Waikiki, with its golden beaches and bustling streets, is a paradise for tourists from around the globe. While the city boasts high-end restaurants with breathtaking ocean views, there's something special about discovering the hidden gems that locals cherish – especially when it comes to affordable dining options. In this guide, we'll take a culinary journey through the heart of Waikiki, unveiling seven local favorites that not only cater to your taste buds but also to your budget.
Keep in mind, these suggestions are tried-and-true simple restaurants. They may not be the most exorbitant way to spend your money, but we think you will find that you'll be better off for it! When you visit these establishments, imagine yourself as a local, and try something that you haven't had before! Foods like laulau or poi might look scary, but they taste incredible. You never know what you might fall in love with.
Rainbow Drive-In: A Plate Lunch Paradise
Nestled in the heart of Waikiki, Rainbow Drive-In is a local legend that has been serving up plate lunches since 1961. Their founder gained his chops while a cook in the military, and came back home to Hawaii with a dream of starting his own restaurant. Known for its generous portions and affordable prices, this spot has become a go-to for both locals and savvy visitors. The menu is a celebration of Hawaiian comfort food, featuring favorites like loco moco (a rice and burger patty topped with a fried egg and brown gravy) and the iconic mixed plate with a combination of barbecue chicken, beef, and mahi-mahi. The vibrant flavors and laid-back atmosphere make Rainbow Drive-In a must-visit for an authentic taste of Hawaii. Still family owned to this day, this restaurant is beloved by Hawaiians.
Leonard's Bakery: Malasadas to Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth
No culinary journey through Waikiki is complete without a stop at Leonard's Bakery. Since 1952, this iconic establishment has been delighting locals and tourists alike with its irresistible malasadas – Portuguese doughnuts with a crispy exterior and a soft, pillowy inside. These doughnuts became popular in Hawaii in the old sugarcane and pineapple plantation days, when Portuguese workers emigrated to the islands in the late 1800s. Leonard's offers an array of flavors, from classic sugar-coated to unique fillings like haupia (coconut) and lilikoi (passion fruit). Priced affordably, these heavenly treats are perfect for a midday snack or a sweet ending to your Waikiki adventure.
Zippy's: A Hawaiian Staple for Comfort Food
No exploration of cheap eats in Honolulu is complete without mentioning Zippy's. This local chain has been a Hawaiian institution since 1966, serving up a mix of American, Asian, and Hawaiian comfort food. From saimin (Hawaiian noodle soup) to their famous chili and rice plate, Zippy's offers hearty portions at budget-friendly prices. This is as close as you'll get to McDonalds or KFC while staying true to the spirit of Hawaii. The casual atmosphere and diverse menu make it a go-to spot for locals seeking a taste of home without the hefty price tag
L&L Hawaiian Barbecue: A Local’s Dinner
L&L Hawaiian Barbecue is a household name in Hawaii, and its affordability makes it a staple for locals and visitors alike. It may not be pretty, but it is as real as it gets! The menu features a mix of Hawaiian and Asian-inspired dishes, including plate lunches with favorites like barbecue chicken, loco moco, and kalua pork. The portions are generous, ensuring you get a satisfying meal without breaking the bank. With multiple locations throughout Honolulu, L&L is a convenient and budget-friendly option for those craving the diverse flavors of the islands. The plate lunch has always been the traditional meal of Hawaiians, and you can see it preserved in every meal L&L offers.
Ono Seafood: Poke Perfection
Hawaii is synonymous with poke, and Ono Seafood has mastered the art of this traditional dish. Tucked away from the touristy hotspots, this unassuming gem is a local favorite for fresh and flavorful poke bowls. Frankly, it's also incredibly photogenic. You can choose from a variety of seafood options, including ahi tuna and octopus, and customize your bowl with an array of toppings and sauces. The prices at Ono Seafood are budget-friendly, allowing you to savor the essence of Hawaiian cuisine without breaking the bank. Poke might be a bit intimidating to you, seeing as it is raw fish, but you may find it even better than you could have imagined.
Tucker & Bevvy Picnic Food: Gourmet on a Budget
For those seeking a touch of gourmet without the hefty price tag, Tucker & Bevvy is the answer. This casual eatery, located just a short stroll from the beach, combines the best of both worlds – gourmet ingredients and reasonable prices. Whether you're craving a hearty breakfast, a fresh salad, or a flavorful sandwich (which we highly recommend), Tucker & Bevvy's diverse menu has you covered. The laid-back atmosphere and friendly staff add to the charm, making it a top pick for locals in the know. Grab a picnic lunch and walk across the street to the beach, and enjoy a sunlit meal.
Ethel's Grill: Hidden Gem of Kalihi
Located a little further from Waipahu in the Kalihi neighborhood, Ethel's Grill is a hidden gem known for its delicious local fare and unpretentious ambiance. This family-owned eatery has been serving up homestyle Hawaiian dishes for over 40 years. The menu features classics like oxtail soup, garlic furikake chicken, and ahi belly fried rice, all at wallet-friendly prices. Ethel's Grill is a testament to the idea that exceptional food doesn't have to come with a hefty price tag, making it a cherished spot for locals in the know. Hole-in-the-wall restaurants are often the best, and Ethel's is no exception.
Waikiki's culinary scene is a vibrant tapestry of flavors, and these seven local favorites offer a taste of the authentic and affordable side of Hawaiian cuisine. From plate lunches to malasadas, poke bowls to gourmet sandwiches, these hidden gems showcase the diverse and rich culinary landscape of the islands. So, the next time you find yourself in Waikiki, venture off the beaten path and explore these budget-friendly dining options – your taste buds and your wallet will thank you.