the harvest. Superfoods and healthy eating! The Red Water Cafe sounds excellent as I’m a massive fan of sushi. Yummy chocolate candies? Tell me more, who doesn’t love chocolate! Putting that on my visit list for my next trip.

  3. If I visited Hawaii I think it would be fascinating to chat to all of the locals of the area – I bet their way of life is so very far from mine! Plant-based comfort food sounds perfect to me, I bet Hawaii has a great selection of Vegan delights. Reading about the grilled tofu and fruits is making my mouth water – what a wonderful place

  4. Jen, they are really trying to ramp up local food production and be more self-sustainable. Depending upon the climate zone, some things grow well others don’t. So, my experience is it depends where you are on the island. It appears many of the chefs opening these smaller, focused restaurants have extensive culinary training, so food choices tend to be unique and well thought out.

  5. I always ask the taxi driver when I arrive somewhere new where the best locals places to eat are. They are always better than the tourist areas and generally cheaper prices too. The Tap Room looks fun!

  6. Al these were suggested by locals for different reasons. On the Big Island, it’s so large that part of the decision is based upon proximity!

  7. Interesting article, *but* i would not classify these places as “Local”. For real local food try Cafe 100, Kens, & Hawaiian Style Cafe in Hilo, and Big Island Diner in Kona.

  8. Norm, thanks for your comment. In surveying numerous locals, I received quite a diversity of suggestions of where to go. No one restaurant or bar was equally suggested by all the people I interviewed. As usual, any list of that sort is subject to personal interpreation and preference.

    Please note that local food was part of the criteria, yet just as important was did locals dine or drink at that location. Ken’s was covered in another article, and interestingly enough, Big Island Grill was not one of the top suggestions from the interviews. I might have talked to the wrong people but Cafe 100 did not get any mentions. Mind you, I only talked to 20-25 people, so not an exhaustive interview process, yet enough to steer us in some directions.

  9. Hawaii is such a great location for food. All of these places look brilliant. I’ll have to check out the foodie scene, next time I go to Hawaii. Bongo Ben looks like a great place to go with an amazing view.

  10. I am currently looking into Hawaii for our honeymoon after we get married next year I have always wanted to go and getting to done like a local is totally the kind of thing we adore when it comes to travelling. I love experiencing real delicacy.

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