Pau Hana Patrol: Enjoy sizable portions at Willows
BY STEVEN MARK / firstname.lastname@example.org
One of the best things about living in Hawaii is that no matter how crowded and busy it gets, there’s almost always a refuge nearby. Whether it’s that perfect beach or the rainbow-cloaked valley that you pass by on the trip home, such places provide a brief moment of relief and relaxation that reminds us why we’re here.
901 Hausten St.
» $4 draft beers
While it didn’t start out that way, the Willows has taken on that kind of aura. Formerly a private estate in what was once a beautiful expanse of spring-fed pools and ponds — Hawaiian royalty was known to picnic and luau there — the historic eatery is now surrounded by low- to midrise apartment buildings on Hausten Street in Moiliili. Concrete in various bland shades is everywhere in view until you spot a low wall with what appears to be a jungle growing behind it.
Behind the wall is an oasis. The Willows is basically one acre of tropical gardens, with native flowers and waterfalls, and a compound of eating and party facilities, from the banquet hall-size Kapa’akea Room to the intimate Honolulu Room, a wedding chapel and a performance area. Though the landscaping might seem a bit contrived in comparison with a stand-alone restaurant or watering hole, it all make sense when you consider the historic nature of the site and the scale and scope of the type of events that are held there. Despite the size, the ambience is classically Hawaiian — quiet and relaxed.
The Willows opened as a restaurant in 1944 and was a popular local spot for nearly 50 years. It closed for a few years in the 1990s but reopened in 1999 under new management, serving an updated but still traditional menu of local favorites.
Last year it started happy hour specials, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays at the cafe and bar. Like just about everything else about the place, happy hour is truly pleasing in execution and ambience.
The pupu menu has eight items: Chili Garlic Edamame, Ahi Poke, Honey Garlic Chicken Wings, House Salad, Garlic Fried Rice, Chicken Katsu, Dashi Braised Pork Belly and Pulehu Boneless Short Ribs. These ranged from $6 to $16 on our visit.
The only complaint was the proportions, but not in the way you would think.
It’s been my experience in many Honolulu restaurants that the pupu platter could use a little something extra, as plates get smaller. Often, a pupu order is no longer big enough to share. Thinking along those lines, my brother and I ordered one of everything except the salad and edamame — and wound up with two days’ worth of leftovers.
These pupu were really full-size plates, for full-size appetites, the kind that might have been generated working in the field or surfing big waves, not pecking away at a computer.
After the pleasant surprise at the size of our order, it was all just what we would have hoped for.
My brother, who trained at a culinary academy, was visiting from the mainland and was eager for some poke, and came away satisfied with the delicate seasoning of alae salt.
The pork belly had a melt-in-your-mouth kind of texture to it, and the chicken wings snapped with roasted garlic and chili sauce.
Only the katsu seemed somewhat pedestrian — satisfactory by most standards except for the one being set by the other dishes.
Our server said she had suspicions when we ordered so much, but she also said some diners can pack all that away so she didn’t say anything. That was a good policy, because it was great to have a taste of it all in such a pleasant place, even if we did take a lot home.
Happy hour also features $4 house wines and draft beers (Bud, Bud Light, Kirin Ichiban, Drop Top Amber Ale, Kona Longboard, Kona Fire Rock) and $5 specialty cocktails.
We had the Sexy Lychee and Li Hing Mango Margarita, which were excellent, that slightly medicinal flavor of the lychee coming through nicely. There were a lot of other mouthwatering drinks on the menu, but they will have to wait for another visit.
To top things off, there’s live entertainment as well, with the online and television concert series “Pakele Live!” held there on Thursdays. That evening’s performer was Shawn Garnett, fresh off a recent appearance on “Hawaii Five-0.” Lots of other local talent is lined up.
The music is satisfying, the sky is open and the food is good. So if you want to drift away under a warm, starry night, feel the breeze and pat your full stomach, the Willows is your place.