Honolulu Says Farewell to Its Most Legendary Diner (and Craziest Tiki Bar)
From drag queens to tuba players, everyone seems to have a story about Wailana Coffee House.
Photo by Adam Jung
A decade ago, two friends and I left a New Year’s Eve party in bad shape. We had been drinking for hours, a stranger had vomited on one of us, and by the end of the night, all we wanted was to get something to eat and go home. There was only one place we could think of that would be open at 4 AM on New Year’s Day: Wailana Coffee House.
At this 24-hour diner on the edge of Waikiki, the three of us settled into a booth and ordered eggs, bacon, hash browns, hot coffee, and all-you-can-eat pancakes. Near the end of the meal, one of my buddies directed my attention to the table next to us, where a beefy guy in a leather jacket was doling out cash to three younger women who were seated with him, all wearing slinky cocktail dresses.
My friend asked me if I thought they were escorts. Who cares, I said.
One of the women heard us, stood up, and approached our table, asking if we just called her a prostitute. But before any of us could respond, she noticed a digital camera on the table and demanded we all take a picture together. I snapped the photo of her and my two buddies:
Then she ambled back to her table, clearly either totally nonplussed by or completely forgetting about the previous conversation. A minute later, our waiter came by and we told him the story of what happened. He laughed and decided he wanted a photo, too, saying we wouldn’t remember who was who in the morning, anyway.
There is no “typical” Wailana Coffee House story. This gigantic 24-hour restaurant and cocktail lounge in Honolulu was one of the last holdouts of old-school Waikiki; a place frequented by the likes of Don Ho (who would bring his pals after performing at the Hilton Hawaiian Village across the street), Jack Lord (between shooting episodes of the original Hawaii Five-O, which filmed at Wailana back in the 1970s and in the new series too), and Wilt Chamberlain (who lived in a penthouse upstairs from the late 70s to early 80s). Since 1969, it’s been a refuge for everyone from early morning businesspeople stopping in before work to late night singers and dancers coming off performances at clubs around town—and all the families, newlyweds, retirees, drag queens, homeless people, and hungover college kids (like my friends and I) in between.
Wailana catered to all kinds, with a menu that spanned six pages in an oversized cloth-bound compendium of diner favorites. You could order breakfast at any hour; everything from giant Belgian waffles and Scottish bangers to eggs Benedict and overflowing fruit bowls. Local specialties included macadamia pancakes; “Hawaiian-style” breakfast with butter grilled banana on corned beef hash with eggs; and a breakfast bowl with hash browns, sausage, bacon, and scrambled eggs drizzled with coconut syrup. An “S.O.S. Special” of creamed beef on toast with two eggs was available on Saturday and Sunday, or you could enjoy all the pancakes you could eat (plus two eggs and two strips of bacon) for less than ten bucks.
There were a dozen different burgers and four—count ‘em, four—sections dedicated to sandwiches, from clubhouse triple-deckers (in a section called “Remarkable Combination Sandwiches”) to hot meatloaf sandwiches with special sauce (in another section called “Every Sandwich is a Specialty of the House”). Wailana was famous for its salad bar featuring broccoli slaw, sliced canned beets, kimchi, Jell-O, diced tomatoes and onions in vinaigrette, three-bean salad, pasta salad, and five kinds of dressing, available every day from 11 AM to 11 PM, often as a side to entrees like “beef stew casserole,” breaded pork cutlet, beef liver, Salisbury steak, and “Moby Dick” fish and chips. Among the lunch and dinner entrees was a half-liter of house wine for $8.50—your choice of Burgundy, Chablis, or rosé.
The menu was written by Mel Campbell, a former Wailana manager and local magazine copywriter who really went to town on the descriptions. While some entrees received only a single line item, like the 8-ounce New York steak (“Broiled, Buttered & Wined—The King of Steaks”), other dishes, like the meatloaf, scored an entire paragraph: “Taste What Pride Can Do. Freshly Made Meat Loaf … Moist and Tender on the Inside. A delightful Zing of Seasonings … A Hearty Meaty Flavor Topped with a Rich Sauce, Piquante, Chives, Sour Gherkins, Crusty Bits from the Pan … A Prestigious Meat Loaf Dinner That’s a Lot of Good Eating.”
Tropical cocktails, such as Mai Tais, Blue Hawaiis, or Lava Flows (plus beer and wine) were also available, courtesy of an entire 50-seat tiki lounge adjacent to the main dining room, tucked away near the bathrooms. This circular bamboo-and-leaf hut was one of Hawaii’s last original tiki bars, with wooden masks and tortoise shells mounted on the walls. There wasn’t a drink at the bar that cost more than $7 (Wailana’s signature Mai Tai was just $4 until making the big leap to $5 in May) and at any given time, there was a steady mix of barflies, tourists, and veterans wearing Vietnam, Korean War, and even World War II caps. Between the cocktail lounge and the restaurant, you could stop into Wailana at any time of the day for breakfast, steaks, sandwiches, a slice of pie, or fruity cocktails and get a taste of old Waikiki.
Until now. On October 14, Wailana Coffee House closed its doors forever. After estimates for renovations to keep this half-century-old diner came in at close to a million dollars, owners Kenton Tom, Malcolm Tom, and Joanna Leong made the difficult decision earlier this year to shut down. Which doesn’t sound like big news if you’re not from Hawaii, but for locals and visitors to Oahu, it’s the end of an era spanning seven decades.
“It started at the zoo. It was a concession back then,” says Kenton Tom. His parents, Mary and Francis Tom, had originally opened Wailana as a drive-in restaurant in 1947 but relocated once a fence was erected, which kept cars from actually being able to pull up and order. In 1949, Francis Tom partnered with friends and relatives to purchase a piece of land at the corner of Ala Moana Boulevard and Ena Road (where the restaurant is today), considered the outskirts of Waikiki at the time. “There was nothing here. No paved road, no Hilton Hawaiian Village. It was just a swamp area as far as I understand. People thought my father was crazy to buy it,” Tom says.
Mary and Francis originally named their restaurant Kapiolani Drive Inn. It was open 24 hours and could fit over a hundred cars. On weekends, especially after proms or whenever the drive-in hosted its famous five-hamburgers-for-$1 special, a line of cars would snake out of the parking lot and down the street. A neon sign above the building lit up at night, welcoming guests with the image of a guy strumming an ukulele and a swaying hula girl.
“This was a drive-in from 1950 all the way to the late 60s. But tastes are always changing, and car hop service and self-service was a dying trend. In Hawaii, land is expensive, and even then you could see the prices rising. So changing the restaurant was a way to take better advantage of the space,” says Tom. In 1969, the family partnered with developer Bruce Stark to build a 24-story condominium on the property, and to transform Kapiolani Drive Inn into an 8,000-square-foot restaurant (plus cocktail lounge) that could seat 250 people. They renamed it Wailana Coffee House, “wailana” in Hawaiian meaning buoyancy or to float on water, like a lilypad.
“We’ve been open 49 years and served 14 million meals,” Tom says. “We still make our own batter for the pancakes, which has to sit overnight to rise. We make all our own gravies and spaghetti sauce from scratch. Still use our special meatloaf recipe.”
"We’d be wearing wigs and costumes that were falling apart and by the time dinner was done, we’d be practically naked, trying to cover ourselves with whatever leftover clothes we had because we didn’t want to change, we just wanted to eat."
Waikiki is losing something immeasurable with the closure of Wailana. Here are a few stories from those who knew the restaurant best:
Ian Stanley (professional body piercer and modification artist)
After already deciding on a school, my mom went to Wailana for a college interview and it changed her mind on where to go. She met my dad at college, so without Wailana, I wouldn’t exist.
I used to go to Wailana a lot after spending nights busking in Waikiki around the International Market Place. Sometimes I strolled down and did stuff by the zoo; just random shit to mess with people wherever it seemed appropriate: juggling, human blockhead, nail beds, fire breathing, eating bugs, knife throwing, being a human pincushion—all that good old-fashioned sideshow entertainment.
The Wailana staff never once batted an eye at the strange collection of dirtbag carnie freaks like me, coming in at 3 AM and doing tricks and being a general weirdo. Wailana is a fucking landmark, dude.
Sandra Nakamura (former Wailana waitress, 1982–1992):
I worked the graveyard shift, real late at night. All the bartenders would come in after the bars closed and they’d take up the whole restaurant. They left plenty money, big tippers. Don Ho would come in a lot, too. He loved the salad bar but he wouldn’t eat the fancy lettuce; he would only eat the head lettuce. He didn’t like romaine.
"Another time, a guy came in and gave the keys to his car to a waitress for a tip. It was parked outside, it was a convertible. She took it."
We had all kinds of strange guests. We used to have this couple—they came in almost every night wearing suits and dresses in matching colors like they were going to prom. One regular always kept buying me stuff, like cartons of my [favorite] brand of cigarettes. One guy gave me a [cassette] tape and told me to practice my singing, then he was going to hire me in Japan. On the tape, it was all old Japanese love songs like “Sukiyaki.”
Another time, a guy came in and gave the keys to his car to a waitress for a tip. It was parked outside, it was a convertible. She took it.
When I first started there, this guy came in for dinner with his friends and family and asked me to marry him. I said, “Who the hell are you?” He said he was the president of Kikkoman. He said his business was $400 million strong and he wanted me to sign a contract and become his wife. I was 29 years old and wasn’t married but I said, “I’m not that kind of girl.” I believe in true love.
Dennis Imoto (artist and retired Hawaii public school teacher):
I remember the old Kapiolani Drive Inn! My dad used to buy five burgers for a buck and we'd go to Ala Moana [Beach] Park to eat our burgers and fries.
When I was in the culinary arts program at Kapiolani Community College, I went on a field trip to learn about food cost control at Wailana when it was in its infancy in the early 1970s. The suggested target time for restaurants to recoup their starting cost is three years. If you can’t make this amount back in that amount of time, your restaurant may not succeed. Wailana did it in one year, and it was considered a success story. The long lines and 24/7 operation helped sales, no doubt. The rest is history.
Kevin Mau (Wailana lounge singer, 2013–present):
I’ve been playing in Waikiki 38 years. I played at Coconut Willy’s in the old International Market Place, I was there 20 years and what was good about it was the open air; as soon as we started the music, people just drifted up the stairs and came in. I sang and played guitar. My dad was a musician, he played with the Hawaii Symphony and the Royal Hawaiian Band. He played with guys like Johnny Mathis and Jack Benny, so he’s world-class. Me, I’m just a saloon singer. When I first started playing music in the late 1970s, every ten steps you take in Waikiki, there was a club with live entertainment, all the way to four in the morning. Not anymore.
I’ve been at Wailana almost five years, Tuesdays and Thursdays, 5 to 8 PM. This is one of the last lounges of old Waikiki, where you have tourists and locals and lots of regulars. You’re treated like friends, like you’re at somebody’s backyard. The owners also keep the prices low. You can eat dinner, have a couple drinks, and parking for under $20. It’s 75 cents for two hours or something ridiculously cheap. The Hilton [Hawaiian Village, across the street] is $6 for every half-hour.
Wailana is probably been the most enjoyable job I’ve had. Halfway through my set, the crowd is up and dancing already. The whole place is out there line dancing or doing the electric slide or the shuffle. And we don’t have a dance floor.
This is one of the last true tiki bars, too. People who come here to visit, they say that this is what Hawaii is supposed to look like in Waikiki. It doesn’t have to all be these 5-star, $400-a-night luxury hotels. I remember Kenton [Tom]’s wife telling me that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar used to be a regular. A lot of local celebs and entertainers come by; it’s like the old suck-‘em-up show at Don Ho’s where everybody comes up and sings and does the hula. After Wailana, I’m gonna go to [the country bar] Nashville’s at Aloha Tower. I also play the Elks Club or Hawaii Yacht Club on the weekend. Everyone has to play the private clubs because there are no more regular music clubs in Waikiki.
Kimo Mansfield (Hawaiian entertainer and choreographer):
I used to perform with Don Rickles at the Sahara Hotel. I performed in Las Vegas for 14 years and came back to Hawaii in 1970, to help open a show at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. There’s no place like Wailana. Listen to this crowd; that’s the sound of love. When Kevin Mau starts, they’ll all go quiet. Then they’ll get up and dance.
"Look at that turtle shell on the wall. You don’t see things like that in places anymore. I grew up near Chinaman’s Hat [near Kaneohe on Oahu] and I remember people catching turtles and making turtle steak on the grill and taking off the shell."
I’ve sat in this seat every Tuesday and Thursday for the past three years to hear the music. People may come and sit down in this seat but as soon as it’s 5 o’clock, the bartender tells them to get up, because that’s my seat.
Look at that turtle shell on the wall. You don’t see things like that in places anymore. I grew up near Chinaman’s Hat [near Kaneohe on Oahu] and I remember people catching turtles and making turtle steak on the grill and taking off the shell. It brings back lots of memories. People have asked to buy that one they have there on the wall. Do you know how expensive that would be? One night, that shell might just vanish off the wall; you’ll see me scurrying out of here with that turtle shell on my back.
Jonnett (Wailana cocktail lounge bartender):
For the people who work here, the loyalty to Wailana and the owners has been overwhelming. First we were closing on September 30. Then it got extended to October 14. But the demand has been busier than ever and we’ve been, of course, short-staffed. So all these employees who were let go because we were closing in September, many of them had moved on to other things. But they came back to work for two more weeks to help out. That’s loyalty.
Monchalee Steiger (hospital marketing manager):
My go-to order is the spaghetti because you can get one free “refill.” Seriously. The first time I ordered it, when the server came around to ask if I was ready for the refill, I turned it down, saying I was full. The server whispered a secret: “Always accept a free refill of spaghetti. Even if you can't eat it right now, you can sure as hell push it around to make it look like you ate some and then take home the ‘leftovers.’ That way, you'll have a full plate of spaghetti waiting for you to help soak up your hangover in the morning.”
Best secret ever.
Kaipo Punohu (USPS mail carrier):
My tuba friends from band would go to Wailana after concerts and football games, because it was the only thing open for dinner at that time. We would compete in pancake-eating contests and made great memories. I got to know my future wife there (she was also a tuba player) and I successfully won her a stuffed animal dog from the claw machine at Christmastime.
Last week, we rounded up some of the old tuba guys for one more pancake-eating contest and it was amazing. We sat in this place that looked like it was straight out of the 70s and we enjoyed the pancakes until we felt sick. Great times.
Matthew Dekneef (Hawaii writer and editor):
[With Wailana memories,] It’s never anything big or grand, to be honest. It’s little things. Like one of my best friends singing “El Nei” or “Waikiki” in the karaoke lounge. Or reenacting the opening diner scene from Pulp Fiction in a corner booth (without the guns). I can’t really articulate it; I just always have the feeling like I’m making memories at Wailana even as the moment is happening.
Holly Holman (investigator; interview courtesy of @808Viral ):
My husband and I loved Wailana so much that we almost named our child that, but we ended up having a boy. Last week, we went back last week to have one last meal there and my husband, who hasn’t eaten meat in eight years, broke his no-meat rule just so he could eat the Irish breakfast (a corned beef hash omelette) for old time’s sake!
Easten James (network marketer):
I drank one full jar of maple syrup on my twin friends’ birthday party—the whole glass bottle they put on the tables.
Arthur Wilson (hairstylist):
They used to have AA meetings in the tiki bar. They’d open the cocktail lounge up at 6 AM or so, and anywhere from 10 to 30 people would show up, a mix of half local people and half mainlanders. I don’t know how it got started, but I happened to stumble upon it one day when looking for morning AA meetings. And it was cool because they’d start the meeting and then someone would come in to take breakfast orders and refill your coffee.
Some of the people were 20 or 30 years sober, and there were other people who were only sober for a day or two. Everybody thought it was funny that the meetings were at a bar; the irony was never lost on them. Some people used to get drunk there and now they’re getting sober; it was a bar that served alcohol at night and sobriety in the morning.
I’m going to miss Wailana, with that 70s orange tile, the pendant lights, and those brown vinyl booths. The service was always good and the food was always decent.
The other times I’d go to Wailana, it would be in large groups after drag shows or the club. Wailana was a gathering place where you went to go eat before you went home. There’d be, like, ten of us walking in and we’d all be painted up or in drag or glitter and eyeliner. Basically just causing a visual ruckus.
At 4 AM when the bars let out, the entire restaurant would be nothing but drunk local people and military guys, and they’d all stop eating to watch us walk in and sit down. Because we knew they were watching our shenanigans, we’d be loud and talking above your normal restaurant voice. Just to let everyone know we were there. All the waitresses and waiters knew us so it was no problem. We were like the first RuPaul’s Drag Race, desensitizing people to alternative lifestyles.
Cocoa Chandelier (artistic director):
Wailana is where all the gay boys and girls used to hang out, and it used to get really rowdy. This was the 90s, during the time of the club and rave era, so everybody used to be obnoxiously dressed and it’d always be big groups of us too, like 15 or 20 of us. We’d be wearing wigs and costumes that were falling apart and by the time dinner was done, we’d be practically naked, trying to cover ourselves with whatever leftover clothes we had because we didn’t want to change, we just wanted to eat.
"At Wailana, there were always military boys and drag queens and all kinds, but everybody was very open and loving."
We’d go to Wailana from clubs like Pink Cadillac, Fusion, or the Wave Waikiki. Tuesday night it was goth night or something. One night it was the college band night. But Monday nights were big because we used to have the dance concert at the Wave. Whoever won the contest that night, we’d go out and eat and that person would treat people to breakfast or whatever, because people won either $100 to $500. Always Wailana. Never Zippy’s.
Jade and the other waitresses were always excited when we would come in because they knew me and a couple of the other girls in drag. There was this waitress called Mary. And in the mahu lingo, “mary” is such a popular local term of endearment. So the waitress would always think everybody was calling [for] her, but it was never the case.
On my 30th birthday, we went to Wailana at, like, 8 o’clock in the morning and started with the all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast. And we had two trolleys lined up outside, ready to take us on a tour. And then the tour ended up back at Wailana and we did karaoke at the cocktail lounge at 9 o’clock that night. Another time, I remember being in there the night before the Great Aloha Run and all the Japanese tourists would be there, carbo loading with these big marathon spaghetti dinners. At Wailana, there were always military boys and drag queens and all kinds, but everybody was very open and loving. There would be the occasional scuffle but there wasn’t too much drama. The vibe was good.
Kenton Tom (Wailana co-owner):
When we announced that Wailana was closing, the restaurant began getting lots of letters and phone calls from people telling me how much they liked the place and how they remembered the early times here and how they spent their vacations here. It’s amazing; I don’t think the popularity of the place was something we realized quite so much.
One of the reasons I think Wailana was so successful is because we’re in what’s considered the edge of Waikiki. The center of Waikiki is closer to the Sheraton, the Royal Hawaiian, the Outrigger. So we’re close enough to the tourists but not as congested for local people. One misconception tourists have, though, is that because our sign says “coffee house,” they think we’re like a Starbucks. And we’re completely the opposite of that. We don’t have a huge advertising budget like Denny’s or IHOP, but when visitors see a lot of local people coming in, that’s the best advertising.
Many of our employees are long-term relationships because many of them have worked here 20, 25 years. I started working here in 1977, but I never thought about taking over the [family] restaurant. My brother and my sister both had their own careers and they came back to Wailana after their careers. I majored in business and had an accounting degree, I was planning to work in New York City. But I’m glad I didn’t.
Francis J. Tom (Wailana co-founder, from a letter in the menu):
I am glad you’re here. Thank you for coming. We want you to feel welcomed and cared for from the time you enter until the time you leave. Everyone who comes to Wailana is special. Assuring your dining pleasure and comfort is a profound responsibility we at Wailana take seriously. We will be alert and unsparing in our efforts to please you with food of good flavor, service that touches you personally, and full value for your dollar.
The acceptance and success of our first Wailana, opened in 1970 on Ala Moana, is gratifying. We will continue to work hard and smart to keep your trust. Please come back—thank you.
As told to James Charisma (except for the letter). Interviews have been edited for content and clarity.