Hawaii Island’s Kilauea volcano is erupting again, this time safely within the confines of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, providing a fiery show for local and mainland visitors. But after a day or two dining in Volcano Village, foodies will want to travel to the other side of the island, where the town of Waimea sits between the green slopes of the extinct Kohala volcano and the technically dormant, massive mountain of Mauna Kea.
Featured image: Ken Lund
The home of historic Parker Ranch and other producers of grass-fed beef and lamb, Waimea — called Kamuela in addresses to distinguish it from the town on Kauai — also boasts a cornucopia of small farms, renowned for juicy tomatoes, leafy greens, baby cucumbers, and other fresh vegetables. Waimea strawberries are famous for their sweetness, while other tropical fruit and coffee grown on the Hamakua coast to the east appear at local farmers markets. All this bounty inspires chefs in a variety of cuisines, at all levels of budgets.
Here are some of our picks for fine, fun and funky wining and dining in Waimea.
Best Upscale Dining
Founded in 1988, Merriman’s is the original restaurant of Peter Merriman, co-founder of the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement that heralded the later farm-to-table trend and still reflects the diverse cultures in the islands. It’s currently open for lunch Sunday through Thursday, dinner nightly (reservations required) and Sunday brunch. Don’t miss the mai tai with lilikoi foam or wok-charred ahi; the Waipio taro enchiladas have a deliciously spicy kick, best soothed with a Waialua chocolate purse for dessert. Bonus: Merriman’s was the first hospitality business in Hawaii to require all its employees to be vaccinated.
Best Sushi and Sashimi
Red Water Cafe has a wide-ranging menu that includes heaping portions of pasta, curries and steaks, but its meal-size specialty rolls and sashimi plate showcase the best of local, fresh-caught seafood. It offers an all-day lunch/dinner menu Tuesday–Saturday, with well-ventilated, private indoor booths and outdoor dining; reservations recommended.
Best Ramen (and Sake)
Across the road from Red Water Cafe, Moa Kitchen also has an expert sushi bar, but it’s the hefty, belly-warming bowls of ramen that make the biggest impression, especially given the typically cool misty weather in Waimea. Belly up to the sake bar for yuzu sake shots and other Japanese-inspired cocktails. It’s open for lunch Tuesday–Saturday and dinner Tuesday–Sunday.
Pau Pizza showcases local produce in toppings on its daily by-the-slice specials and make-your-own whole pizzas using organic pizza dough. Seating is limited to a few outdoor tables, but a great to-go deli with a variety of green salads, starters like tomato bisque and lemon dill hummus, and desserts like lilikoi panna cotta and chocolate mousse. Pick up a loaf of crusty bread while you’re at it. It’s open Monday–Saturday, beginning at 7am with hearty cooked-to-order breakfast burritos.
Beloved local chef Ed Goto prides himself on featuring locally sourced buns, patties (beef, taro, veal, ahi, mushroom) and produce at Village Burger. It’s part of the Parker Ranch Center food court, with indoor and outdoor seating.
Locals and visitors alike line up for casual Hawaiian Style Cafe, which puts into practice the island philosophy of “we don’t eat till we’re full, we eat till we’re tired.” The fluffy three-egg omelets come with hash brown potatoes or rice, plus a choice of a sprawling pancake or toast. Specialties include kalua pork hash with eggs and fried rice and french toast made with Hawaiian sweet bread. It’s open for breakfast and lunch daily (but closes at noon Sunday).
The lines start early for the beautifully crafted cream puffs and other classic pastries at Patisserie Nanako, officially open 8am to noon Tuesday–Saturday, but closing early when sold out. For delectable lilikoi tarts and cheesecake, almond croissants, quiches and artisan breads, visit Sandwich Isle Bakery, open Tuesday and Friday all day, and Saturday mornings.
A rustic-Bohemian cafe in the quaint Parker Square shopping center, Waimea Coffee Company has tasty, locally-sourced breakfast and lunch selections, including smoothies and açai bowls, but it’s the artful coffee menu — including espresso drinks, pour-over, French press and drip — that keeps it busy. Open daily, the cafe has indoor and outdoor seating, the latter overlooking the grass courtyard.
Best Beer and Bar
The award-winning beer of Big Island Brewhaus, including its Overboard IPA and Golden Sabbath Belgian-style ale, are reason enough to visit, but the lilikoi margaritas are mighty tasty, too. The wide-ranging, mostly island-grown food menu includes savory green chili stew, fish tacos, house-made black bean falafel and garlic fries. It’s open daily, with all seating currently in its outdoor, covered beer garden.
Best New Restaurant
Veteran chef and artisan bacon purveyor Allen Hess named his latest restaurant FORC, which stands for “Farmer Ocean Rancher Cook,” reflecting his passion for local ingredients. Hess has also curated an exceptional wine list; you can even reserve some bottles ahead. The culinary menu is meant to appeal to both locals and visitors, and judging by the crowds at happy hour (first-come, first-served) and reservation-only dinners, it’s hitting the mark. FORC is open for happy hour and dinner Thursday – Monday (reservations resume Oct. 7,) with hopes of offering breakfast and brunch when staffing permits.