People always ask me what makes a restaurant successful. Is it the food? Is it the service? What’s the elusive combination of elements that creates a winning hit for a restaurant? Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. I’ve been devouring every tasty morsel made on Maui for the last 43 years and writing about it for the last 20, so I know: there’s no definitive formula for success.
We can look at some of the restaurants that have been here 20 years or more. Congratulations to these establishments: Casanova in Makawao, Mama’s Fish House in Kuau, and Hali`imaile General Store. They’re the stuff of legend. Then there’s La Provence, Sansei, Pacifico’s, Kula Lodge, Lahaina Pizza Company, Pioneer Inn, Sunrise Cafe, The Smokehouse, The Sea House, Gerard’s, Lahaina Coolers, Lahaina Fish Co., Lahaina Grill, Kimo’s, Kobe, Nagasako Okazuya, Longhi’s, Hula Grill, Castaway, Gazebo, China Boat, Mulligan’s, Isana and Dollies–just a few of the places that have been around a long time. Sheiks, Tasty Crust, Archie’s, Tokyo Tei, Matsu, Ichiban and Sam Sato’s are multi-generational family favorites in Central Maui.
There aren’t a lot of similarities when you look at them. We have our favorite dishes at these places, but the menus are all unique. The service is different at each one. Price points are different. There’s no formula that makes them a success. It’s the combination of what they do that makes them.
Then there are restaurateurs like Chef Mark Ellman, one of the founding Pacific Regional cuisine chefs. He’s been creating a legacy of restaurants for more than 25 years. His latest trilogy of Mala, Honu and Frida’s is brilliant. Three different cuisines, one spectacular Westside view. What’s more, restaurant concepts that he’s sold, like Maui Tacos and Penne Pasta, are still going strong. Ellman’s a visionary, and his food is superb. It’s trendy, healthy, rich and appeals to residents and visitors. But he isn’t giving away his secrets.
Chef Bev Gannon, also a founding Pacific Regional Cuisine Chefs, is also very successful. She has two award-winning restaurants, in Hali`imaile and Wailea.
There’s no question that consistency is vital. In fact, some of the dishes on the menus of the above restaurants don’t ever change because customers love them so much. Restaurateur Steven Cappelli, the owner of Casanova and Bistro Casanova, says generations of fans in Makawao love their paglia e fieno al funghi, the mushroom pasta. There would be a riot if he took it off the menu.
But it’s not enough to offer dishes that people love–you still have to innovate to appeal. Choice Health Bar may not have been with us for 20 years, but I hope they’re with us 20 years from now. Their high nutrient cuisine, sourced with local organic fruits and veggies and created with love, has set the bar for vegan cuisine and tasty juices and smoothies. Same for Farmacy in Wailuku and Pukalani as well as Fork and Salad. Their create-as-you-go salad concept has been a hit. Chef Jeff Scheer and the Mill House are taking the Chef’s Table to a new level at Maui Tropical Plantation. Nylos is Paia’s first fine dining restaurant.
Of course, I’ve also seen many restaurant closures over the last two decades. They can be heart-breaking, but explaining them is a tricky situation. There are so many that have been attributed to problems with landlords.
Maui Pasta, the local homemade pasta shop in Waikapu that recently closed, supplied gourmet prepared foods to local shops and had a catering lunch and dinner business. Shortly after the closing, Patty Inman, the owner of the family run restaurant, said this on Facebook: “After nearly 6 months of legal battles with our landlords over this very difficult location in Waikapu–over parking, our increased rent, and their intentions to sell the property with us no longer here, we had an electrical fire inside the electrical panel of the building. These factors along with our inability to find a kitchen-ready space to transition to caused a financial strain on our business resulted in us needing to make some very difficult decisions. I have so dearly loved cooking for you, and sharing my love of Italian Food made with Aloha.”
Typically, business owners don’t want to talk about permitting issues, Liquor Control fines or other uphill battles that often make up the fine print of doing business of Maui. Then there are the restaurants that don’t even last for six months, and we’re baffled by what happened. Some restaurants stay around for a long time, but close when the next generation of ownership decides they want to do something else.
I often hear people say a location is cursed. The Ma`alaea location that started as a Peter Merriman restaurant and has seen many different iterations, most recently Saltimbocca and Oceanside, still hasn’t found its perfect fit. There’s a long list of restaurants I mourn that are gone–Kitada’s, Maui Brews and Migrant, most notably. But for every place that closes, a few new ones appear on the horizon.
Maui is lucky in that we have offer a great destination for visitors, and that’s elevated our restaurants. Big name chefs from Oahu like Merriman, Alan Wong, Sam Choi and Roy Yamaguchi have opened restaurants here. Merriman’s in Kapalua and Monkeypod Kitchen in Wailea are hits. Roy’s new restaurant, Humble Market Kitchin’ in the Marriott Wailea, is gorgeous. Our culinary scene is top notch. Our very own Chef Sheldon Simeon has twice made the finals of Bravo’s Top Chef. His current restaurant Tin Roof exemplifies his culinary vision of elevated local cuisine and we’re hooked. Maui has its own flavor, and people travel thousands of miles every day to savor it.
The island currently boasts more than 580 restaurants, ranging from small mom and pop shops to roving mobile food trucks to fancy fine dining establishments. Whether you use Opentable, spontaneously find a hole in the wall while exploring or make a special trip spurred by the coconut wireless, make sure you relish every experience. If there’s one truth I’ve learned in my career here, it’s that Maui restaurants are diverse and there’s something to discover at every one.
Jen Russo has held a variety of jobs at MauiTime since 2001. She’s currently our Culinary, Lifestyle & Business Editor.
Photo of Migrant: MauiTime