In the Hawaii Five-0 scene, Steve McGarrett sat at a booth across from a new member of his 5-0 task force at the Waikiki classic diner, the Wailana Coffee House. Their verbal banter aside, McGarrett was really on a stake-out. Detectives Danny Williams and Chin Ho Kelly paced the sidewalk outside, on the corner of Ala Moana Boulevard and Ena Road, in contact with McGarrett by a wireless radio ear piece.
I sit across from the booth at which McGarrett sat, long vacated by the special ops lieutenant commander, of course. A vacationing couple now occupies the same booth. The man’s wearing a pressed, gingham cotton shirt, grey slacks and white, leather tennis shoes. The woman, a muted aloha shirt on a black background and tan, cropped pants. They both wear shiny, gold watches. The man has no idea he’s sitting in the same seat that a Hollywood hottie once rested his buff bod.
Instead of Danno and Chin Ho out front, a deliveryman pulls boxes from a truck labeled Ham Produce & Seafood, Inc. A Fed Ex truck is parked along Ala Moana Boulevard—for breakfast or a delivery, I don’t know.
Tables get bus’ed, silverware receptacles are re-stocked and—if I listen carefully—the sounds of R&B from a stereo somewhere create a quiet cacophony of sound that prevents me from eavesdropping on nearby conversations, one of my writerly habits. All I can make out is, “You were 26” And “You started dating her at 22.” And “End of 1977.”
I scan the menu. There are omelets, waffles and, strangely, “Irish Breakfast” items listed, along with “Wailana’s Famous Tasty Treats,” which include Scottish Bangers, Eggs Benedict, Old Fashioned French Toast, Ranchers Breakfast and Chuck Wagon.
I wonder if McGarrett actually ate here. In the scene that aired, he just drank coffee.
I place my staple breakfast order of two eggs scrambled, hash browns and buttered toast. I know: Boring. My friend Pat is more adventurous and orders the Shrimp Foo Young omelet.
Wailana Coffee House is the tropical version of the television sitcom Alice, right down to the white, SAS shoes, nylons and aprons on the waitresses. Coming from the Midwest, Wailana Coffee House reminds me of a place you’d find along Old Highway 66. This is no 21st century coffee house. Not a cappuccino or frappaccino or espresso to be found. No wi-fi. No laptops propped open. No one using Skype to call family on the mainland.
But the smell of waffles wafts throughout the restaurant and syrup is heavy in the air.
The window to the kitchen where hot lamps warm plates of food is framed in faux brick wallpaper, an incongruity in volcanic Hawaii. Counter seating offers padded vinyl seats that swivel around poles screwed to the floor. A golden glow is cast throughout the restaurant from the amber glass hanging lamps. The same overstuffed, bouncy vinyl padding covers the bench seats in the booths. The furniture doesn’t move in places like this. It’s all bolted to the ground.
What is it about some places that make them iconic? That ensure they get high rankings on social review sites like Yelp and Urbanspoon and generate waits that can wind out the door and down the sidewalk? Really, when it comes down to it, why didn’t this place shut down decades ago?
It goes without saying the food must be good.
My scrambled eggs arrive, as if I prepared them myself—fluffy and moist. My toast is pre-buttered--exactly how I like. My hash browns are golden--crunchy on the outside and flaky inside. And Pat’s Shrimp Foo Young omelet—loaded with bay shrimps and drizzled in a special oyster sauce—is so tasty that I will be torn on what to order on my return visit.
Price plays into the mix. Our breakfast bill barely topped $20, somewhat of a gastronomic miracle in Waikiki. That probably also explains the local presence, even on a mid-morning Wednesday.
I remember a visitor once asked me, “Where do the locals eat around here?” This was on Kauai, and I remember looking at him funny. “What do you mean?” I asked in response. “We eat at the same restaurants you do.” There are only so many restaurants on Kauai. For a restaurant to survive there, it has to cater to both the visitor and kama’aina market. Not so in Waikiki. And, yet, locals populate the booths at Wailana Coffee House at all hours.
Adaptability is key—changing with the times.
Francis Tom opened the restaurant in 1958 as a drive-in. There was car-hop service. Then, a sit-down counter was added. Self-service, too, when cafeteria style was the rage. And, finally, the restaurant with a dining room and wait service as we know it today—about 8,000 square feet of space and seating for 250.
And, yet, this place stands outside of time. Now, at least. At some point, it survived long enough to be loved for simply what it was. A classic diner. Age can do that. It can command respect. Longevity—ensures something else, too. It allows memories to attach themselves to a place like dust on the salty surfaces of my outside windows. Longevity ensures stories and traditions get passed down from one generation to another, from one vacation to another.
Pat and I ate every morsel on our plates.
“That was good,” Pat said to the aunty who came to clear our plates. She was wearing clip-on earrings and a sprig of fake flowers bobby-pinned to her perm’ed hair.
“You must have been hungry,” she said. “Everything tastes good when you’re hungry.”
Pat and I had hiked to Makapu’u Summit that morning to get a look at one of Hawaii’s famous lighthouses. We had skipped breakfast to get an early start. So, yes, we were hungry. But I don’t think that was the only reason we liked Wailana Coffee House.
What about you? What classify as your restaurant "classics" in Hawaii? You know, those iconic places you'll line up for and recommend to friends? Sometimes they're quirky, a tad off. The kind of place that would never survive--because of location or decor or some bizarre menu--if it opened today. There are a few here on Kauai: Hamura's, Tip Top and BBQ Inn, all in Lihue, to name three. And what is it about these kinds of iconic places that make them so, well, iconic?