Written by: Alexandra Lotzgeselle
I’ve been going to Maui for the last 15 years or so, and we always stay at the southern part of the island in the Kihei and Wailea areas. The west side of the island, Lahaina and Ka’anapali are of course nice as well, they are simply MUCH more crowded and where most tourists go, so we avoid those areas most of the time. With that being said, these restaurants, some new and some old, are not to be missed and are truly even worth the drive regardless of where you stay.
Looking to take full advantage of your vacation and treat yourself to a special dinner? Well look no further- any of these options would be a true gift to your palate!
Matteo’s: This very unassuming little joint has officially become my favorite place to get a nice meal on the island. Located in a small, quiet stripmall it may not be what you’re expecting, but it is some of the best Italian food I have had anywhere in the world. Last year when my husband and I were on vacation, my parents kept urging us to go there. Why would we want Italian food in Hawaii where there is an abundance of fresh seafood? Well on our last night we finally tried it out and we were pretty blown away. The Carbonara pizza (I will never turn down carbonara…ever) and lamb ragu were absolutely to die for. This year we went there with the whole family and everyone left stuffed and extremely satisfied. I wish I had pictures to include of all our delectable meals, but nobody could keep their hands off long enough for me to snap any pictures!
Cafe O’Lei: This is a restaurant my husband and I always visit at least once when we’re in Maui. It is probably the least expensive and fancy of these “fancy pants” options, but it is certainly deserving of your attention. They offer a great raw bar select days and awesome sushi any time. Their entree selection is not massive, but there’s something for everyone. All entrees also come with a salad and bread, so be prepared to take home leftovers. I highly recommend their Maui onion soup, prime rib, and their absolutely perfect braised short ribs.
3’s: This restaurant is eclectic perfection. They have the best happy hour on the island (see below) and offer a delectable and varied menu for lunch and dinner. They have indoor and outdoor seating, and everything I have ever eaten there has been superb. The restaurant is owned by 3 chefs so the menu has a good amount of variety and uniqueness while still managing to be cohesive. You could not possibly be disappointed with any meal here, and I would absolutely consider it a “do not miss” establishment.
Five Palms: Location, Location, Location. Here we dined in front of a massive window right in front of the ocean. While the food and drinks were all great, it is hard to focus on anything other than the palm trees, sand, and crashing waves just a short distance away. The food is not necessarily overpriced, and is roughly what you would expect to spend on a good meal, but they do have great specials available nightly. Several of us got their fresh catch of the day and were very pleased with our choices. My husband went for the prime rib special and loved it- which is really saying a lot considering my husband NEVER orders steak. It should also be noted that he didn’t even give me a bit of it, so it’s safe to say it was a good selection!
Humuhumunukunukuapua’a: A gold star for anyone who can pronounce that! Named after the Hawaiian state fish, this restaurant is truly something special. It is located at the ultra luxurious Grand Wailea hotel (owned by Waldorf Astoria) and is of course right on the ocean. You will pay all sorts of outrageous prices for everything on the menu (a poke starter was $20 and barely filled the martini glass it was served in), but I really don’t know if there is a nicer place to eat on the entire island. When we dined there with my best friend and her now husband a few years ago, we not only got to watch the sun set over the ocean just a few yards away, but could also see the fire dancers from the hotels amazing luau. Walking into the restaurant you will take a small bridge that goes over a creek sort of water feature housing lobsters. If you elect for the lobster dish, you can pick out your own lobster for the low, low price of $50 per pound…with a 2 pound minimum. Whatever menu items you choose, you won’t be disappointed. The location and view will really give you the feeling of having a meal in paradise, and will impress anyone you bring with you!
Top 5 Cheap Eats
It should be noted that when in Hawaii, you’re going to be spending much more than you would back home, so these places are not necessarily “cheap”, they are just less expensive options!
Da Kitchen: Corny name, great food. They have a wide variety of Hawaiian plate lunches, ramen, and other Hawaiian “soul food” favorites. There’s a few different locations (I recently saw one on a Diners, Drive-ins and Dives that looked like they had more elevated fare) but the one located in Kihei is great for a quick bite. All the traditional local favorites and more, and they make an awesome homemade lemonade that acts as a great, refreshing accompaniment.
The Gazebo: This is the one location not down on the southern part of the island. Most everyone who vacations in Maui regularly would be able to tell you about this place. It is located on the grounds of a hotel in Napili, the more touristy part of the island near Lahaina. You will absolutely wait for a long period of time- they do not have a list where you put your name in, you simply wait in line, and when you’re next, they try to find a way to squeeze you in the small, oceanfront gazebo. No matter how early you get there, you should plan on waiting for AT LEAST 45 minutes, unless you get there around noon (in which case you’ll probably still wait, just for a shorter time). They are famous for their macadamia nut pancakes which are well worth the wait (and cliche Hawaiian vacation order) and can be drenched in coconut syrup if you’re a fan. If you aren’t as into sweets, their fried rice with portuguese sausage is insanely good. The portions are massive and I’ve never seen anyone eat all of what they ordered, so I would highly recommend you order a couple things to share with your party. While you will absolutely have to wait in line, the service is great, there’s coffee available while you wait, and you’re on top of a cliff overlooking the ocean, so it’s hard to complain.
FoodLand: Okay, so this one is a little weird, because it’s just a grocery store. But here’s the thing…I LOVE poke. Not just, like, but love. My husband and I even eat poke here at least twice a month, but when we go to Hawaii we pretty much sustain ourselves solely on raw fish. Foodland is a great place to go, especially if you aren’t too sure about poke yet, because it’s much less expensive than what you will pay in restaurants, and you’re on an island, so it’s safe to say that any fish you eat is fresh. Go back to their seafood and deli section and you will find about a dozen different kinds of poke. Octopus (while octopus is one of my favorite foods, this is not my favorite), salmon, mixed fish, and several kinds of traditional ahi poke. One night this trip the boo thing and I went there and were able to get 4 different kinds to bring home for the rest of our family to try, and everyone loved it. There’s a good variety, and it’s perfect because you can get some and just keep it in your fridge or bring it with you to the beach.
3’s: Yes, this is also listed above for a nice meal, but this is an absolute MUST for happy hour. We went here with my family twice for happy hour this last trip, and if we hadn’t been too busy shoveling a non-stop array of amazing delights in our mouths, we probably would have been embarrassed with how much we actually ordered. They have a great assortment of food and drink specials on their happy hour menu, and I’m pretty sure we ordered almost everything! The spicy tuna rolls are probably my favorite- they are so simple, and come out looking a little underwhelming. But then you pop one of these little delights in your mouth, and suddenly you get that if they had anything else added, any extra “glitter” or something to fancy them up, they would be ruined. You taste the insane, buttery deliciousness of what a perfect, clean, fresh piece of fish tastes like and then, if you’re anything like we were, you order another 3 rolls. I am really not trying to exaggerate-we got nearly everything on the happy hour menu, and put in another order of almost everything on the same visit. The brussel sprouts, bacon wrapped hot dog, kalua pork nachos, hurricane fries, and sushi rolls that they offer for a discounted price during happy hour should all be tried…and then re-ordered as soon as you have your first bite!
Nalu’s: Last, but certainly not least, we have my favorite place to eat on the island, Nalu’s South Shore Grill. While I have not yet tried their breakfast items, I would never choose to eat lunch or dinner anywhere else. If you care about your food, and what you put in your body really matters, then this is the place to go. This is not just another brick and mortar selling predictable Hawaiian fare. Nalu’s offers a thoughtfully created menu with an incredible amount of effort put into the sourcing and quality of the ingredients. When my husband and I went here for the first time last year, they had only been open for a few weeks. We found it on our second to last day on the island and still managed to go there three times. For our last meal, I chose a special, which happened to be a lobster and corn chowder. Most of the ingredients were from a farm in upcountry just a short distance away, and I swear it was like the first time I had ever had corn. I enjoy corn and, coming from New Jersey, it was something we had often. But this was very different. The taste of this corn, the sweetness and flavor that can only be described as clean and pure, really made me think, “Wow, this is what corn tastes like when humans don’t screw around with it!”. Whatever you get to heat here, you can truly enjoy your meal knowing that you’re putting something wholesome and good in your body. And, instead of just having boring old water available, they have complimentary fruit infused water that is so delicious and refreshing in a way that just makes you feel like this is where you belong! I urge you, for yourself, and to ensure that Nalu’s is there to stay, please make sure to go and enjoy all their homemade and healthy goodness!