Review: Honolulu’s Side Street Inn, famous for fried rice and pork chops

The scene: In much of the country, mid-February is the coldest time of the entire year, and we’ve just been through the polar vortex. But not in Hawaii, where it is solidly in the high 70s. It is completely understandable if you want to pack up and head for the islands right now. If you do, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better place to eat than the Side Street Inn.

I first discovered Side Street years ago on the advice of folks in Honolulu’s restaurant industry, as it has long been a popular after-work spot for chefs and industry types, always a good sign (a 1999 Honolulu Star Bulletin column describes legendary Hawaiian chefs Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi visiting for vodka-fueled karaoke and pork chops). But pretty much everyone who lives in Honolulu comes here (there are two locations), along with plenty of tourists, though it skews more local with all kinds of group and family gatherings. Side Street Inn lends itself to family-style dining because the portions are big – sometimes crazy big. It’s a tougher spot to eat at as a couple, but the food is so good it’s worth the restraint and tough choices you’ll have to limit yourself to.

The original Side Street Inn lives up to its name and is tucked on small, two-block-long Hopaka Street, which is hidden in the heart of downtown Waikiki between the parallel main drags of Ala Moana and Kapiolani boulevards. The newer Kapahulu location opened in 2010 and sits on the far edge of Waikiki, towards Diamond Head. Both are very well-located for the majority of Honolulu visitors.

Both are simple and cavernous spaces with lots of big tables, and both have old-school bars. The newer location is set within an office building, very nondescript from outside. It has a far more polished interior with a paneled wood ceiling, upholstered booths along the side walls, and a marble top on its long bar. It is long and deep and goes on and on, seating close to 200. The original is simpler, with a suspended ceiling, painted walls and very basic furniture, and holds about 130. The same great food is served at both, but if you are on vacation and want more of a traditional “nice” restaurant atmosphere, head to the newer one (but in either case, make reservations).

Google it, and you will see Side Street Inn described as a “local hangout for drinks & comfort grub,” and that’s true but only part of the picture. The late Anthony Bourdain and CNN popped in for an episode of “No Reservations,” and the restaurants have won numerous awards and accolades from magazines and newspapers worldwide. Both technically serve dinner only, though they open at 2 or 3 p.m. and as early as 1 p.m. on Sundays for sort of a dinner-as-brunch. Due to the time difference, the Kapahulu spot opens at 7:30 a.m. on Sundays during the NFL season.

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