The Restaurants of Maui

There are a billion excellent restaurants on Maui. Okay, maybe there are just a half a billion great restaurants. But no matter what neighborhood you find yourself when hunger pangs hit, there will be a fine restaurant just around the corner to satisfy your appetite and that desire to quench your thirst with something that has a paper umbrella ready to poke out an eye. These are my favorites. Some are acclaimed as being the best on the island; but there are many more – -too many. I have divided them into sections.

Lahaina and Kaanapali

The Hula Grill in Whaler’s Village on Kaanapali Beach is my favorite. It offers spectacular views of the ocean and the islands of Lanai and Molokai. The open-air restaurant has a plantation style ambiance with open beamed ceilings and rich wood paneling. The menu features famous chef Peter Merriman’s Hawaii regional seafood. Fresh fish and local produce are combined to create menu offerings that are vibrant and flavorful and in my 20 years of going to Maui, never disappoints. I love the crab wonton appetizer with a local draft beer for lunch. The fish and chips with the beer batter will put a smile on your face and keep you full all afternoon. The Hula Grill has a “barefoot bar.” That’s where I usually go. Quick. Easy. No fuss. Eat and enjoy the people watching and get back to the beach. The Hula Grill also has a fine main dining area that is very popular for sunset dining. Be sure to make a reservation and bring an appetite. You will want to share the ice cream sandwich. Well, maybe you’ll want it all for yourself. I once took half of mine in a doggie bag and raced back to the condo next door to toss it into the freezer. If you park in the Whaler’s Village pay lot, get your ticket validated at the Hula Grill for 3 hours of free parking. You may have time after eating to do a bit of shopping or tour the free whaling museum upstairs in the shops. It opens from 11:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Sansei Seafood Restaurant and Sushi Bar has two locations. The original is in Kapalua. As I write this, they are building a new location across the road from their sister restaurant, Vino’s next to the driving range in Kapalua. Sansei has won mountains of awards and been featured on national food programs. The food is truly to die for contemporary Japanese. I ALWAYS get the vegetable tempura and the mango crab roll. The flavors of all the dishes will dazzle your palate. I don’t eat sushi but the sushi bar has won awards as the best in the country. For the meat and potato lover in your party, Sansei has a mild chili-porcini mushroom crusted filet of beef tenderloin served over garlic mashed potatoes in shitake cabernet demi-glaze. Reservations are mandatory every night of the week. The place is always busy but that doesn’t slow down the fine service or detract from the quality of the menu items. A great thing to know is that Sansei offers a 25 percent discount on all food items from 5:30 till 6 p.m. At the Kihei location, that discount goes up to 50 percent on Sundays and Mondays and begins at 5:15. Come early and get in line with the locals in the know. The food and savings will make the wait worth it.

Vino Italian Tapas & Wine Bar opened in 2003 next to the golf club and driving range in Kapalua. Its Italian based Pacific Rim cuisine offers small entrees that allow you to order several different ones to make up an excellent meal. The wine selection is especially large and varied. And the menu makes recommendations to go with your food choice. They also offer wine flights that allow you to try small tastes of wines that are similar in taste. This is an excellent way to combine wine tasting with fine food dining. I’ve always tried the house ravioli. There is a Tuscan-style grilled and boneless half chicken stuffed with prosciutto and fontina and accompanied with a roasted mushroom marsala jus. The jumbo lump crab cake with fresh island herbs baked in phyllo with baby arugula and artichoke goes with any dish.

Pacific’O is a short walk from Lahaina Harbor on the ocean side of the shops at 505 Front St. I personally don’t care what the catch of the day is but I always order the Coconut Macadamia Crusted Catch with Thai peanut coconut sauce and a sweet and sour glaze with tropical fruit salsa. Yes, you sink your teeth into that and you know you’ve arrived in paradise. For those with a serious appetite and a hankering for beef, try the Bling Bling which is a grilled filet mignon and ginger butter poached lobster with potato du jour and (yum-yum) tempura asparagus. My second favorite dish is the Ginger Fish with crystallized ginger and panko crust, peanut sauce, sweet Thai chili sauce, and Kula vegetables and rice. Not only is the fish fresh but much of the produce comes from a local farm owned and operated by the restaurant. There are also pastas, and meat, and veggie dishes-even a burger and fries. Yes Pacific’O in Maui has something for the whole family.

Pacific’O restaurant is located on the beach that King Kamehameha II selected for his residence in the ancient Hawaiian capital of Lahaina, Maui. It is consistently voted in the top restaurants for a romantic location and view. Live jazz is featured Friday and Saturday. Reservations are recommended during prime seating hours around sunset. It is also opened for lunch.

Maalaea, Paia, and Upcountry

Hidden away behind little Maalaea Harbor and tucked into a condominium complex is the Waterfront Restaurant. Some think it has the finest seafood and best service on Maui. The times I’ve been there, I have found nothing that allows me to argue with that assertion. The family owned restaurant regularly wins regional culinary awards. The outstanding wine list has been honored with several Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence. The Waterfront offers scenic harbor and bay views, particularly from its open-air lanai. The atmosphere inside is cozy and elegant and intimate. Several of the dozen fresh fish selections are featured nightly and diners can choose from nine distinct preparations. The meat entrees are just as succulent and divine and feature wild game, tenderloin, rack of lamb, veal. This excellent hidden treasure is centrally located in Maui to be within easy reach no matter where you are staying.

Upcountry you’ll find a world famous restaurant in an unassuming building and location. The Hali’imaile General Store is owned and operated since 1988 by Cordon Blue-trained Bev Gannon, who happens to be the chef for Hawaiian Airlines. Her culinary philosophy is simply, “Feed people great food and lots of it.” She has exhibited a flair for combining fresh local ingredients into both elegant and down-home recipes that reflect her innovative skills. Her sashimi Napoleon is a lovely layered appetizer of smoked salmon, spicy tuna poke and raw ahi tuna layered between crisp wontons. My favorite is the daily soup-whatever it is-and the Asian duck tostada which consists of spiced duck confit with ginger chili cream slaw, carrots, sun dried cranberries and macadamia nuts. Asian seafood stew includes fresh fish, shrimp, and scallops in a miso garlic seafood broth with potato, tomato and herb crostini. And for that meat lover who is reading this and wondering if Upcountry eating is worth the trip, Bev has a Maui Cattle Company 16-ounce Rib-Eye steak with balsamic glaze and grilled peaches.

The Hali’imaile General Store is as extraordinary as the food. It is perched high above the beaten path in Maui on the lower slopes of Mt. Hale’akala. The 75-year-old general store is in the middle of a thousand acres of pineapple fields. Bev Gannon’s recipes can be found in the Hali’imale General Store cookbook.

Mama’s Fish House has been an institution attracting the rich and famous along with you and me for 30 years. The key is that Mama’s catches its own fish. The restaurant is an icon and that makes me worry about the quality. I wonder if the restaurant is living on its reputation and on cruise-control. Happily, the quality and the detail and enduring aloha spirit continues at this family restaurant hidden in a little Kuau Cove. It serves both lunch and dinner with light fare through the afternoons in its elegant bar lounge. You should call ahead to make sure you’re not disappointed since it is popular.

Kihei and Wailea

Yorman’s by the Sea combines Maui’s gorgeous sunsets and aloha with down home southern cooking and hospitality. It also has the best live jazz on Maui every night from 6:30 to 10 p.m. Yorman himself plays bass and sings, doing a mean impression of Louie Armstrong. The menu includes all the favorites from the South like fried ocra, hushpuppies, and seafood creole. There is peach glazed pork loin ribs served with a mound of garlic mach potatoes and collard greens. My personal favorite is the Hana rum chicken. Since it is Maui, of course you’ll find fresh fish and seafood with a southern twist. I try to save enough room to enjoy the peach cobbler but often have to come back the next night just for the dessert. Not a bad sacrifice as long as Yorman is playing.

The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Breakfast starts at $5, which is a bargain in Maui. The restaurant is located at the northern end of Kihei in the Menehune Shores condos. Stunning views, great soft jazz, and soothing southern food make this one of my very favorite hideaways.

The Seawatch Restaurant on the Gold and Emerald Courses at the Wailea Golf Club is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Great food at remarkably affordable prices is certainly welcomed, but what will take your breath away is the view, especially from the outdoor patio seating. It is a perfect dining experience any time of day. The Pacific Rim menu offers so much from fresh fish to rack of lamb, and each dish skillfully blends traditional methods with an island attitude and flawless presentation. Live music every Friday and Saturday night heighten the ambiance and make this a must dining experience for at least one meal while in Maui.

Fred’s Mexican CafÃ?© has $2 taco Tuesdays. This is a fun place, with energentic employees, excellent food, and affordable prices. Want a good, cheap breakfast with a view of the ocean? Go to Fred’s from 7 a.m. to 7:30 and get eggs and toast and potatoes with bacon or sausage for $1.99. It’s the best deal on the island. Supposedly, this is San Diego style Mexican food. I’m not sure what that is except it’s good eats. You get a big basket of free chips and salsa with every meal. The tacos come in char-broiled chicken breast (not mystery meat), steak, mahi-mahi, shrimp, and pork. All good. And it just gets better from there. The bar in the back is lively from 4 p.m. till closing. A couple of sports screens are mostly ignored as folks enjoy the food, the drink, the friendly bartenders, and each other. Yes, a lot of enjoying of each other. This has become a hangout and meeting place for people in their twenties and their forties and maybe just a few beyond that. Enjoy the ocean views with a refreshing jumbo margarita or get started on joining Fred’s Tequila Club by trying one of their 50 different Tequilas. If you taste all 50, not on the same night, you get a name plaque and your picture on the wall. Last count had 14 names. On the 5th of each month, the party really goes into high gear and celebrates Cinco de Fred’s. But I’m addicted to $2 taco Tuesdays. Can’t beat it.

Tommy Bahama is a fictional character that spanned a clothing line and a few wonderful tropical cafes. At the end of the Shops at Wailea, you’ll find Tommy Bahama’s Tropical CafÃ?© upstairs. It is the perfect place to recharge and wind down. You feel like a guest at some island plantation home. I just love to sit at the rectangular bar in the center of the restaurant and watch the action all around me while I get to know my new chums on the stools to the right and left and maybe even across the liquor bottles. You can choose from a casual lunch on the lanai under the crisp blue sky or have an intimate dinner in a cozy booth, complete with comfy pillows. The menu is eclectic with a tropical twist. The chop salad and the crab cakes and the crab bisque are always perfect. There is live entertainment every night from 6 till 10 p.m. Like rum? They’ve got enough different brands of rum to make a pirate smile. You can pick 3 rums and make yourself a little rum flight. Don’t do this at lunch or without a designated driver. I tired it once and enjoyed the drinking experience; not the walking and staggering experience after.

Food Festivals in Maui

Virtually any month of the year, you can find a food festival in Maui. Here are some of the biggest and best.

In June, you have the Annual Ki Ho’Alu Festival at the MACC A&B Amphitheater. This slack key guitar festival is the perfect chance for the whole family to relax on the lawn and enjoy an all-day line-up of some of Hawaii’s best slack key players. The event also includes booths with delicious local-style food.

In July, there is the Kapalua Wine and Food Festival. World famous wine makers, chefs and gourmands assemble at the Kapalua resort for a weekend of celebrity chef cooking demonstrations, wine and spirits tasting and gourmet dinners.

In August, the Maui Onion Festival takes place at Whaler’s Village in Kaanapali. This highly-acclaimed food event offers famous fried onion rings made from the sweet Maui Onion. Highlights include onion-eating contests-one for kids and one for adults, and a professional chef cooking competition, celebrity cooking demonstrations, live entertainment, and a farmers market.

In September, the mother of all Maui festivals occurs over a few days in Lahaina-A Taste of Lahaina & Best of Island Music. This is Maui’s largest culinary festival and it showcases new and popular restaurants in Maui offering samples of signature dishes for sale. There is a beer and wine garden, country store, fun zone for kids, and continues live entertainment on stage.

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