Okinawan Roots of Honolulu’s Restaurant Scene

Feb 6, 2018

Jimmy and Johnny Uyehara, mixing drinks at their family's restaurant, the popular Smile Cafe. Johnny went on to open Keone's Lounge in Waikiki, Honoulu's hoppingest jazz club.
Credit Hawaii Restaurant Project

The solid base for Honolulu’s restaurant scene was created in the 1930’s and 40’s by an amazing number of Okinawan immigrant entrepreneurs.  Two seniors from restaurant-owning families have spent over a decade documenting restaurants opened by Hawai‘i’s Okinawans, and HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports it’s an immigrant success story that leaves a tasty legacy.

Columbia Inn was hired to cater the Republic Pictures production of “Hell’s Half Acre,” which led to this swanky photo of Evelyn Keyes in front of the restaurant on Beretania, with Wendell Corey at the cashier inside. This was Columbia Inn’s first location, at Beretania and Maunakea, where the Chinese Cultural Center is now.
Credit Okinawan Restaurant Project

The Okinawan Restaurant Project display continues at Honolulu Hale.  Enjoy the closing reception this Thursday at 4pm.  

Meet Gene Kaneshiro, the gregarious former owner of Columbia Inn, famously known as the Top of the Boulevard---Kapi‘olani that is.  Their first location, however, was at the corner of Beretania and Maunakea.

Gene Kaneshiro:  My uncle and my father decided they’re going to open the restaurant on Monday, December 8, 1941. 

Kaneshiro:  They were in the restaurant cleaning up getting ready on Sunday morning and the bombs dropping and my father said, Whoa, our relatives came a little bit too  early.  But nevertheless, in 1964 we moved to the Kapi‘olani location next to the newspaper building.  That used to be a restaurant that was formerly Times Grill, owned by Albert and Wally Teruya, Times Supermarket.  

Menu from Times Superette
Credit Okinawan Restaurants Project

Albert and Wally sold the restaurant to another Okinawan family and opened Times Superette in McCully and parlayed that into Times Supermarket.  We bought from that Okinawan family in ’64 and ran it until 1989 or so and sold it to a Japanese corporation.

Kaneshiro and Howard Takara, whose family ran Yuki’s Café on Nu‘uanu, are unofficial hosts of the Okinawan Restaurants Project display now at Honolulu Hale.  It charts 75 restaurants started in Honolulu by immigrants from their home village, Oroku, in Okinawa. 

Kaneshiro:  True Okinawan food would not sell at that time, and if you notice, most restaurants were named either ahwaiiand names or very American sounding names.  Like Café Manhattan, or Honolulu Grill or Kūhiō Grill, Alakea Grill, and so forth or generic type names like Columbia Inn that sounds American.  I guess the relationship between Japan and America wasn’t too cool before the war so if we named it Kaneshiro Inn, we’d get a rock through the window.  So we named it Columbia Inn, it sounds very American, then you serve American food anyway.

When Columbia Inn began in Chinatown, Gene’s father, Fred Toshi Kaneshiro, dubbed it “Columbia Inn, the Gem in the Slums.”  When they moved to Kapi‘olani Boulevard, it became, “Columbia Inn, Top of the Boulevard.”   In the 1950’s, a film production company remembered the moniker, “Gem in the Slums” and addressed a letter to that establishment.  It found its way to the Kaneshiro’s who were hired to cater the Republic Pictures production of “Hell’s Half Acre,” which led to a swanky photo of Evelyn Keyes in front of the restaurant on Beretania, with Wendell Corey at the cashier inside.  

Credit Okinawan Restaurants Project

Takara:  Before Columbia Inn, Smile Café was the place.  Started with American Café, then Smile Café.    Smile started on Ala Moana at Kalākaua right near DeRussy in ‘32.  They had to move to where the Ala Moana building is at Keeaumoku and Kapi‘olani.  They closed because of Ala Moana Shopping Center.

Takara:  Aloha Grill was on Bethel Street and Chaplain Lane.  Behind the old Liberty theater, they had Aloha Grill there, upstairs was a restaurant and downstairs there was a bowling alley.  For a quarter you could get a total meal, soup, salad, meal, dessert and drink for 25 cents. But this is in the ‘30’s now!  You know how many people had a quarter in their pocket at that time?  Not too many.

Takara recalls the Teruya family that started Times Cafe near the Advertiser Building on Kapi‘olani, the one that eventually became Columbia Inn.  One of the brothers always wanted to start a market, but left to fight in WWII in the famous 100th Battalion.  He never returned, so brothers Wally and Albert picked up the torch, starting Times Supermarkets.  Find a plaque honoring brother Herman at the Times Market in Kahala.   

Kaneshiro and Takara say all the people they’ve talked to trace the Okinawan restaurant boom to two men, Ushi Takara (no relation) of American Café and Henry Uyehara of Kewalo Inn.  They took men off the plantation, trained them in the business then, through a community funding pool called tanomoshi, new eateries got off the ground.  Uyehara’s Kewalo Inn was at Ward and Ala Moana, where Spaghetti Factory used to be.  Takara's upscale American Cafe was on King Street between Alakea and Bishop.

These are the Teruya brothers who started Times Cafe, with their wives. Howard Takara says, their brother, Herman, always wanted to start a market, but WWII came along, and he joined the 100th Battalion. Herman never returned, but Wally and Albert followed through on his wish, starting the popular Times Supermarket chain. See a plaque in Herman’s honor at the Kahala store.
Credit Okinawan Restaurants Project

Shari Tamashiro is a cybrarian at Kapi‘olani Community College, she’s active in the Okinawan community.  Joining forces with Takara and Kaneshiro, she will be able to give the Okinawan Restaurant Project a life online.

Tamashiro:  What Howard and Gene did, is remarkable.  They saved the story,  they did something really amazing.  They’re not trained as historians and librarians or archivists.  Howard is an engineer whose father had a restaurant.  Gene is second generation restaurant owner, but when Columbia Inn closed and Gene was told by the Executive Director of the Japanese Cultural Center, You need to document your story.  He said, we’re part of a larger story, the Oroku story.  They got to work.  They could have said, We don’t know what to do or they could have used the excuse everyone uses, I’m too busy.  They didn’t.  I think the window is closing of people having a memory of these restaurants, finding photographs or menus, and if the complete list is not done.  It’s a work in progress, we’re missing pieces of information.  Obviously, we’ve missed restaurants.   

Tamashiro:  We need the public to help collectively fill in this information.  Howard and Gene have taken it as far as they can go so we need other people to step up.  We need someone from Kaua‘i of Maui to become Howard and Gene.  We need people whose parents worked at a restaurant to ask, do you have menus?  Do you have a photo?  Can you write down your memories or record them for us?  Even a short story adds to our community of memory.

Tamashiro:  I really think the window is closing. People with memory of these things are not going to be around and at that point, we really can’t collect information.

Menu from The Wisteria restaurant
Credit Okinawan Restaurants Project

If you have any menus or information about Okinawan eateries anywhere in the islands, Tamashiro would like to hear from you at Pigsfromthesea@gmail.com .

Kaneshiro:  Deep inside we know there’s true value in maintaining our roots.  So my 3 ½ year old grandson who is 1/8 Korean, 3/8 Chinese, ¼ Japanese, ¼ Okinawan, I hope will know after his Grampa is long gone that there was a thing called an Okinawan club, that got together, that his great-great grampa started when he came from Oroku Okinawa to Hakalau.  And was part of the formation of this club called the Oroku Azam.  Azam is a small hamlet, not even large enough to have a mayor, they probably had a headsman.  And that years ago, they worked in the plantation.  they got off the plantation, and some of them went into the restaurant business and from the restaurant business this is what happened.  Now, there’s no one.  There’s no restaurant run by Oroku people any more.  They all went into something else.

Takara:  There’s one, though, you know.  You know Masaji’s grandson, he has Tatsuo’s on Sand Island.  When you drive into Sand island, the first road on the right, there’s a small shop there.  Masaji’s daughter married a Morita, and Wayne is the grandson, Wayne and Lori.  Alahao Place.  He also caters to funerals and whatnot.  That’s where I first saw him.

There was an obscure little coffee shop named Bert’s Café on McCully, just about half a block makai on King Street.  It kind of opened whenever it wanted to, but it’s closed now. 

Credit Okinawan Restaurants Project

The Uyehara family’s Smile Café, is remembered as the place to go before Columbia Inn took over.  Smile Café started at Ala Moana and Kalakaua near DeRussy in 1932, then moved to Kapi‘olani and Ke‘eaumoku in 1947.  It closed in 1962 to make way for the new Ala Moana Shopping Center.  One of the Uyehara brothers, Johnny, opened Keoni’s in Waikīkī which became The Spot for jazz and live music in Honolulu.  Kaneshiro remembers Trummy Young, Jimmy Borges, Betty Lou Taylor and others who partied and played when Honolulu was a pretty swingin’ town.

Takara recalls the Teruya family that started Times Café near the Advertiser Building on Kapi‘olani, the one that eventually became Columbia Inn.  One of the brothers always wanted to start a market, but left to fight in WWII in the famous 100th Battalion.  He never returned, so brothers Wally and Albert picked up the torch, starting Times Supermarkets.  Find a plaque honoring brother Herman at the Times Market in Kahala.   

The Okinawan Restaurants Project includes current Okinawan food establishments, noting three in Honolulu: Utage, in Kalihi, Hide-Chan on King, and the much loved Sunrise in Kapahulu. As far as simply restaurants owned by Okinawans, the list is underway and Tamashiro hopes everyone will chip in, especially from the neighbor islands.   Kaneshiro points out, the ground work is laid for some lucky person’s doctoral dissertation (Pigsfromthesea@gmail.com) If you’d like to try your own hand at shout pork belly or tofu bitter melon, the Chimugukuru cookbook is available for purchase at the Hawaii Okinawa Center and at the Okinawan Festival.