Hands down, Honolulu’s Chinatown is the hottest spot to be outside of Waikiki. Despite some tough economic challenges and a less than stellar after-dark reputation, Honolulu’s Chinatown has emerged as the place to be for fabulous dining, cocktails, live music and offerings of art. Chinatown, once again, is pulsing with youthful energy.
It seems like every month there is an announcement for a new opening: Tchin Tchin Bar, Sin Lounge, Senia, Brick Fire Tavern, Bethel Union, Leather Apron, and Fete. Chinatown has had its ups and downs, and it still has its rough patches, but right now it’s on a swing up—way up. State-of-the-art cocktails, elegant dining and amazing live music are all part of the draw.
The “old” standbys that have inspired Chinatown’s vitality include two Irish establishments that are nearly as lively in the day as they are at night: O’Toole’s Pub and Murphy’s Bar & Grill, anchoring the Honolulu Harbor end of Nuuanu Avenue. These spots are a reminder that Chinatown now has two equally vibrant sides, one by day and one at night. In many ways the two are as different as, well, day and night.
Among the better established spots that locals and visitors alike frequent for conviviality and live music are Hank’s and The Dragon Upstairs, one of Hawaii’s best jazz venues. The Dragon, literally upstairs from Hank’s, showcases world-class entertainment by groups like Gypsy 808, performing jazz manouche from 9 p.m. till midnight on most Thursday nights. You can mix a little jazz with lots of rock at Hank’s and some of the lively spots on Hotel Street, including Downbeat.
A night on the town can include dining at one of the new spots or a visit to favorites, such as Little Village Noodle House, Duc’s Bistro, Lucky Belly, HASR Bistro, JJ Dolan’s, and The Pig and The Lady, with lines out the door despite all the new competition.
Like many Chinatowns in major cities all around the world, Honolulu’s Chinatown is a bustling bazaar of shops and markets that open in the early morning, catering to shoppers who are looking for the freshest Asian produce and specialty foods, such as roast pork, manapua (buns stuffed with meat and vegetables), dim sum and sesame candies.
Dating back more than 150 years, soon after the first migrant laborers arrived in the Islands from Southern China, Honolulu’s Chinatown is much more than a tourist attraction. Providing invaluable services and products for Oahu’s Chinese community, as well as the recent immigrants from Vietnam and all over Southeast Asia, this is a fascinating place to spend a morning or afternoon, which can include a walking tour of historic Honolulu and its surrounding neighborhoods.
A true exploration of Honolulu’s Chinatown would take weeks, not hours, but anyone can get a taste of this area’s rich flavor by window shopping, stopping into several of the numerous art galleries, savoring the sights and sounds of the lively Asian markets (Oahu Market being the old-time favorite) and taking a break for a leisurely lunch (try one of the many Vietnamese pho restaurants) or just a sampling of snacks.
When day turns to night on the first Friday of each month, it seems that all of Honolulu turns out for the gala First Friday, held from 5 to 9 p.m. Hundreds of art fans and revelers of all ages stroll in and out of the galleries, bars and restaurants that populate the area, centered around Nuuanu Avenue. The evening features opening receptions, refreshments and live entertainment.
Day or night, Chinatown is a part of Hawaii you’ll want to see.
Photos by Shutterstock