The Kauai Guide
Kauai is the sleepiest of the main islands, quiet and low-key. While it has its tourist-y moments (Hanalei, while stunning, is the most frequented by visitors), parts of Kauai’s mountain-and-farm landscape still feel untouched, particularly in the southern parts like Waimea, where they also receive significantly less rain. There is one main road that is a reverse “C” around Kauai meaning that traversing the island can take a long time—all the more reason to find your favorite beach and shave ice stand, crack open a book, and venture no farther. Not your cup of tea? We also have a guide to the more luxurious Maui, a guide to the more urban Oahu (the North Shore is stunning, and Honolulu deserves a guide into itself), and a guide to the family friendly Big Island, which is home to every climate zone.
Beach House Restaurant5022 Lawai Rd., Poipu | 808.742.1424
Sure, the views from all sides are stunning—one of the island's best snorkeling beaches is immediately below—but the food here is also reliably fantastic. This is partly due to the fact that it's co-owned by Peter Merriman, who knows exactly how to nail the upscale Hawaiian beach vibe, but a fair share of credit goes to chef Marshall Blanchard who turns out seafood-inflected comfort food that's the perfect amount of fancy. This translates to a really good option for big celebratory family dinners, as well as low-key sunburnt lunches. Don't miss stand-outs like panko-crusted calamari and the fish & chips (with pineapple tartar sauce)—there's a straightforward kid's menu, too.
Hanalei Bread Company5-5161 Kuhio Hwy, Hanalei | 808.826.6717
This brand-new, open-air coffee shop café—from the same people as Bar Acuda—is one of those spots that's perpetually packed, though you can generally always snag a spot (they also do a lot of perfect pre-packed beach picnic fare). While it's not exclusively allergen-free, there are tons of options for the gluten- and dairy-averse, including really good almond milk lattes and delicious rolls and breads. Brunch-time is particularly prime (consider a stop on your way to hike the Napali coast), as they offer very kid-friendly crepes, as well as lots of egg dishes.
Bar Acuda5-5161 Kuhio Hwy, Hanalei | 808.826.7081
Chef Jim Moffat opened this Hanalei spot for tapas and fine Mediterranean wines after establishing himself with two restaurants in San Francisco (the jazz club, 42 Degrees, and the bistro, The Slow Club). Thanks to the chef’s close collaboration with island fishermen and local organic farmers, these small plates are brimming with Hawaii-inspired fare made from fresh, regional ingredients—like ono (a kind of mackerel, also known as wahoo), ahi tuna poké, and roasted ali’i mushrooms—which also means the selection changes daily, and ingredients vary by season. Their curated wine list features select Estate-bottled Rhone-style specialties, several of which come from wineries that practice sustainable, organic, or biodynamic farming. As one of the island’s foodiest destinations, it’s likely to be busy—call ahead, or come ready for a bit of a wait.
Merriman’s Fish House2829 Ala Kalanikaumaka St., Poipu | 808.742.8385
Peter Merriman was one of the pioneers of the local food scene in Hawaii—he was at the forefront of efforts to grow vegetables in the local volcanic soils, so they could be eaten fresh (rather than after a lengthy journey on a boat). Today, he partners with local farmers to serve his three restaurants, and there’s one each on Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island. The dining room and menu are dressed up without being overly stuffy, so it’s ideal for a nicer family or group outing. Try the upcountry salad (made with kale and butter lettuce from local farms), the fresh-caught mahi mahi, and vegetarian taro cake.
Pizzetta5408 Koloa Rd., Koloa | 808.742.8881
Inspired by chef Cathy Shyne’s hometown of Altomonte, Calabria in Southern Italy, Pizzetta is a go-to in Old Koloa Town. It has all the classics you’d expect, along with entrées that are Italian-meets-Hawaiian—like kalua pork (grilled in papaya BBQ sauce) and grilled ono (Hawaiian mackerel). Set in an airy, open space with indoor and outdoor seating, it’s perfect for a laid-back meal of quality comfort food.
La Spezia5492 Koloa Rd., Koloa | 808.742.8824
Fancy Italian might seem out-of-place on an island as laid-back as Kauai, but when you've had enough of island food, it's a welcome break—and it's also delicious. The far-ranging menu includes everything from pear and gorgonzola flatbreads, to a decadent lasagna and eggplant parmesan. They also serve an egg-centric breakfast that's the perfect way to fuel up before a big hike or day at the beach.
Kalaheo Café & Coffee Co.2-2560 Kaumualii Hwy, Kalaheo | 808.332.5858
Found in upcountry Kalaheo—not far from the 4,000-acre coffee farm where they source their specialty Kauai, Kona, and Hawaiian coffees—Kalaheo Café is a great choice for breakfast. We love their creative, locally inspired interpretations of classics, like their popular Bonzo breakfast burrito, house-made sausages (chicken, turkey, or Portuguese-style), as well as Belgian waffles and classic fluffy pancakes. For something lighter, try their Anahola granola or half-papaya with fresh fruit and yogurt. But don’t forget the coffee, a staple of this café-slash-coffee company: You can even buy a bag (or two) of Hawaiian-grown beans to bring home.
Kilauea Fish Market4270 Kilauea Rd., Kilauea | 808.828.6244
This quaint and cozy cottage house is a perfect casual lunch spot with outdoor seating for local fish—seared ahi tuna poké wraps, mahi mahi tacos, as well as some very interesting non-fish items, like sea asparagus. If you’re not in the mood for seafood, they also offer delectable BBQ chicken and a few vegetarian options (including big, hearty burritos). Important to note: It gets busy come dinner, and they’re closed Sundays.
Aloha Juice BarChing Young Village Shopping Center, Hanalei | 808.826.6990
No question, this shack-stand at Ching Young Village Shopping Center in Hanalei serves the best acai bowls on the island. Also in Aloha’s line-up: juices, smoothies, teas, small treats, nuts, and bars. And attached to the juice bar is a produce stand with fresh fruit to-go. Photo: Brave Heart
Banana Joe’s Fruit Stand5-2719 Kuhio Hwy., Kilauea | 808.828.1092
On the road to Kauai’s North Shore, before Princeville and Hanalei, and just past the town of Kilauea, look for the yellow hut on the side of the mauka (mountain) side of Kuhio Highway (between mile marker 23 and 24 if you’re headed north). This old-fashioned fruit stand has been in business since 1986, specializing in exotic fruits like atemoya, rambutan, and starfruit, and classic tropical fruits like banana (several varieties), Kauai’s strawberry papaya, and mango. Get one of their entirely fruit frosties (pineapple, banana, or pineapple-banana mix—can’t go wrong on flavor) that they press through a Champion Juicer. Easily rivals most soft-serve. Photos: Peter Burka, e.t.
Kauai Juice Co.4-1384 Kuhio Hwy, Kapaa | 808.631.3893
There are so many good cold-pressed juices and kombucha teas at this Kauai shop, which has locations in Kappa and Kilauea. Most of their drinks are made from local, organic produce, and they are all served in glass bottles, which you can return to Kauai Juice Co. to be recycled, and for a refund. Bonus: A portion of proceeds goes to Hawai‘i SEED, a nonprofit that supports local farmers, sustainable agriculture, and GMO education and labeling legislation.
Sushi Girl5-6607 Kuhio Hwy, Wainiha | 808.827.8171
Stop here on your way to Ke’e Beach (sometimes called the beach at the end of the road/world). Everything here is gluten-free (even the soy sauces), sourced from local fish, and made with organic vegetables. Get the ahi sushi burrito.
Living Foods Market Café & Juice Bar2829 Ala Kalanikaumaka, Poipu | 808.742.2323
While you'll certainly find larger grocery stores in Kauai, you won't find nearly the same sort of health-centric offering, from organic and local produce, to bio-dynamic wines. There's also a prepared food counter where you can pick up fresh juice, sandwiches, smoothies, and salads, including pretty excellent egg and cheese sandwiches and gluten-free crepes.
Java Kai4-1384 Kuhio Hwy., Kapaa | 808.823.6887
The exterior of this eclectic Kapaa cafe is painted a bright turquoise blue with a red, French-door entrance. The coffee here is serious business: Java Kai hand-roasts all their brews—you can usually catch a glimpse of the process through the back windows on Monday and Friday morning. In addition to the famed Kona coffee from the Big Island, Java Kai also makes coffee using beans from Maui, Kauai, and Molokai. They serve breakfast and lunch, too, until 3pm but the shop can get really busy, especially in the mornings, so ordering online or over the phone can save time. Or if you’re just getting coffee, try their smaller barista spot, The Kai Bar, which is in the back of the building, next to Kauai Juice Co., and typically open until 11am.
Wishing Well Shave Ice5-5080 Kuhio Hwy., Hanalei | 808.342.5005
Open since 1983, Wishing Well Shave Ice, which operates out of a white food truck on Kuhio Highway, has long been a staple in Hanalei. More recently, though, it’s taken a fresh, organic turn under new owners—Kauai natives, Jesse Merle Jones and Aamion Goodwin—who have done away with artificially flavored syrups and powders, while still making really tasty, refreshing shave ice. This is also an easy spot to pick up a breakfast acai bowl and cup of coffee.
Puka Dog2360 Kiahuna Plantation Dr., Koloa | 808.742.6044
So much better than your typical (open-faced) ballgame dog, Puka Dog serves their variation in their own Hawaiian sweet bread, which they toast on custom skewers. Rather than slicing the bread open, Puka serves their Polish sausages and veggie dogs—along with your choice of garlic lemon secret sauce, Hawaiian fruit relish, and mustard sauce—fully enclosed in the roll, which makes them surprisingly easier to eat. All that said, this meal is best followed by an afternoon nap at the beach, as opposed to say, a hike.
The Fresh Shave3540 Koloa Rd., Kalaheo | 808.631.2222
There are a lot of shave stands throughout the islands, and so it only makes sense that many are pushing the art form, and giving up high fructose corn syrup for cleaner and healthier options. At The Fresh Shave, they use organic options wherever possible and interesting combinations, like chai tea, kauai cold brew coffee, and coconut chia seed cream.
Street Burger4-369 Kuhio Hwy., Kapaa | 808.212.1555
Sea-salt dusted fries served with srirachi aioli and chickpea battered onion rings are just one indication that this isn't your typical burger joint. Using only grass-fed Kauai beef, they do a million complex variations (plus an ahi burger and a veggie version) with the beer selection to match. It's a good choice for a big group post beach, and kids are into it, too.
Warehouse35403540 Koloa Rd., Kalaheo
Occupying a former glass factory in Lawai, this sweet community center is home to food trucks and stands like Roots in Culture (healthy comfort food), Chipwrecked (Hawaiian nachos), The Fresh Shave (shave ice), and Dark Roost Coffee. There are also a handful of cute, local boutiques offering everything from shell jewelry to bathing suits and stationery. They also do storytime for little kids, offer a farmer's market on Friday, and host community events like live music.
Shave Ice Tege Tege4-1620 Kuhio Hwy, Kapaa
Done in the Japanese style (Shave Ice Tege Tege's owner brought his hand-crank ice machine from Japan when he set up shop in Kauai), this popular stand—just across the street from the main beach in Kapaa, is all organic. Using a condensed milk base, you can have everything from dragon fruit to mango mixed in. It's in the same food court parking lot as Al Pastor Tacos, which makes it a perfect pit-stop for a quick lunch.
Wailua Shave Ice4-1306 Kuhio Hwy, Kapaa | 808.634.7183
Now with locations in San Diego and Portland, the OG Wailua is still in Kapaa. There you'll find the inventive combinations that they're now known for, like an Almond Joy (Nutella, coconut milk, almonds coconut flakes) and Lava Flow, which includes strawberry puree, coconut foam, and pineapple juice.
Ama5-5161 Kuhio Hwy, Hanalei | 808.826.9452
Hamura Saimin2956 Kress St., Lihue | 808.245.3271
This old-school ramen shop has been a Kauai stand-by for 70-odd years and counting (they're also known for lilikoi pie). There's typically a long line of locals, and it is completely frill-free, but it's a great post-airport choice after a long ride (or in advance of a red eye back to the states). By Hawaii standards, they're also open quite late.