For many restaurants, the way forward during the COVID-19 pandemic was a crisis. For Restaurant Suntory — the oldest tenant in the Royal Hawaiian Center in the heart of Waikiki — it embraced the opportunity to refine and expand.
Opened in 1980, Restaurant Suntory is an eatery established by the same Suntory that crafts the highly prized whiskies Yamazaki, Hakushu and Hibiki, and established itself as a destination for its sushi and teppanyaki. But 40 years after its opening, the restaurant was forced to close because of the pandemic.
Restaurant Suntory used the time off to regroup and remodel. The establishment’s parent company dropped $2 million into revamping its space, the first since it opened. The investment in the restaurant is a statement to its long-term commitment to the Honolulu dining scene, with General Manager Nobuyuki Aoyama stating in a press release: “With this redesign, we are honoring our past while we look to the future. We look forward to the next 40 years.”
The redesigned restaurant embraces the traditional Japanese sense of minimalism. But it was more than just a facelift. The upgraded restaurant reflects the increasing sophistication and demands of fine dining patrons.
The new dining areas within the restaurant not only include its sushi counter and teppanyaki tables, but also the Washoku Room and the Lounge, all under the direction of Executive Chef Go Kamikubo, who has been with the restaurant since 2016. Kamikuno has over 20 years of experience, working under Iron Chef Rokusaburou Michiba.
The restaurant’s sushi counter, now in its own private, 12-seat section called Tokiwa, has been elevated with omakase courses, or sushi made for the customers at the chef’s discretion with the best seasonal seafood and offerings available. Tokiwa also features sake and wine paired with its offerings. The Teppan Room now offers teppanyaki selections of USDA Prime beef, Miyazaki Wagyu (a cross of Wagyu and Black Angus), lobster, abalone and foie gras. The restaurant’s Washoku Room features nabe, or shabu shabu, and washoku, tempura, grilled fish, soba and udon noodles, and other traditional Japanese foods. The Lounge features Suntory’s full range of libations as well as cocktails using its whiskies, vodka, gin and beer. The restaurant plans on whisky tasting events and other special private events at the Lounge.
The restaurant also added a “lunch special” to its menu. But this lunch special in the Washoku Room truly emphasizes special. The kaiseki meal (or traditional Japanese, multi-course meal) changes monthly, as the dining experience demands the use of the freshest, in-season ingredients.
For example, as of press time in late May 2022, the special offers a sashimi-style and seared fish. The second course offers Washugyu beef and otoro or tuna belly. A new menu will be introduced each month.
This is not the sort of meal you’d duck into for a quick lunch. Restaurant Suntory requires an online reservation to secure a reservation and to request a menu of the month’s offerings. Then, once you’ve made your choice, email the restaurant with your selection, name and reservation date prior to the reservation (details are at Restaurant Suntory’s website).
The restaurant explains, in its press release, that this experience should be a planned event. “In line with the Japanese concept of mottainai that spurns waste, and as ingredients are obtained in advance solely for the select number of servings, diners should note that the restaurant does not offer cancellations on the lunch special.”
Even with the pre-ordering and reservation requirements for the Shunsai-zen Lunch Special, the restaurant’s Assistant Manager, Asami Saka, said they’ve been selling out at least a week in advance.
“We have been pleasantly surprised by just how positive the response has been to the Shunsai-zen Lunch Special,” she added. With the start of this past month’s seasonal special, the popularity is the highest it’s ever been.”
With only 18 servings made each day at $38 each, this is truly a special lunch. Expect a similar fine dining experience at fine dining prices for the rest of Suntory’s menu. For example, a premium dinner omakase sushi course of will run $250 per person.
But that hasn’t affected Restaurant Suntory’s business. The new menu items and redesigned restaurant have been a hit with not just the rebounding numbers of tourists in Waikiki, but with locals as well.
“We are very fortunate and humbled to say that we have been extremely busy since our reopening,” Saka said. “Although we are clearly seeing an increase in the number of tourists coming to the restaurant, about half of the reservations are local customers who have been waiting to visit the reborn Restaurant Suntory.”
Restaurant Suntory can be found at the Royal Hawaiian Center, Bldg B, Third Level, B307, 2233 Kalakaua Ave., Honolulu, HI 96815, (808)922-5511. Open daily for Lunch, 11:30AM – 1:30PM; Lounge Cafe, 2:00PM – 4:00PM; Dinner, 5:30PM – 9:30PM; Lounge Bar: 9:30PM – 11:00PM.
Photos courtesy of Restaurant Suntory.