Say “aloha” to some great bars in the Hawaiian capital that are serving up delicious modern drinks
Words and photographs by Virginia Miller
Hawaii is magic no matter which island you visit. Honolulu, on Oahu, is a city of just under one million and a mecca when it comes to the Hawaiian Islands’ food and bars. While laid-back “aloha” spirit permeates even in the traffic and high-rises, Honolulu bartenders are pushing forward. In years past, it was tough finding drinks that weren’t too sweet, but all that has changed. Honolulu officially has a robust cocktail scene. Rum still reigns, but all spirits are now getting their due on local cocktail menus. Whether sampling NYC bar legend Julie Reiner’s menu at Kahala Resort’s Plumeria Beach House, or sipping rum cocktails at the otherworldly (haunted-house-meets-seafaring-tiki) Skull & Crown Trading Co., Honolulu offers one-of-a-kind bar experiences. Here are 12 of the best.
Bar Leather Apron
45 Fort Street Mall Suite #127, Honolulu, HI 96813
Justin Park and Tom Park are co-founders of Hawaii’s most-lauded bar in global awards: Bar Leather Apron. Opened in 2015, the dim, intimate space inside a high-rise recalls Japan: from Hawaii’s biggest whiskey selection and exquisite glassware, to Justin’s elevated cocktails and custom aprons from Tom’s Leather Soul shop. Drinks wow with elegant integration, while gin gets its due in drinks like Everglow (Roku Gin, aquavit, Dolin Blanc vermouth, dill, grapefruit, liliko’i/passionfruit, lemon, egg white) or Garden Negroni (barrel-aged gin, coconut-washed Campari, bay leaf-infused Carpano Antica vermouth).
Pint + Jigger and Harry’s Hardware Emporium
410 Atkinson Drive, Suite 1f4, Honolulu, HI 96814
Dave Newman is a Honolulu cocktail pioneer. After moving to the city from LA, he opened Pint + Jigger in 2012, focused on craft beer and cocktails with an extensive whisky selection. In 2022, Newman and partners Hideo Simon and Grant Yamato reopened brand-new Pint + Jigger – and hidden speakeasy bar, Harry’s Hardware Emporium – inside Ala Moana Hotel. From Harry’s, hidden behind a shelf lined with books and bottles and exuding magical, jazz-inflected intimacy, to lofty Pint + Jigger, lined with barrels that Newman hand-picked in Kentucky, the larger space exudes the spirit of the original. While whisky makes a heavy showing in Newman’s balanced cocktails, gin shines in Prime Thyme: a Negroni variation of gin, thyme-infused Aperol and sherry.
1680 Kapiolani Blvd., 2nd floor, Honolulu, HI 96814
Good luck finding this hidden bar, opened in early spring 2022 off a second-floor parking lot near a comedy club, behind a door disguised as a juice vending machine (pro tip: bring a nickel to open the door). Once you find Wild Orange, you’re rewarded with a truly unique bar. Custom speakers keep the place pulsing without making it too club-like, while a black-light glow, vintage game wall art and centre tree create a magic vibe worth all the hoops you jump through to get in. Unexpectedly delightful vegan bites (especially tomato poke with the texture of tuna) accompany crushable cocktails like Atomic Blonde, a house drink of Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, Strega, Lillet Blanc and Branca Menta. A tight team and friendly bartenders make you wish this was your neighbourhood bar.
604 Ala Moana Blvd., Honolulu, HI 96813
Bar Maze is not a bar, but a truly unique tasting menu experience centred around cocktails, Japanese in its intimate (yet lofty) wood-lined space, with a relaxed Hawaiian welcome. Think gorgeous plates and glassware and delicate technique, set to a cheery yacht rock soundtrack from the masters behind Bar Leather Apron, Tom and Justin Park. Chef Ki Chung’s food delights, with a changing menu that includes courses like Kona lobster, citrus and asparagus in shirodashi butter, coconut oil and Indonesian spices. Justin’s cocktails are reasonably portioned with each course. Since opening in August 2021, gin drinks have included Kitsune (gin, pear, yuzu, green apple, Champagne) or Sansho Tonic vivid with gin, yuzu and the numbing buzz of sansho pepper.
Hana Koa Brewing Co.
962 Kawaiahao Street, Honolulu, HI 96814
Yes, Hana Koa Brewing Co. is a brewery, but cocktails (and spirits) lovers can slip upstairs to Mezzanine, a spacious cocktail bar hidden inside. Bar manager Curtis Daulerio, who bartended at Pint + Jigger for years, crafts a rotating cocktail menu. Pā`ana a ka lā (Hawaiian for ‘sunshine’) showcases Nolet’s Gin with the bitter-sweet of Tempus Fugit Gran Classico, honey, Benedictine and orange bitters. He gives gin a Jungle Bird-esque nod in No Phony: a mix of gin, Campari, pineapple gomme syrup, lemon and calamansi.
1127 11th Avenue, Honolulu, HI 96816
Look for the red square on a 1970s-style office building hiding Heiho House, opened autumn 2020 by Thomas Ray and Hideo Simon. In Honolulu’s hip Kaimuki neighbourhood, Heiho’s gorgeous space is illumined with handcrafted lanterns, a giant central bar and modern izakaya feel. Chef Aaron Lopez, who cooked at such LA notables as Redbird and Orsa & Winston, offers a tasting menu, bar snacks and
shared plates like blood sausage with fennel, cassava root and malt vinegar. Gabriel Keller’s cocktails are thoughtfully culinary, with garnishes from shiitake mushrooms to crisp tuile. There’s a cocktail to suit all palates, plus sake, tea service and a gin selection that includes Japan’s Roku Gin or Scotland’s Botanist.
3446 Waialae Avenue, Honolulu, HI 96816
Chef Chris Kajioka is easily one of Hawaii’s most talented chefs, as proved by Miro Kaimuki, his restaurant in partnership with San Francisco’s Mourad Lahlou (of Michelin-starred Mourad and Aziza). French-inspired modern Hawaiian joys on the reasonable US$85 tasting menu are a draw on their own, but Michael Jensen’s balanced cocktails call you to the bar for a silky MIRO Milk Punch or Starfruit & Sugarcane. Gin shines in easy refreshers like Angostura & Blackberry, featuring those elements with London dry gin, yamamomo (Japanese bayberry) and soda.
2863 Kalakaua Avenue, Honolulu, HI 96815
It’s hard to picture a happier setting for a drink than inside retro hotel Kaimana. Its open-air restaurant, Hau Tree, is the spot for salmon, herbed cream cheese and trout roe on local rye bread. All-day drinking is a draw, with a smart “rosé all day” selection of global rosés and bar manager Jen Ackrill’s crushable cocktails, like Kaua’i Salted Espresso Martini (Kona roasted cold brew, Kōloa coffee and cacao rums, mole bitters, sea salt). Kapua Fizz shows off gin and apricot liqueur with calamansi, lime, egg white, absinthe and maraschino liqueur. Under umbrellas by day or watching sunsets at night, it’s a joy to sit beachside with this menu.
431 Nohonani Street, Honolulu, HI 96815
The 1957 White Sands Hotel has turned hipster-retro in recent years. You’ll find a centre pool graced by a circular bamboo bar with swings (yes, swings) for bar seats. Sip well-balanced tropical cocktails poolside, heavy on rums and tiki influence, from beverage director Justin Whiting. Alongside piña colada slushies and Daiquiri variations, Bay Area gin stars in Chaise Dreams, a beautiful mix of bittersweet and herbaceous with St. George’s Botanivore gin, Campari and light, fluffy, whipped pineapple. In this remodelled Waikiki oasis, sipping drinks poolside feels like time travelling to the set of Elvis’ Blue Hawaii.
2 N. Hotel Street, Honolulu, HI 96817
In historic Chinatown, Fête is a food haven from Honolulu native and James Beard-nominated chef Robynne Maii. It’s also an ideal watering hole, thanks to Erin Dinsmoor’s smart natural wine (and beyond) list and Fabrice McCarthy’s cocktails. McCarthy’s drinks cover the gamut in spirits, with gin getting its due in a French 75 twist, a classic Clover Club, and Dressed to the Sixes (gin, Aperol, elderflower, Prosecco, lemon, honey and soda).
Brick Fire Kitchen
3447 Waialae Avenue, Honolulu, HI 96816
As Honolulu’s sole Vera Pizza Napoletana-certified spot, it makes sense that Neapolitan pizzas take centre stage at Brick Fire Kitchen, especially the unforgettable Da “Shrimp Truck” pizza, nodding to Oahu’s famed North Shore shrimp trucks. Don’t let that distract from balanced cocktails, often featuring Italian amari (bitter liqueurs), rare in Honolulu and often non-existent in much of Hawaii. Gin stars in drinks like Rebel King, refreshingly mixed with Pasubio Amaro, Cointreau, lavender, blueberry, lemon, egg white, soda and absinthe.
202 Merchant Street, Honolulu, HI 96813
Compared to the aloha warmth common in Honolulu bars, Podmore can feel a bit stuffy, but dark green velvet banquettes and marbled elegance, almost recalling London, are a welcome change of pace on casual Hawaiian isles. You’ll get London prices to match in $30 speciality cocktails (most drinks run at $18). I didn’t try the food, but chef Anthony Rush and Katherine Nomura devise drinks with a team including a gracious British bartender, whose serves showed finessed balance. The team weren’t able to make their elevated gin and tonic with dramatic house-made accoutrement when I was in, but the three drinks I tried showed creative promise. Playful presentation wins in a Pimm’s Cup variation with slowly dissolving frozen fruit balls.