It’s almost guaranteed that eating in Waimea will lead you to exclaim, “that was the best steak of my life!” The beef doesn’t get more local than this and has the reputation of being grass fed with ocean views. Waimea also is home to several longstanding upscale restaurants. Entries are listed from north to south and then east to west on Highway 19.
A restaurant formally known as Tako Taco, now called Big Island Brewhaus (Hwy. 19 between mile markers 56 and 57 at intersection of Kamamiu St., 808/887-1717, Mon.-Sat. 11am-8:30pm, Sun. noon-8:30pm, $10), is the highest brewery in Hawaii at 2,812 feet. The restaurant is decorated from the point of view of someone who wanted it to look straight out of Mexico—it’s sort of Mexican kitsch meets Hawaii.
The food isn’t so authentico Mexican, but it’s priced right and overall hits the spot. There are the standard dishes like burritos, tortilla soup, enchiladas, and tacos. Vegans and gluten-free eaters rejoice with the substantial options available. What isn’t so splendid here is the service. In fact, at times it’s so terrible it can be downright frustrating. Arguably, now that they have their homebrews on tap, it makes the wait more bearable—but oftentimes it doesn’t make any sense why you have to wait 45 minutes for a taco. Don’t come hungry or in a rush. Tuesdays and Thursdays are open mic night and Friday there is live music.
There is some hard competition in the area, yet Lilikoi Café (67-1185 Mamalahoa Hwy./Hwy. 19, Parker Ranch Shopping Center, 808/887-1400, Mon.-Sat. 7:30am-4pm, breakfast $7, lunch $9) still fares well. The atmosphere along with the menu is simple: sandwiches, fresh salads that come as a combo with a choice of deli meat, and crepes for vegetarians. The breakfast choices of granola, burritos, and crepes are ideal for those looking to eat a wholesome and nourishing meal that doesn’t include Spam, as many breakfast options do on the island.
Also in the Parker Ranch Shopping Center is literally one of the best burgers you will ever have (and so agrees USA Today, in its list of 50 burgers you must have before you die). Village Burger (67-1185 Mamalahoa Hwy./19, Parker Ranch Center Food Court, 808/885-7319, Mon.-Sat. 10am-8pm, Sun. 10:30am-6pm, $8-12) is a true farm-to-table establishment with nearly every ingredient sourced from a nearby farm. The veal burger is spectacular and can be served on a beautiful bed of lettuce for those who don’t want the bun. The taro burger is an excellent vegan option—a well-thought-out conglomeration of garden vegetables. Try the mamake ice tea: a blend of a local leaf, mint, and tarragon. The restaurant is located in the food court with no ambiance and little seating. So grab it go—although you’ll probably finish your burger by the time you walk to your car.
On weekends be prepared to wait as visitors line up around the corner patiently anticipating the scrumptious breakfast at Hawaiian Style Café (65-1290 Kawaihae Rd./Hwy. 19 between mile markers 57 and 58, 808/885-4295, Mon.-Sat. 7am-1:30pm, Sun. 7am-noon, breakfast $8, plate lunch $9-17). It’s not healthy food, it’s comfort food served by a friendly staff. Be prepared to make new friends as the semi-communal counter area invokes conversation with fellow eaters. Try the kalua hash with eggs. It’s the kind of food that’s so good that you just keep eating it, even though you’re full. Other local favorites are on the menu, like several varieties of loco moco.
Waimea Coffee Company (65-1279 Kawaihae Rd./Hwy. 19, 808/885-8915, Mon.-Fri. 6:30am-5:30pm, Sat. 8am-4pm, Sun. 9am-3pm, lunch $8) has a college town coffee shop atmosphere: the kind of place where you can grab a coffee, bagels and lox, soup or sandwich, and enjoy a book outside in the brisk Waimea air.
As one of the original homes of Hawaii Regional Cuisine, Merriman’s (65-1227 Opelo Rd., 808/885-6822, Mon.-Fri. 11:30am-1:30pm, daily 5:30-9pm, reservation recommended, lunch $11-15, dinner $25-38) has a lot of street cred—and that’s without adding the fact that its owner, Peter Merriman, is a James Beard Finalist. In theory, it’s fairly amazing that Merriman’s started doing local foods decades before it was trendy, but in practice the restaurant is perhaps a bit overrated now that everyone is going local. The dining experience is superb, with well-trained waitstaff and white linen tablecloths. It’s a good place to go if you are looking for fine dining. The menu changes, but offers the usual Hawaiian dishes of mahimahi or ahi, spicy soups, and local vegetables. Perhaps go for lunch instead of dinner. The lunch menu is similar to the dinner menu, but less expensive.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Hawaiian Islands.