There’s something magical about dining in a historic space. Perhaps it’s the thought that thousands of diners have enjoyed their meals before while enjoying the same views. Perhaps it’s the feeling of continuity with a grand tradition. Perhaps it’s the excitement of knowing the legend and lore of what transpired in the space throughout the years. For whatever reason, historic restaurants tend to make for some exciting dining. The Beachhouse at the Moana in Waikiki turned out to be just one of those exciting historic spaces.
The Moana Hotel, completed in 1901, was the first high rise building and first hotel in Waikiki, which was then mostly swampland punctuated by a couple private beach estates and guest houses. The hotel was constructed in the Hawaiian Gothic style and featured the first electric elevator (still in operation) in the Hawaiian Islands in the lobby, while several guestrooms had then-groundbreaking amenities such as ensuite baths and telephones.
Although the original building included a dining saloon, the current space occupied by The Beachhouse was completed in 1918 when two additional wings (and a courtyard-facing veranda on the East wing) were completed. A lunch menu from September of that year shows a few Hawaiian-inspired favorites like “Poi Cocktail” and “Papaia (Papaya)” and local Uku (gray snapper) prepared in a Continental style for the fish course. Entrees such as sweetbread croquettes, calf’s feet, smoke beef tongue, and kippered herring would have appealed to contemporary mainland appetites. Pricing is notably absent, as at the time the dining room would have existed to accommodate registered guests, whose meals were typically included in the rate. Wartime probity was ever-apparent, as a notice in the menu advised diners that the restrictions on meat imposed by the National Food Administration in Washington were being observed.
By 1944, the dining room would have been open to non-guests, as a pre fixe price of $2.50 ($33 today) for non-guests from a dinner menu of that era betrays. Better availability of refrigerated provisions in Hawai’i in spite of war rationing is likely to credit for the more extensive menu which offered halibut, pork chops, duckling, beef short ribs, and veal tongue. The Moana has served afternoon tea since its opening in 1901, and it has served it on the veranda since its addition in 1918. The veranda was also made world-famous as the location for the broadcast of the long-running radio program Hawai’i Calls (click to listen to a 1949 broadcast), which familiarized worldwide listeners with Hawaiian music and artists from 1935 through 1975.
First rebranded in 1959 at a Sheraton property following the acquisition of all Matson Line’s Waikiki properties, Sheraton successor Starwood again reflagged the hotel in 2007, reintroducing the century old property as The Moana Surfrider, a Westin Resort & Spa. At the time of the reflag and renovation, the existing dining space reopened as The Beachhouse at the Moana.
First impressions of the space come after a quick spill through the breezy hardwood lobby onto the courtyard veranda that seems to glow from within both the building and the nearly-as-old-as-the-hotel banyan tree that dominates the courtyard, giving an aura of tropical mystique from the golden age of Hollywood. An order of club soda at the bar is returned with an offer of a sparkling water that is bottled and gassed in-house, hinting that the upcoming dining experience was to be a departure from the mundane.
A glance at the menu immediately suggests that an evening spent at The Beachhouse is going to be one of gastronomic opulence. Rich appetizers such as foie gras and roasted bone marrow speak to the dedicated food enthusiasts while thick-cut bacon with black pepper mayonnaise (yes, that’s an appetizer) appeals to a trendier palate. Steakhouse traditionalists will eagerly find favorite standbys such as shrimp cocktail and crab cakes, and lovers of Hawaiian cuisine can rely on ahi both seared and served raw as poke. Speaking of seafood, devotees will discover an impressive selection of local and imported fish and shellfish from a rather sumptuous looking raw bar that includes Kona Abalone and Alaskan King Crab among other delights.
Somewhat upstaging some thoughtfully curated land and sea entrees, the absolute prima donna of this program is the fine variety of steaks, which the servers are eager to explain and discuss in the same manner they might help a diner choose an accompanying wine. Faced with a choice of various cuts of Certified Angus, a New York strip from the local Hawai’i Ranchers cooperative, or several Harris Ranch options (including a 36 ounce Porterhouse for two), we settled on an American Wagyu New York Strip from Snake River Farms accompanied by a grilled Maine lobster tail.
There’s some master grill work at play here. The steak was fired expertly, and exactly as ordered, of such fine quality and so well-seasoned that the peppercorn demi that we ordered to dress the meat was completely unnecessary; almost a distraction. The recommended medium-bodied 2012 Justin Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon was a mellow, pleasant sidekick to the steak.
The poke called to us from the appetizer menu, and we were delighted to find that it was reimagined from the traditional toss-up of ahi (raw yellowfin or bigeye tuna) with sesame oil, limu (seaweed, usually ogo), sea salt, maui onion, soy sauce, and often tomato and candlenuts. Here the ahi is presented minimally dressed with micro shiso, cucumbers, limu, flash-fried lotus root and three different sauces. Especially standout was the quality of the limu, which we were told was from Hawai’i Island.
Another notable standout was the seasonal salad (which the server warned us was not a leafy salad) but featured unbeatable local carrots, slow-cooked onions, toasted almonds, a goat cheese smear, and the crowning glory – a citrus-brown butter dressing. We capped the evening with a lovely Kona coffee cheesecake with macadamia nut mascarpone cream, caramel brittle, and coffee jellies.
We also took a few moments to talk story with sous chef David Lukela, formerly of the legendary Vintage Cave in Honolulu (he can be seen hard at work in one of the photos in this article about VC). Friendly and eager to talk shop, we discussed the operational differences between a smaller restaurant focusing on a lengthy degustation to a hotel dining outlet that did more volume with a somewhat less fussy a la carte menu, as well as the evolution (almost near-retirement) of the first wave of Hawai’i Regional Cuisine as a new generation of chefs attempts to update the style to not only reflect a more local culinary heritage (HRC was originally built on the idea of local ingredients prepared in a fusion of Pan-Asian and Continental styles) but to appeal to the tastes and habits of a younger generation of dining patron.
That’s a pretty tall order in Waikiki, where hotel food & beverage establishments tend to follow convention rather than inspiration, but the menu on offer at The Beachhouse clearly indicates that has been done with some success, managing to find broad appeal with both hotel and steakhouse conventionalists, while adding more than a few nods to the up-and-coming innovation that seems to creep across Ala Wai Canal from Honolulu.
While the continuity of a historic space is comforting, it’s also pleasing to know that the current stewards of this legendary outlet aren’t dwelling on the past; that they’ve somehow found a way to meld the beauty of this vintage edifice into a high-end eatery that speaks to diners in our own time and place. That, perhaps, is the grandest of accomplishments by the staff at The Beachhouse that we discovered during our visit – that the lore of the past is preserved, the experience of the present is easily and comfortably savored (and fondly remembered), and the promise of exciting future developments lies just a short step onward.
Open Daily for dinner from 5:30 to 9:30. Reservations suggested via Open Table or by calling 808-921-4600. Appetizers from $9-19, Mains from $23 to $69. A la carte and prefixe available. Complimentary valet parking. Accepts major credit cards.