Lanai City

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An afternoon in Dole Park

Big day in Lanai City. In front of Café 55, several women have set up tables selling slippahs, quilts, baskets, and leis made of shells. Meanwhile, across the street in Dole Park, locals are barbecuing linguica, chicken and pork satays, whole fish. Macduff buys a plate of curried chicken and Asian noodles. I go for some chicken katsu (sort of a Japanese-style fried chicken) and some samosas stuffed with shrimp. Next to the barbecue, a large woman oozing out of a folding aluminum chair has a little Styrofoam cooler at her side that is full of Spam California rolls. Two bucks each.

photo by Macduff Everton

photo by Macduff Everton

This little food scene pretty much sums up the mix of cultures on Lanai. There are about 2,500 full-time residents on the island but you’d be hard-pressed to find more than a couple dozen  who are pure Hawaiian. In fact, the largest ethnic group here is Filipino, followed by Japanese, Koreans, and Caucasians. Those who are part-Hawaiian, like Derwin Kwon, whose family—half Korean, half Hawaiian—has lived here for generations, make up less than 10% of the population.

Yet you go over to Dole Park and walk around and see families eating satays and samosas, curried chicken and Spam rolls, and it looks like everyone gets along just fine. American assimilation, Hawaiian-style. Just like our new incoming president.

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Hot melons

There aren’t a lot of dining choices in Lanai City. The best of the lot is probably the Lanai City Grille in the Hotel Lanai which, until 1990, was the only hotel on the island. James D. Dole himself built the inn in 1923, mainly as a place to house Dole executives from the mainland. The rustic furnishings—worn hardwood floors, old ceiling fans, chintz curtains—give it a certain historical charm, if you like that sort of thing.

The hotel restaurant used to be called Henry Clay’s Rottisserie and was run by a guy from New Orleans named Henry Clay Richardson. I ate there a couple of times and the food was good, but it always felt a bit odd to me to be dining on cajun shrimp, eggplant creole, and pecan pie on the Pineapple Island.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

In some ways it seems like nothing ever changes on Lanai and in other ways, it seems they change all the time. Mostly, I guess, the change comes from those who visit the island and then decide to move here and see if they can make a go of it. Henry Clay Richardson was one of those people. He took over the Hotel Lanai in 1996, ran it for a decade, then—for whatever reason—sold it off to new owners.

So it goes.

Anyway, another place I like quite a bit is Pele’s Other Garden Deli and Bistro, next to the Pine Isle Market. It’s basically a deli in what used to be the Lanai Visitor Information Center. Its owners, Mark and Barbara Zigmond, moved here from Jersey over a decade ago. When I asked Mark why they moved here, he said, “Just wanted to drop out of the rat race.”

Well, okay, but owning a deli in Lanai City isn’t exactly kickin’ back and taking it easy. They serve lunch from 11 to 3, close for an hour or so in the afternoon, and then transform the little pseudo-New York deli into a casual Jersey Italian restaurant for dinner. Mark cooks, Barbara acts as hostess and waitress when she’s not behind the cash register.

Macduff and I have had lunch there a couple of times and we really enjoyed their good-sized pastrami and swiss (if you order it as the #5, you get a free pickle). We also enjoyed joking around with Barbara who is, as they say, a full-figured gal. The first day we ate there, she was wearing a white t-shirt with the words HOT MELONS sort of wrapping around her….well, melons.

photo by Macduff Everton

photo by Macduff Everton

“You must get some comments about that t-shirt,” Macduff said.

“Oh, yeah,” Barbara said, laughing. “It’s a good conversation starter.”

If you happen to stop in there some time and she’s not wearing the shirt, ask her where the hot melons are. Maybe she’ll show you. 

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Suzie’s bichon frisés and slippahs

The Blue Ginger, a simple one-room café where customers help themselves to the coffee brewing on a side table, is jammed this morning. In the back I spot Derwin at a table with a couple of older guys and a woman about his age. He puts a hand up and beckons me over, introducing me to the old guys and the woman who turns out to be his sister, Nani.

Blue Ginger photo by David Lansing

Blue Ginger photo by David Lansing


“Dis guy want to hear stories of old Lanai,” Derwin tells his sister. “Maybe you talk story.”

Nani laughs and says she’s been trying to hear those stories herself for a good number of years. Before they’re all forgotten. She says that she was one of those kids that got off the island the minute she graduated from high school. “And I swore I’d never come back, but then my kapuna auntie said, ‘It’s time.’ And when I came back, she started telling me the old stories. But the she died. And I’ve been asking all the old aunties on the island for those stories ever since.”

While Nani and I talked story, Darwin and some of the older guys talked quietly about more pressing issues. Like the free upcoming community lunch, for seniors, later in the day in Dole Park. Derwin told the men they still needed a baker, a butcher, and yes, a candlestick maker.

After breakfast, I walked around Lanai City. There’s not much to it. You walk down one side of Dole Park, shaded by the ubiquitous Cook Island pines, past a bank, two small grocery stores, two cafes—including Café 565 which, in addition to serving their special Korean and katsu chicken daily, according to a sign, also has holiday pupuus—and the world famous Lanai jail, which is really just a modified shipping container with a locked door on it that hasn’t been opened in this century.

I wandered in to the Dis ‘n’ Dat store, mostly because they had this terrific tin hula girl, decorated in Christmas lights, stuck to a palm tree outside the store. Sitting in a green wicker chair on the porch was a middle-aged woman with red glasses and a big floppy hat playing the ukulele. At her feet were two bichon frisés, curly white-haired lap dogs that were so quiet and perfectly groomed that I thought at first they were stuffed animals.

Dis 'n' Dat Shop photo by Macduff Everton

Dis ‘n’ Dat Shop photo by Macduff Everton

The woman playing the ukulele was Suzie Osman. She and her husband, Barry, own Dis ‘n’ Dat. They are originally from New York (and still have very heavy New Yorker accents) where they used to own a toy business (“I’ve always liked sparkly, happy stuff,” Barry said).

Suzie told me she was just messing around on the ukulele. “I taught myself to play it when we moved here nine years ago,” she said. Then she gave me a big smile and said, “I also do the hula.”

Barry said the store has been here since 1961 and it’s always been called Dis ‘n’ Dat even when it was the post office. “I was going to call it something different,” Barry said, “but the locals told me it would be bad luck to change the name. Besides, everyone in town likes the sign. So we just left it the way it was.”

I had a hard time walking around the shop. There are like a million wind chimes hanging from the ceiling and you have to be a midget or something not to get smacked in the forehead all the time (Suzie and Barry are almost as squat as their two bichons). Suzie designs some of the jewelry in the store, including these Hawaiian slippah pendants, which are very cool. There are pink slippahs and slippahs with hibiscus on them and even slippahs in an American flag motif. I liked all of them—the keychains and necklaces, earring and bracelets. So I bought like a dozen of them. I have no idea who I’m going to give them to. Maybe I’ll keep them for myself. And start a collection. Of Hawaiian slippah jewelry. 

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Although the grand opening of The Sweetest Days Ice Cream and Candy Shoppe was supposed to happen at 11 on Saturday, it was still shuttered well past noon. Still, there were 40 or 50 people milling around, waiting for the new store to open. When I asked a young woman bouncing a toddler on her knee what the problem was, she said the island priest hadn’t shown up yet. “And nobody get nothin’ until da priest come.”

Evidently on Lanai you don’t open a new business until it’s officially blessed. By someone, whether he be Catholic, Buddhist, Baptist, or a just a god ol’fashioned Hawaiian kahuna.

This is Lanai culture.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

Meanwhile, to keep the kids entertained, a clown on stilts made balloon animals. Finally, around one or so, the priest showed up. A Hawaiian choir sang “Amazing Grace” (not sure what the connection is to ice cream, but it sounded lovely). The priest tossed a little holy water around the doors of the shop and then Betty Lou and Emmanuel Dugay, the store’s nervous owners, cut the ribbon and Andy Mirafuentes, a local fisherman, currently unemployed, quickly stepped inside and ordered a chocolate-covered frozen banana, thus becoming the first customer in the much-anticipated ice cream store in Lanai City. As he held up the prized frozen banana in front of him, dozens of locals snapped his photo, yelling “Good going, Andy!”

photo by Macduff Everton

photo by Macduff Everton

Then the choir burst into a boisterous rendition of “Joy to the World.”

Meanwhile, I, too, ordered a chocolate-covered frozen banana, thus becoming the ice cream shop’s second customer, right behind Andy Mirafuentes, thinking, as I took a bite of the creamy, chocolaty treat hand-dipped by Betty Lou, accompanied by a choir singing a traditional Christmas song, that I had finally found it: Hawaiian culture. Right here in downtown Lanai City.

And I’ll tell you what. It tasted pretty damn sweet.


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