Native Intelligence: O‘ahu

Restaurant on a Mission

Story by Malanie McLellan. Photo by Lila Lee.

After a long hiatus the Waioli Tea Room has reopened. The restaurant, tucked among towering monkeypod trees, was once a favorite of Mānoa dowagers wearing their Sunday mu‘umu‘u and for families gathering for extended brunches and celebrations. When it closed in 2015, Honolulu lost one of its most beloved culinary landmarks.

The structure was built in the 1890s as a Salvation Army girls orphanage; the tearoom opened in 1922 as a vocational training facility teaching restaurant skills to the children, making them employable. Later the Salvation Army expanded to serve those in need, opening a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center on the premises. Waioli Tea Room had several owners over the years. It closed in 2015 and remained so until Ross and Stefanie Anderson opened Waioli Kitchen & Bake Shop last November.

Devotees of the earlier tearoom will find the renovation is a chic update of its former quaint Victorian country-house charm. “We’re running Waioli for the new generation,” says Stefanie, though the Andersons are continuing the Salvation Army’s mission through Waioli. “Our kitchen is operated by patients in the drug and alcohol recovery program alongside participants in a program to reintegrate prisoners into society,” says Ross. “This is about making a contribution. It isn’t always easy, but the reward of seeing people succeed is sweet.”

The menu is simple: five items for breakfast and five for lunch, along with homemade challah and pastries (the baker moonlights as an artist, his work displayed in the dining room). One homage to Waioli’s previous menu is the half-papaya and curried chicken salad, from an original recipe by Bette Stillwell, the restaurant’s matriarch during the 1970s. There’s seasonal pickled green mango, made from a recipe in an old cookbook found on the premises. Contemporary fare includes açaí bowls with local honey, Hawai‘i Island beef burgers, soups, pancakes and an already famous short rib loco moco.

But famous isn’t the goal; the Andersons want Waioli Kitchen & Bake Shop to feel more like a cozy hideaway than a bustling restaurant. “We want to rekindle Waioli as a gathering place for local people,” Stefanie says. “You can have a transactional food experience anywhere, but this is about fostering connections.”