You Need to Eat at These Restaurants on the Big Island, Hawaii
June 13, 2021
Best Fine Dining Restaurants on the Big Island of Hawaii
The Big Island of Hawaii is home to 8 out of the world’s 13 main climatic regions. From the ranches in Waimea to the lush fields along the Hamakua coast, and the surrounding deep ocean waters, the Big Island’s incredibly diverse topography allows for an abundance of fresh, locally sourced ingredients. It’s an agricultural paradise. Consequently, you must eat and eat well by dining at any one (or four) of these upscale restaurants on the Big Island of Hawaii.
If you do plan on dining at any of these incredible establishments, make reservations in advance. And by “in advance,” I mean as soon as you book your hotel, flights, and rental car reservation. Domestic travel within the USA right now is incredibly popular and travel to Hawaii is at the top of the list for many.
The sunsets on the Big Island of Hawaii are better than the sunsets on Maui. I’m not sure if that’s a controversial statement or if that’s an obvious one, but they just are. The pink and orange hues light the sky long after the sun has set below the horizon. And the way the Canoe House arranges its seating with this fantastic uplighting against the ocean backdrop is just magic. I haven’t been to the Canoe House since the Auberge hotel group bought the Mauna Lani, but I’ve heard that if you liked the old, you’ll love the new. From my understanding, the new chef, Matt Raso, is fusing local ingredients and island-inspired fare with hints of Japanese influence. There’s a 5-course tasting menu, but also plenty of meat, chicken, and fish entree options if you would prefer.
We go back and forth each year as to whether or not Brown’s Beach House or the Canoe House is the best restaurant on the Kohala Coast. Depending on the year, Brown’s would narrowly edge out the competition for their impeccable service and attention to detail. The restaurant is certainly the most generous; they serve surprise amuse bouches and other little treats between courses, courtesy of the chef. The oceanfront setting at the Fairmont Orchid is spectacular, which is something you almost come to expect at these upscale restaurants in Kohala but still can’t quite believe you have the privilege of experiencing. The cocktails are delicious and creative in approach; their cosmos feature a different flavor every day. Brown’s offers outstanding local musicians to serenade you as you enjoy your meal and sunset views. While the menu is selective WHAT DOES SELECTIVE MEAN?, there are fish, meat, gluten free, and vegetarian options available.
Napua has always intrigued me because the restaurant is so isolated; it’s tucked away in a secluded island cove on the Mauna Lani’s second and smaller beach. You’ll have to park at the resort and take a beautiful walk through fishponds, bridges, and lava fields to get there. A shuttle is available if you are a hotel guest. During the day, the bay at Napua is filled with snorkelers as the restaurant sits just above the Mauna Lani Beach Club, so the restaurant can be quite a scene for lunch. But, at dinner, Napua is your own little secret. Owned and operated by two brother-in-laws, their mantra is as follows: Why do most restaurants serve food to their guests that was shipped from the same place the guests just came from? Consequently, you can expect delicious food that is locally sourced. One of the brothers also owns a farm, Kaunamano Farm, in an effort to be as sustainable as possible. The menu at Napua is limited; there are typically just four entrees on the menu (local catch, ahi, rib eye, and bbq pork ribs) so I would recommend calling in advance to see if they can accommodate your needs if you have special dietary restrictions. Finally, you must try the shaved martini drink should you choose to dine here!
All of the resorts along the Kohala Coast have at least one upscale outdoor restaurant and Manta is that restaurant for the Mauna Kea Beach Resort, just up the road from the Mauna Lani. The name Manta isn’t coincidence. After dinner, you can literally walk down the stairs to the water and watch Manta rays swimming. Talk about a dining highlight! Dinner is available from Tuesday to Sunday and there is live jazz on Wednesday and Saturday evenings from 5:30pm to 8:30pm. Expect a beautiful sunset, delicious food, great service, and high prices. Chef Ryan grew up on the Kohala Coast, so his knowledge of the island’s produce, meats, and seafood really elevates the dishes. The menu options are also strongly influenced by a combination of cooking styles from islands all around the Pacific Ocean. There are gluten free and vegetarian selections on the menu. Just like the Mauna Lani, the Mauna Kea hotel is a classic big island destination and has tons of regular guests who visit every year.
Lava Lava is Waikaloa’s lively answer to the upscale beachfront restaurant. The Hilton Waikoloa hotel is certainly the most family-friendly of all of the resorts on the Kohala Coast, and Lava Lava Beach Club absolutely mimics that vibe. There’s music, there’s hula, a great happy hour, and there are burgers on the menu, which you probably won’t find at some of the other fine dining resort restaurants. The restaurant does get a little more glam as the sun starts to set, with New York steak, seared ahi, and fish of the day available. You can dine at tables on the patio or on the sand, Lava Lava is great if you are looking for an upbeat atmosphere. Come before sunset and play some lawn games before sitting down to a meal from Chef Justin, Lava Lava’s executive chef who was born and raised on the Big Island.
It’s not the easiest place to drive to – especially at night – but considering that almost every prominent chef on the island gets his or her start under the tutelage of Peter Merriman, it is certainly worth it to dine on a meal from the restaurant that started it all. Nestled in Waimea, the upcountry restaurant sits at the foot of Kohala, the oldest volcano on the island. The town sits at the transition between the wet and dry sides of the island and is a stark contrast from the arid climate of the Kohala coast. Waimea is also home to Parker Ranch, the largest privately owned cattle ranch in the USA. Peter opened Merriman’s in 1988 and he was one of the first to encourage local farmers to grow local produce and raise meats locally and create a regional cuisine. Kids love when their meal arrives with edible flowers. Merriman’s is also open for lunch, and Waimea really makes a fantastic day trip should you wish to dine there in the daytime.
This lunch experience has been on the bucket list for about five years now, and I cannot wait to get back to Hawaii to try the Vanilla Luncheon and Farm Tour. About a one hour drive from the Kohala Coast, the Hawaii Vanilla Company was established in 1998 by a family who had decided to cultivate the vanilla crop on the property they had recently purchased. Today, you can enjoy a multi-course luncheon created from vanilla products. A welcome beverage is served – vanilla lemonade or vanilla iced tea – before an amuse bouche of masala shrimp cooked in vanilla butter. A vanilla citrus bourbon chicken sandwich follows along with an organic salad topped with a vanilla raspberry balsamic dressing. Dessert is a scoop of Hawaiian vanilla bean ice cream which is provided after a tour of the family’s vanilla farm.
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ULU Ocean Grill is the oceanfront restaurant at the Four Seasons Hualalai. While you can expect impeccable service, delectable dishes, and ocean views like so many of the others on this list, ULU differentiates itself because it characterizes the establishment as a grill and sushi lounge. The restaurant has a separate menu strictly devoted to sake, sushi, and sashimi. Chef Takashi, the sushi lounge chef de cuisine, has worked at a variety of Four Seasons from Canada to Japan and now, Hualalai. ULU also has your black pepper grilled NY Steak and coconut poached kanpachi on the menu should you wish to go the traditional route. The Four Seasons Hualalai is the first of all of the resorts along the Kohala Coast as you head northwest from the Kona airport. Because the resorts are spread so widely apart, it’s a bit of a shlep if you are staying at one of the other resorts in Kohala; conversely, if you are looking for a fine dining experience and staying in Kona, this restaurant is closest compared to the other Kohala establishments.
Tommy Bahama is not just a clothing store, but also a restaurant. I know, it’s shocking. It’s actually my favorite restaurant both in Hawaii and in the continental US. Tommy Bahama is a must on a night where you are looking for a quality meal, but don’t necessarily want the whole to-do of an upscale oceanfront resort restaurant. Tommy Bahama is located in the Shops at Mauna Lani, where there are sunset views and island breezes but you’re in a mall, not on the ocean. The food and drinks more than make up for any lack of ambiance, however. Additionally, the Shops has a free Polynesian style hula show featuring local halau (hula studios) several nights a week, which you can enjoy prior to your meal. Please try the char-grilled filet mignon salad – it’s my favorite salad in the entire world. They don’t have it on their dinner menu anymore, only for lunch, but you can still ask for them to make it for you and they are always happy to do so. Or, you can go to Tommy Bahama for lunch; the fish tacos on the lunch menu are splendid as well. The Mai Tais are top-notch, but I don’t think you can go wrong with any of their cocktails.They also have a greatly happy hour from 2pm to 5 pm nightly with live music.
Are there any other dining experiences that should be included on this list? Let us know your thoughts on the best restaurants on the Big Island Hawaii in the comments below! And don’t forget to check out these other posts on WOAW!