Issue 12.2: April / May 2009

From Pond to Table

story by Katie Yamanaka
photo by Olivier Koning

Susumu Nakagawa, 86, navigates the floating catwalk at the Seaside Restaurant and Aqua Farm, as he has done nearly every morning of his life. With the balance of a gymnast, he feeds the mullet, tilapia and aholehole that swim in the brackish waters of this 30-acre fishpond in Hilo, continuing a tradition begun in 1921 by his parents—a tradition now carried on by Susumu’s son, Colin.

The Seaside is known for some of the freshest seafood in the Islands. It’s also a living tribute to a family business tradition that has kept pace with changing trends and times. The 
original Seaside Club served only two items: mullet and chicken. The 1946 tsunami destroyed the first restaurant; the Nakagawas rebuilt it, and it now seats 175 diners in three separate rooms overlooking the ponds.

Colin, 49, had been living in Seattle but returned to Hilo in 1983 to join the family business. He introduced new menu items with a Pacific Rim flair, but what people really come 
for is the fresh fish, plucked daily from the pond. “The locals love the fried aholehole, but we’re really known for our mullet,” explains Colin, who says diners should call ahead to reserve these selections. Supplies are limited since maturing both these fish from fingerlings takes about five years.

Since Colin returned, the Seaside Restaurant and Aqua Farm has garnered seven Hale ‘aina awards and accolades from the Hawaii Tribune-Herald for Best East Hawai‘i Restaurant. Colin’s mother, Ellen, 82, helps with the laundry and some food preparation, and Susumu also gets into the pond to clear out seaweed and fix the fish cages. For Susumu and Ellen, it’s a labor of love—after all, Susumu retired early from the USDA, where he was an entomologist, to join the business. He hasn’t had a day off to golf in almost two decades. For Colin, the Seaside is a family tradition too valuable to let fade. “I came back because I didn’t want to lose this place,” he says. “There’s nowhere in the world like it.” HH

Seaside Restaurant and Aqua Farm