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Professional beach volleyball player Kevin Wong relaxing in Waikiki
Vol.12, No. 2
April / May 2009

  >>   Architect of Stories
  >>   Life on the Fringe

Tea in the Valley 

story by Liza Simon
photo by Dana Edmunds

Nestled into the greenery in the back of Manoa Valley stands a local institution: the Wai‘oli Tea Room. It’s a favorite spot for breakfast, lunch and tea, a place where for decades patrons have enjoyed perennials like scones with clotted cream, guava waffles and chicken curry salad. Wai‘oli is—like its food—decidedly old world, with a history that stretches back a century and a listing on the US National Register of Historic Places. It is also decidedly lush, set on an eight-acre plot planted with stately trees, sandpaper vines, blue ginger, cacti, bromeliads and heliconia.

Wai‘oli’s story begins in 1909, when two foot soldiers of the Salvation Army first opened a home for orphans on the site. What is today the tearoom followed in 1922, originally built as a school for the children’s home. When the children grew up, benefactors donated funds to open a tearoom that could function as a training ground of sorts and teach them a trade. The story conjures a bygone era—one that, at Wai‘oli at least, is not quite so bygone. Though it has been many years since there was an orphanage onsite, today the vintage structure continues to be a touchstone of communal memory, with its antique décor, fireplace and loping lanai.

It almost, though, didn’t survive. A few years ago, the Salvation Army announced that it was getting out of the tearoom business to focus on its social services mission. Veteran restauranteur Brian Jahnke was incensed when he heard of the planned closing. “How could you?” he called to ask. When Jahnke asserted that he could save the tearoom, the Salvation Army said “You’re on!” and within six weeks the deed and management of Wai‘oli were in his hands—hands that are often covered in flour, since Jahnke himself has a passion for baking. He’s now focusing on drawing the next generation to the tearoom. He tells of recently finding two mesmerized young men wandering on the tearoom’s grounds. “What is this place?” they asked. Jahnke told them and then asked what had led them to the spot. Corny but true, Jahnke swears: They had seen a rainbow in the sky, they said, and followed it to its end. The Wai‘oli Tea Room is at 2950 Manoa Rd. and 
at (808) 988-5800. HH