Designer cocktails, brewpubs with 100-plus beers on tap, high-style interior spaces: Honolulu’s nightlife scene has taken on a New York or L.A. sensibility. From upscale national chains, to splashy spots in longstanding hotels and clubs in edgy Chinatown digs, the after-dark scene is getting ever more cosmopolitan.
The beach at Waikiki lights up after dark
The nightlife here is “better than most people think. You just need to know where to look and who to ask,” says a local club promoter known as “Flash,” who reports that “trends on the Mainland show up quicker here than ever before.” Bottle service, high-priced cocktails created by gourmet drinkmasters, wine bars, slick designs and themed club nights are all showing up in Honolulu.
The Sheraton Waikiki's Rumfire lounge
Nowhere is the rise of pricy specialty libations and flashy settings better exemplified than at the Sheraton Waikiki’s 7,000-square-foot, beachfront RumFire lounge, housing the largest selection of vintage rums in the U.S.
“If you remember this space before, you can see the dramatic change,” says Kelly Sanders, general manager of the property. Indeed, the once-dark 70s-esque interior has been completely redone with the Pacific Ocean and Diamond Head as the star attractions, viewed through floor-to-ceiling windows. Outdoorsy types can watch the ocean waves crash from the plush patio chairs next to a fire pit, while the pau hana (after-work) crowd grooves to happy-hour live entertainment and a tapas-style menu of Hawaiian favorites with a twist (try the ahi tacos) from up-and-coming chef Colin Hazama. On the drink menu are more than 100 types of rum (with a Hawaiian-produced version set to make its debut later this year).
Stylish interiors mixed with trendy sips have also proven popular at the somewhat new nightclub Pearl with an unlikely mall location at Ala Moana Center. The urban-hip vibe, trio of bar areas, private tables, bottle service, state-of-the-art AV system and cover charges speak to an upscale crowd (no T-shirts or flip-flops here). Owner Beau Mohr has a clear passion for sophisticated nightlife and it shows in the details—from a pearl theme showcased in subtle ways to the cocktail menu created by a Las Vegas-based master mixologist, to the Italian-accented fare from notable chef Donato Loperfido. Depending on what time you go, it morphs from an after-work spot to a full-blown clubby affair filled with eclectic 20- to 50-somethings.
Lewers Lights Up
The real excitement in the “new” Waikiki is the entertainment area of Lewers Street, known as the Waikiki Beach Walk, where a multimillion-dollar renovation has recently turned a once-dingy stretch into an epicenter of good times. Several nightlife venues (along with shops and restaurants) are drawing locals back to what was once strictly tourist territory. A branch of the West Coast brewpub chain Yard House and an outpost of Ruth’s Chris Steak House, the second for Honolulu, are two such spots.
Yard House draws 20- and 30-somethings to Waikiki Beach Walk
Yard House’s popularity on weekends is borne out by the hour-long waits for a table, which seems to be perfectly acceptable to the 20- and 30-somethings spilling from the entrance. For serious sudsters, it’s a dream come true, with 110 beers on tap. There are hundreds of kegs in the viewable keg room and five miles of metal-encased pipes that, with the help of 2,000 gallons of coolant, keep the bubbly liquid cold as it journeys to the room’s central bar. The best way to get a reasonable taste of several is to order the six-pack sampler flight—unless you’re up for downing the half-yard portion while folks at neighboring tables stare. If beer isn’t your bag, choose from the three-and-a-half dozen specialty martinis and cocktails, plus a long menu of spot-on appetizers.
When Yard House’s booming classic rock track becomes a little too much on the eardrums, head outside and upstairs to the more sedate bar at the newest Ruth’s Chris for a civilized glass of wine and a decibel level that doesn’t deafen.
In fact, high-end wine bars have gained a stronger presence in the Aloha State. Design divas are drawn to the unique Amuse Wine Bar in the Honolulu Design Center, where guests can purchase wine “credit cards” to be used at electronic carousels of vino that automatically deduct the cost and dispense the pour when inserted. A great way to try different vintages and initiate conversation, it’s also a steal on Sunday nights when $25 gets you a card loaded with $50.
Much of Hawaii’s nightlife has blossomed along with the prevalence of local promoters, so the party changes depending on the event (theme nights are big). You’ll have to ask concierges for the latest on the music/dance club calendar. For a grittier nightlife experience, Chinatown is the place to be. While one of the newer, upscale wine bars, Brasserie du Vin—with a small-plates menu and rustic interior calling to mind rural Southern France—opened here, this part of downtown still has an edge after dark.
Tourists may want to check out the nighttime action at its most lively during one of the monthly First Friday events, when many Chinatown galleries open up and an art lover’s street party takes place. Adventurous visitors can then head over to the hole-in-the-wall bar Next Door, with its rundown vibe and DJ’s spinning, or to the hipster Ong King Arts Center for spoken word, dance performances and a bowl of root kava.
Waikiki for a Younger Crowd
The revitalization in Waikiki gives agents a fresh selling point, especially for younger clients looking for after-hours fun.
“In the past, we might plan one day in Oahu, but mainly send these clients to Maui,” says Kimberly Wilson Wetty, co-president of New York-based Valerie Wilson Travel, who was “completely blown away” by the impressive changes she saw in Waikiki when she visited several months ago, from the Beachwalk to the Kalakaua strip. “It’s hopping with restaurants and nightlife. It’s really exciting.”
Next up will be the opening of a vast showroom to house a Vegas-style, Hawaiian-themed show in the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center. Half the seats will retract to become a nightclub with high-tech videos and acrobats.
Coinciding with this change in Honolulu is a trend toward younger 20- and 30-something clients without kids seeking trips to Hawaii, says Wilson Wetty. They’re often looking for lots to do at night, and although she still recommends they visit at least two islands, she no longer considers Oahu just a stopover.
“If they’re honeymooners, I’d book them on Oahu at the end of the trip, though, because they’re exhausted after the wedding and need some R&R first.”
And with so much to do in Waikiki, they’ll need that energy.