Oahu is colloquially known as The Gathering Place. It’s an ancient nickname, but the moniker still rings true today. The Hawaiian island receives nearly 10 million annual visitors, and many of them will pass through the big city of Honolulu and its international airport. This makes Oahu the island where paradise-loving travelers gather. Some of them stay for just a few minutes to connect to other islands. Others make Oahu their Hawaiian vacation destination.
Honolulu is the political, cultural and culinary heart of the islands. It’s also home to the best nightlife that the state has to offer. But Honolulu can get crowded, so you’ll want to escape the city, as well as the city’s famous Waikiki Beach, for the north shore when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
Luckily, the north shore of Oahu is a magical place. It’s not as lush and verdant as Kauai, and you won’t find lava there, either. That’s just for the Big Island. Nor will you be able to find the extreme windsurfing beaches of Maui. But you will find peace, quiet, some killer shaves ice and the world’s best-surfing waves. But to find the waves, you’ll have to head up there during winter.
The waves on the north shore of Oahu are so epic that the Worldwide Surfing Championships take place here every winter. Winter brings the waves. However, the water up north is glass calm during the summer, but that might be a good thing if you’re seeking solitude. Summer on the north shore is less populated, and you’ll actually be able to swim safely at some of Oahu’s most beautiful beaches.
No matter which season you choose, Laie is not to be missed. This magical town, sitting on the northeast corner of the island, is the perfect little spot for rest and relaxation. You’ll also find one of Hawaii’s best restaurants hiding just off the main road on the north end of town.
Laie and the Hukilau Cafe sit just 33.3 miles north of Honolulu, and the drive will take you about an hour. Drive H1 north out of the city before turning right onto Route 63. Follow Route 63 as it turns into Route 83 and hugs the eastern coast of Oahu. If you’re looking for the cafe, it’s just off the inland side of Route 83 on Wahinepee Street at the northern edge of town. It’s across the street from the Hukilau Beach State Park. You can’t miss it.
Hukilau Cafe -- Oahu’s Hidden Hawaiian Food Gem
This cafe is unpretentious, to say the least. Incredible Hawaiian-style food awaits you inside this tiny little brick building. And it’s easy to find. Just look for the crowd waiting outside.
You won’t find anyone waiting for dinner at this cafe. That’s because the restaurant only serves breakfast and lunch; staying open between the hours of 6:30 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.
The cafe is counter service. That means you’ll have to order your food from the counter before picking your seat. You’ll get a number to display on your table, and that’s how the server finds you when your food is ready.
There is no air conditioning in this tiny little restaurant, but the service is quick. You’ll be in and out in no time. And, if you really want the full Hawaiian experience, you can take your food to go, hop over the main road and have yourself a picnic at Hukilau Beach State Park.
Parking, Cash-only & Tipping
Parking can be a bit of a hassle in this little town. The cafe is tucked just off the main road, and the location does not offer a parking lot. So, the typical experience goes like this:
You drive up to the restaurant.
Gasp at the crowd standing outside.
Slow the car down to look for a parking spot.
You don’t find a parking spot right away.
You drive circles around the cafe looking for a spot.
Meanwhile, more and more people are getting in line for food which makes you wait longer and longer. It’s a very common but not very efficient experience. So, if you plan on visiting during peak hours for breakfast or lunch, try this.
Park across Route 86 at Hukilau Beach State Park and walk. The short walk is totally worth dodging the crowds and the hassle of parking. And you can even take your food back to the beach if the cafe’s limited seating is not available.
The cafe is cash only. If you forget to bring some cash, there are two ATM’s a half-mile south on Route 86 at the Laie Shopping Center.
Tipping can be a confusing custom at counter service cafes, especially for foreign tourists. The expected tip at a full-service sit-down restaurant is anywhere between 15% and 20%. Of course, you can tip more for stellar service, or, if you have a terrible experience, you may tip less. But counter-service cafes are not full service, so the tipping expectation drops to anywhere from 10% to 15%. Of course, you’ll have to figure out the tip with the cash that you have on-hand. Don’t be afraid to ask for change, especially if you are planning on tipping more.
Hukilau Cafe’s Best Dishes
Hawaii is a quirky cultural collision. The islands sit right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and Asia is nearly as close as the mainland United States of America. And with the US Military making a presence on the islands for more than a century, you get a cultural melting pot with three palpable influences -- Native Hawaiian, Asian and American. You can also sprinkle in some Portuguese.
Cowboys roamed the Hawaiian islands long before they trekked west on the mainland of America. It was under the order of the king to import Portuguese cowboys to care for the budding cattle industry on the islands, and these cowboys brought with them a taste for Malasadas and Portuguese sausage.
You’ll find Portuguese sausage on the menu at the Hukilau Cafe, and it’s absolutely authentic and delicious. You’ll also find some strange dishes that are obvious cultural fusions, like Loco Moco, bento lunch boxes with spam, and Teriyaki with eggs.
Loco Moco is a pile of fragrant rice that soaks up the dark gravy poured over a hamburger patty. It’s topped with a lightly fried egg. Break the egg yolk to let it ooze over the entire pile of food to add to the dish’s rich decadence
The bento box comes from Japan, but it’s a little different in Hawaii. You’ll see the American influence right away with the inclusion of spam. And katsu is very popular in Hawaiian box lunches.
Hukilau -- A Little History
You might recognize the name of the cafe. You’ve probably heard the word “hukilau” in movies, and it sounds similar to the luau. As everyone knows,refers to a large outdoor party with plenty of food.
Hukilau is similar, but it refers to a festive atmosphere on a beach. And since Hukilau Cafe is right next to Hukilau Beach, you can take your food over to the sand to make your own Hukilau.
But the word Hukilau literally refers to a group-style of fishing. The ancient Hawaiians used to cast large nets into the ocean, and it was usually done by large families or groups of friends. “Huki” means pull while “Lau” means leaves. Leaves were attached to the fringes of these large nets to scare fish into the center. So, large groups of people used to get together to pull leaves and then feast on fish.
The ancient Hawaiians also had a very strong sense of community. So, if you came down to the beach to help pull on the leaf-nets, then you got to reap the benefits along with everyone else. Perhaps that is why Hukilau now means a festive beach. Come on down to the beach, put in a little work and then have some fun.
Hukilau Beach State Park
This long, sandy beach is perfect for swimming during the summer. Unfortunately, the waves here are too violent for safe swimming during the wintertime. So, if there is any doubt about the safety of the water, it’s best to keep out.
This beach has a long history with the Christian faith, and that’s why the parking lot here is closed on Sundays. You can still walk down to the beach, however. But in 1947, the local church was trying to raise funds to rebuild after a fire. The churchgoers encouraged the locals to continue to fish in the old hukilau tradition right as a tourist attraction. They agreed, and the locals fished hukilau-style for more than 30 years until 1970 when the state of Hawaii decided that the fishing was a commercial enterprise. The state demanded tax payments, and the locals decided that the tax wasn’t worth it.
This scenic beach is great for a picnic, but you won’t find any bathrooms here. If you want to wash your hands, you’ll have to use the beach’s outdoor shower.
A mile-and-a-half down Route 86 on the southern end of the town of Laie, you’ll find two more not-to-be-missed attractions -- The Hukilau Marketplace and the Polynesian Cultural Center.
The marketplace has free parking, free WI-FI, and clean bathrooms. It’s the perfect place for a pitstop on your way back to Honolulu because you can peruse stalls of handmade wares. You can also stop for a sweet treat after visiting the cafe.
The Polynesian Cultural Centeris a destination unto itself. This preserved Polynesian village has been voted the number one paid attraction in all of Hawaii, and you’ll know why the second you step foot inside.
You’ll find a series of rivers and lakes inside the center, and you can explore them on a canoe. You can also peruse the 42 acres of preserved ancient Polynesian villages that represent locations from all over the Pacific Ocean; places like Hawaii, The Cook Islands, and Tahiti. And the entire grounds serve as a botanical garden where you can learn about the flora and fauna of the Hawaiian islands.
The Polynesian Cultural Center also offers up the best luau on the island of Oahu as well as a dance show called “Ha: The Breath of Life.” We recommend that you get up to the town of Laie to explore the beach, visit the cafe, and, on your way back to Honolulu, spend some time at this unforgettable place.